Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Ed Bangs

We get to hear from Ed Bangs, a total guru on the topic of wolves.

By Amy Nelson

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If you’re talking wolves, you’d better be talking to Ed Bangs. Ed has been involved with the recovery and management of gray wolves (Canis lupus) in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming and other western States since 1988. Based in Helena, Montana, he is currently the Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Western United States and administers a complex federal, state, tribal, and private organization program that monitors the expanding wolf population, conducts a diverse array of non-lethal and lethal wolf control, initiates and funds a wide variety of research projects, and conducts an extensive information and education program. His professional interests focus on human values in wildlife management, conflict resolution, and restoration of ecological processes.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be instrumental in the recovery of wolves in the United States.

I grew up in Southern California – a beach boy. My grandfather was a hunter and I also had an uncle that lived in wild Alaska. Throughout my childhood I heard stories all about their exciting hunting and fishing adventures and all I ever wanted to do was be outdoors.

I went to college for a couple of years in California and then I graduated from Utah State University with a degree in Game Management and later got a Masters degree in Wildlife Management from University of Nevada Reno – whose mascot happens to be the wolf pack. My first job was in Alaska working for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Quite honestly, my initial responsibilities entailed picking up garbage and doing campground maintenance – and I didn’t mind a bit because I was in Alaska. But I volunteered for a lot of biological programs and eventually became a Refuge Biological Technician and later the Refuge Biologist. My work involved caribou reintroductions, working with brown bears, moose, goats, sheep, wolves, lynx, marten, coyotes, bald eagles, and trumpeter swans. It was a great job. I got to be out of doors, snowshoeing, flying around in helicopters and airplanes, capturing and following animals. It was very exciting and rewarding.

I eventually decided that I wanted to come back and live closer to civilization and family so I moved down to Montana. (In fact a lot of Alaskans end up moving to Montana because Montana is the last remnant of wild country in the lower 48 states.) In 1988 I took a new position with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) managing wolves in northwest Montana. Because I had some experience with environmental impact statements (EIS), wildlife planning and reintroduction efforts, when congress directed the USF&WS in 1992 to do an environmental impact statement, I became the project leader for that multi-agency effort. I eventually became the project leader for the reintroduction of wolves in the U.S. and for coordinating all of the efforts between the U.S. and Canada. After that, the USF&WS designated me as the Wolf Recovery Coordinator to oversee wolf management in the northwestern U.S.

Can you talk about the differences between wolf reintroduction vs. natural wolf recovery?

A good example of natural recovery is what took place in Canada and Alaska back in the mid-60’s. As the Canadians and the Alaskans began to understand more about large predators and the role that they played in wild ecosystems, they began eliminating the deliberate poisoning and wolf killing programs and essentially made wolves game animals with some regulated human-caused mortality. As a result of that, the Canadian wolf population started to expand and by the early 80’s wolves began showing up just across the Canadian border in Glacier National Park in Montana. That process has continued and we have wolves throughout NW Montana as a result of natural dispersal into that area.

In contrast to that, reintroductions, which have been used for hundreds of years, are one of the most common techniques in wildlife management. All kinds of animals have been reintroduced. Reintroductions allow you to restore wildlife more quickly and allow the animals to be “placed” into the best habitat where they will encounter the fewest human conflicts. This maximizes the chances for recovery and the benefits of having those animals and minimizes illegal killings and problems with livestock or crops.

As we celebrate the 10 year milestone of the wolf reintroductions in the U.S., can you share with us your overall observations of the successes and failures of the programs?

The bottom line is that we’ve got more wolves in more places than we thought and we had fewer problems than we thought we would. So by most measures, it has been incredibly successful. Although I’d like to claim that it is due to really smart biologists, that’s not really it. We were dealing with places like central Idaho – the largest contiguous public land area in the U.S. with 6 million acres of wilderness – and the greater Yellowstone area – with Yellowstone National Park at its center. This represents a vast expanse of wild country – places that were historically occupied by wolves – with tens of thousands of wild ungulates. So the success of the wolf program is largely due to the fact that wolves are just really adaptable, hearty animals that have great hearts coupled with this tremendous wild country and a wild prey base that had already been restored by the state fish and game agencies and sportsman.

The other part of this success story is the impact on the ecosystem as a whole. We’ve got willow and aspen growing in Yellowstone Park, where they haven’t grown in 70 years. Why? It isn’t because of fewer elk, it’s because elk — that are hunted by wolves – are acting like wild, elusive animals rather than acting like livestock standing around by a stream eating all the vegetation to the ground.

And there are many other behavioral changes going on. Take for example beaver population. When we put wolves in Yellowstone, there was just one beaver lodge in the whole northern range of the park – now there are nine. And the reason for that is that the elk aren’t eating the willows down to the dirt – there are more willow and Aspen surviving and therefore more food for beaver. More beaver means more ponds and impoundments and more ripiarian areas, which means more shrubs and more cover for nesting migratory birds, which means more shade on the streams, which changes stream temperatures and provides cover for more trout and brooding areas.

In addition, we’ve got wolves creating a year-round supply of dead elk, moose and bison to a whole scavenger guild which includes wolverine, lynx, coyotes, bears, 40 kinds of carrion beetles and all kinds of birds, eagles, etc. So you’ve got this whole scavenger guild that’s coming back strong in Yellowstone as well. I love the name of that research project – “Food For The Masses”.

The ramifications of this just go on and on. It even goes right down into the soil and the roots of the plants and nutrient fixing. It’s incredible the effect that ecological restorations – like large predator reintroductions can have. So ecologically it’s been a tremendous success.

Unfortunately, this type of ecological impact is only really evident in large tracts of wild lands where you have contiguous pack territories – wolf packs need about 300-500 square miles. So for most areas in the lower 48 states, it will probably be impossible to have large predator reintroduction and to experience the ecological benefits that accompany such reintroductions because the land is so fragmented by human development.

In your paper on the “Ecological Effects of Wolves” you mention that wolf restoration came about because of changing societal values and how wildlife contributes to the quality of life. What brought about this shift in values?

I think there has been a world wide shift fueled, in part, by the 60’s and the earth movement. The root of it is tied to social tolerance. In the U.S. we’ve been a pretty controlling culture when it comes to the environment. We’ve not been particularly tolerant of other species – especially large predators. But these values have changed over time as people began to wrestle with what contributes to the quality of life. It was an evolutionary process that was probably fueled – at least in our Country – by the fact that people are well off enough to value wildlife and that more and more people are living in concrete cities and the idea that there are still wild areas – like Yellowstone – is very attractive to them.

It’s important to point out that 100 years ago there was virtually no wildlife in North America. There was deliberate killing by people to get rid of all large predators – wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, and mountain lions. Everything was persecuted and all of the wild ungulates were essentially gone too. About 70 years ago, hunters led the way with the restoration of deer and elk – without this, we couldn’t even begin to think about having large predators around.

Are other countries around the world implementing reintroduction programs like we’ve had here in the states?

Actually wolves are almost never reintroduced. I don’t know of any other reintroductions other than the ones we did here in the states. The re-occurrence of wolves in other countries is mainly through natural dispersal. Wolves are incredible dispersers. We’ve had wolves travel over 500 miles – so they’re very good at finding new areas to live and finding new mates.

In countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, wolves were never eliminated because people there just have more tolerance for wildlife. When you get these highly organized countries – like England, Ireland and other parts of Western Europe – where the whole culture got involved in eliminating every last wolf – wolves disappeared very fast. Nowadays, those cultures are relaxing a bit and they’re going through the same value shifts in terms of quality of life.

Do you have any predictions on what the next decade holds for wolves and wolf management?

Overall, I think that views on wolves and wolf management will remain a bumpy road. People’s views have more to do with human symbolism and human values than with reality. So whether wolves are under the Endangered Species Act or under the management of the state fish and game agencies, they will always inspire great passion and great controversy.  Take wolf management in Alaska for example – it was the state that stopped the federal persecution and led wolf restoration and science-based management. Look at the controversy over the killing of a few wolves now.

I think that as far as wolf recovery is concerned, we have seen as much recovery as we’re going to under the Endangered Species Act. The next big strides in wildlife restoration are going to be at the state level. The states have always been the leaders in wildlife restoration. And to put in a plug for the mid-west – Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have always led wolf recovery efforts since day one when wolves first came back maybe 20 years ago. They are very progressive and very conservation oriented. I’d like to see other states look at whether or not there is room for wolves in their states. In many places, the answer is going to be no — but in some places the answer will be yes. Right now, we are seeing states like Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico starting to talk about what wolf management is and should be for their states. I think that that is a very positive sign. Restoration of traditional, historically present natural fauna can be a tremendous source of state pride.

I understand that Montana and Idaho have approved state-level wolf management plans but Wyoming has yet to approve a plan. What are the implications of this and why not Wyoming?

The key is before we can take an animal off the endangered species list by law we must be sure that it won’t become endangered again. The only reason that wolves became endangered is because we deliberately killed them all and we didn’t regulate human caused mortality. Wolves can do a lot of things really well but the one thing they don’t do well is avoid being killed by people. So we asked the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to develop state plans – they did great state plans and we’re looking at turning wolf management over to these states. We also asked Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to develop state wolf plans and show us how they would regulate human cause mortality. Montana and Idaho did a great job but Wyoming’s plan had some problems. A lot of it had to do with the fact that they were planning to classify wolves as “predatory animals” — which in Wyoming means that they can be killed at any time for any reason in unlimited numbers by any means. Under that scenario we just couldn’t go along with Wyoming’s wolf management plan.

In closing, is there anything that you’d like our readers to consider when thinking about predator species?

All of the top keystone predators – like wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears – have a tremendous effect on everything under them. The reason mountain goats and sheep hang out on cliffs is because of predators, the reason antelope can run 60 mph is because of predators, the reason moose and bison are big strong, hearty animals is because of predators. So predators and the interaction between them and wild ungulates are key to the evolution of the natural ecosystem. If you have a major piece of the ecosystem missing, it just doesn’t function properly.

Also, I’d strongly recommend that everyone think about going to Yellowstone to see wolves. Besides being an amazing place for lots of other reasons, it is now probably the best place in the world to see wild wolves doing their thing. It is actually quite amazing how visible they are there from a paved highway. That, we never predicted.

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