A Peak Life Experience: Watching Wolves in Yellowstone National Park
by Rick McIntyre
After 18 summers of working as a seasonal naturalist in Denali National Park and Glacier National Park, I transferred to Yellowstone in the spring of 1994 and worked as a seasonal naturalist with the title of Wolf Interpreter. All of my programs were on the subject of the upcoming wolf reintroduction.
In May 1995, as I was returning to Yellowstone for my second summer, my goal for the season was to see at least one of the newly reintroduced wolves. I thought, with my experience in spotting wolves in Denali and Glacier, I might have a chance of seeing one over the course of the summer. None of the people working on the planning of Yellowstone's wolf reintroduction program expected wolves to be easily seen by park visitors after being released. This was partly due to the intense hunting and trapping pressure the wolves had experienced in their home provinces in Canada. From that previous experience, the wolves would very likely avoid crowded sections of the park where visitors might see them from the road corridor.
In the early morning of my first full day in the park, I saw the entire six-member Crystal Creek pack in Lamar Valley and helped visitors to see them as well.
Unexpectedly, the wolves turned out to be very visible, and large crowds showed up in Lamar Valley every day to see them. The excitement level of spotting wolves that first summer would have been similar to seeing the Beatles standing on a street corner at the height of their popularity. Being in the middle of so many crowds during that period, it was clear that when Yellowstone visitors got a glimpse of the reintroduced wolves, it was truly one of the peak experiences of their lives. I frequently saw people crying with joy, and at times had citizens run over and hug me because I was the nearest uniformed representative of the National Park Service.
I continued to work for the Interpretation Division as the Wolf Interpreter through the fall of 1997 and also volunteered with the Wolf Project during my time off. I switched to a biological technician position with the Wolf Project in the spring of 1998 and am still in that position.
As word spread of the visibility of wolves in Yellowstone, we began to have problems with overenthusiastic visitors who would either walk toward nearby wolves for a closer photo or drive toward where wolves were trying to cross the road. One particular incident motivated us to come up with better ways to manage visitor-wildlife interactions.
During a busy Memorial Day weekend, Druid alpha male 21M was trying to return to the pack's den with food from a carcass. As he approached the road near the den, visitors drove to the likely crossing point and stopped to photograph him. Due to the cars blocking his route, the wolf backed off, went west, and tried to cross at another point. Once again people drove to that site and intercepted him. Wolf 21M went further and further west and was repeatedly blocked each time he tried to cross. He had to go five miles west of the den before he could cross the road, then had to walk another five miles east to finally reach his pups at the den.
After that pivotal incident, Wolf Project, Interpretative, and Law Enforcement staff worked together when wolves were approaching the road and developed techniques of temporarily stopping traffic in both directions when crossings were imminent. We also developed park regulations requiring people to stay a minimum of 100 yards from wolves and prohibited any actions that changed the natural behavior of wolves. In addition, we gradually developed a protocol of using aversive conditioning techniques on wolves that had become too habituated to people, cars, and roads. Due to the unique situations we were experiencing, much of what we did during those early years was trial and error. A key early decision was for all of our staff to be oriented toward being interactive, cooperative, inclusive, and collaborative with park visitors and local residents about wolf sightings. That policy has paid off in many unforeseen ways over the years.
Looking back over that early period, it is now clear a number of positive trends developed organically among park staff and visitors. Very quickly an informal cadre of "wolf watchers" naturally formed in areas where wolves were most likely to be seen, such as Lamar Valley. Comprised of long-term repeat park visitors and local residents, the wolf watchers, without any planning or instructions, became role models of proper behavior regarding watching and photographing wildlife.
In many cases, it was the regular wolf watchers, arriving before sunup in wolf viewing areas, who would be the first to spot wolves. Without any oversight, the more experienced watchers would quietly view the animals from the road corridor or short distances from the road, and usually act in ways that would not interfere with the behavior of the animals. Later, as more visitors arrived on the scene, the wolf watchers would graciously offer to show them the wolves through high quality spotting scopes, identify the wolves in sight, explain the behaviors of the animals, and convey the story of the park's wolf reintroduction program. Without being aware of it, those newer arrivals would settle into the same quiet and respectful behavior exhibited by the wolf watchers and would model that same behavior as they took the initiative to speak to additional visitors that came on the scene. Beyond that, people who went through that experience continued to behave in that manner when they saw wildlife in other sections of the park.
The Wolf Project developed methods of informal roving interpretation in those situations where we would speak to individuals, families, and crowds about the wolf story in Yellowstone, emphasizing how wolves fit into the overall mission of the National Park Service. In other situations, we conducted more formal talks on the side of the road to school groups, college field trips, wildlife tour groups, and other groups about wolves. During recent years, the number of those roadside talks has averaged well over 200 annually. In these interactions we emphasize proper respectful behavior around park animals, especially wolves. We speak about how overenthusiastic people might inadvertently block wolves trying to cross the road. In addition, we talk about the issue of animal habituation in a national park and how wolves used to being around crowds of people, roads, and cars might leave the park during legal wolf hunting seasons and naively walk toward a party of hunters or be hit by fast-moving cars.
The ground-swell of interest in the park wolves led to support for the Yellowstone Wolf Project in many forms. People who had seen wolves in the park talked to their friends about their experiences. Websites and emails spread the word about Yellowstone wolf packs and famous individual wolves. All this created greater interest and notoriety regarding the Yellowstone wolves. When budget cuts came to the park, donations to the Wolf Project through the Yellowstone Park Foundation became an important source of support for wolves and the program. Those donations, large and small, all came about through this intimate observation experience visitors had with wolves, Wolf Project staff, and wolf watchers.
Another organic development was the impact of crowd sourcing on wolf research. Wolf watchers often spotted wolves before Wolf Project personnel came on the scene. Many wolf watchers became experts in identifying individual wolves and in noting their behavior. All this added up to more wolf observations than would have been possible with limited staffing. A large number of critically important behavioral sequences that have been published in Wolf Project peer-reviewed scientific papers originated with the watchers. They truly are citizen scientists!
Having worked for the National Park Service for over 40 years, it is professionally invigorating to be in the middle of a crowd of park visitors who are experiencing the thrill of seeing wild wolves living out their lives in Yellowstone. It is clear from watching the faces of these people and hearing their excited comments that each person is having a peak life experience they will fondly remember the rest of their lives. For any ranger, from any era of our 100-year history, what better sums up the mission and purpose of our agency?
Just after writing that last paragraph, I had a conversation with a woman who perfectly illustrated that last point. I was showing some wolf pups to several people when the woman came up to me and thanked me for helping her and her friends see the pups. She went on to say several years earlier she had come to the park with a troop of girl scouts. Her entire group saw wolves on one particular day, and they all listened to a talk I did on wolves. She then said, "Let me tell you something—it was a life changing experience for all of us."