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Yellowstone National Park biologist Doug Smith retires, reflects on wolf management in the park

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Posted at 10:13 AM, Nov 28, 2022

Yellowstone National Park wolf biologist Doug Smith has stepped away from his 28-year career in the park. He officially retired on Tuesday, November 22.

Smith, who started working in the park in 1994 and took control of the wolf reintroduction program the following year makes frequent public appearances to discuss the wolf program. He can also be seen in a Park Service video leaning out the window of a helicopter holding a gun loaded with tranquilizer darts. He’s ready to dart a wolf to check the health of the animal.

Smith described the task, “Putting a collar on, taking a blood sample so we can determine its condition, what diseases it has been exposed to, its genetics. Then we weigh it, take measurements, tooth measurements. So we do a full workup on these guys. And, that’s what we do with every wolf we’ve caught. We’ve probably got the largest data set on wolves in the world.”

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Smith witnessed the initial explosive growth of the wolf population, and then the crash.

“It’s been flat ever since about 2008. Around ten packs, around 100 wolves, as compared to a high of sixteen packs, over 170 wolves in the early 2000’s when they were preying on that huge elk population,” said Smith in a 2020 interview with MTN News.

That was an elk population that declined drastically as wolves increased. It set up Smith for some harsh criticism.

“You know I’ve always been painted as kind of a bunny hugger, an environmentalist who loves wolves, who hates elk. There couldn’t be anything further from the truth. I love elk. I hunt elk. I hunt deer. I like guns, I ride horses. You know, those are common ground things that you know, I like wolves too,” said Smith.

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Gardiner Guide Cara McGary said of Smith, “We will greatly miss working with Doug.”

She says perhaps Smith’s greatest strength is his ability to communicate.

“He’s pragmatic, he’s practical, he’s so genuine when he talks about the status of wolves and wolf science. He brings the information to his audience in a way that’s very—it’s very approachable. It’s not academic,” said McGary.

Reflecting on more than 25 years of wolves in the park, Smith said, “Yellowstone, I think, is better than it’s ever been.”

At the same time, he says Yellowstone is as carnivore rich as it has ever been.

“That’s hard for some people to stomach who grew up in a world that has values of predators as killers. But what wasn’t seen was the joy and pleasure and economic gain it’s given people,” he said.

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That new wolf watching culture surprised even Smith. He said, “We didn’t think the wolves were going to be visible. We didn’t think anyone was going to see them.”

Now, watching wolves is big business.

“People come from all over the world to see wolves here. It’s been estimated to generate $35 million of economic activity,” said Smith.

That’s part of the reason Smith, Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, and local guides reacted so forcefully a year ago when Montana expanded hunting of wolves along the borders of the park.

Gardiner Guide Nathan Varley said during the wolf season in 2021 that he was pessimistic. He told MTN News, “It doesn’t look good for our business. We definitely depend on a small number of packs, that are dwindling, and we fear that if it continues to go on we just won’t have enough wolves to show people.”

A recent court ruling has temporarily set wolf hunt limits back to previous levels. While the issue is far from settled, Smith said, “This is a big part of life here and it’s an economic driver, and we’ve managed it.”

That management, largely overseen by Smith is gaining him high praise from Park Superintendent Cam Sholly who said in a news release, “Doug epitomizes the very best of public service and we thank him for his incredible contributions to wildlife conservation in Yellowstone and around the globe."

For Smith, the reward is not praise, but sharing his passion. He said, “I love nature. That’s one of the driving forces in my entire life. To see people connect with nature like that is not that common in this world today. It’s actually rare, and I think we need more of that. And that really, and I hate to use a tired phrase, but it warms my heart. It’s mostly about the wolves but if I had a small part in it, well, all the better."