North American Wolf Conference

April 16, 2008

Insights from an Insider - Carl Swoboda

Carl Swoboda, Director of Safari Yellowstone

After the field trip I had time to ask Carl Swoboda - a professional naturalist for over 20 years, former operations director for one of the largest photo safari companies in the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania, Africa, and former smoke jumper for the Forest Service some questions about his time researching and observing the Yellowstone wolves:

Me: How long have you worked with the wolves in Yellowstone OR How many consecutive days have you been following the wolves in Yellowstone?

Carl: We started doing wolf trips as soon as they arrived in the park (January 1995), but it tough in the beginning, since there were not a lot of wolves to view. It wasn't until 1997 that it really took off and we have not stopped promoting wolves as our main focus for wildlife viewing. We have viewed wolves for 1119 consecutive days. Every time we go looking for them, we have viewed them.

What is a typical day for the Yellowstone wolves?

Depending upon the time of year, they can be very active or very sleepy. With most packs hunting at night, a usual day of viewing is watching them feed, travel and bed down. If they have fed, then they will most likely sleep most of the day, with possible trips to a carcass. The older members of the pack seem to rest more than the younger members. They just have all this built up energy. If the weather is yucky to us, it is perfect for the wolves. The cooler the better and if there is no sun, they will spend more time being active. When the sun is out, regardless of the time of year, they tend to bed because of the intense nature of it. Early morning and late afternoon/early evening are the best times to view and observe wolf behavior.

What is your favorite animal/pack and why?

Wolves have become my favorite animal ever since they were brought back to Yellowstone. It used to be grizzly bears, but after watching wolves behave in Yellowstone and observing their family structure, they have bumped bears. They are exciting animals to watch and you never know what they are going to do. They might sleep, play, hunt, chase coyotes, interact with other packs, etc. You just don't know what they are going to do. Just when you think you can predict their movements or actions, they do something totally opposite. My favorite pack is the Leopold pack. They were the first pack to form naturally  (two members of the original three groups brought in in 1995 dispersed from their home packs and hooked up, forming the Leopold pack). I have experienced great pleasure watching them over the years and have on a couple of occasions run into them while out hiking. Viewing wolves away from the road systems is an awesome experience.

What's the most interesting thing you've ever seen in the park?

In 2005, watching the Slough Creek pack den in a very visible location was incredible. For 100 days we watched all aspects of denning, from digging to moving pups to feeding, etc. It was an incredible experience, with the knowledge that most wolf experts had never watched wolves den, and we were privileged to view them from a spot and they didn't care we were there. It was also the year that four females denned in the same den and communally raised four litters of pups.

Do you fear for the continued survival of the wolf outside the park, based on what you've observed inside it between the wolves? why?

I do feel that wolves will be persecuted outside the park. Montana I trust, their wildlife department is pretty good, though their bison management is not very good. Wyoming and Idaho have too many easy options for people to randomly shoot and kill wolves under their management plan. I do fear for some of the Yellowstone packs that occasionally venture outside the park's boundaries. It would be sad if these animals get killed just for leaving the park. I know that people are gearing up for the hunting season and to be able to kill wolves. The wolves that live outside the park will never again experience what being wild is. Once they are hunted and trapped, their behavior towards humans will change and their behavior will be be no different than those in Alaska and Canada. In Yellowstone, man is an inconvenience, we get in their way, take pictures, prevent them from crossing roads, etc, but they deal with it and it is not life threatening - except if they get hit by a vehicle. Outside the park, humans will soon become a major factor in the life of a wolf. The presence of humans will change wolf behavior and that will leave Yellowstone wolves to show us what wolves actually do when man is not a behavioral factor.

In what ways have you observed wolves benefiting the park since their reintroduction?

My business would not be in business had it not been for the wolves. Most of my trips revolve around wolves, whether we take people out to view them, or put on classes with wolf experts, like Doug Smith (Yellowstone wildlife biologist who was integral in the reintroduction of wolves). Park visitors are getting a rare chance to view wolves in the wild and to watch their behavior from hunting to denning and everything in between. The park benefits from having its top predator back in the mix and as a keystone species, everything benefits from its presence. The elk are acting like elk again, not sitting around without any worries. There are less elk, which wolves have contributed to, but are by no means totally responsible.  We have seen changes in how all residents of the park act. The bears are coming out of hibernation earlier than before to usurp bison and elk carcasses from wolves. We see less coyotes, which has benefited the small predators, like foxes, badgers, weasels, etc.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Wolves have become a huge part of my life as well as my family's. My closest friends, like Doug Smith and Rick McIntyre are those that I have met in the park viewing wolves or at conferences like the NA Interagency Wolf Conference. These friendships were first initiated because of wolves, but are now based on everything that doesn't include wolves.

April 11, 2008

Conference Success

The last day of the conference wrapped up at noon, and featured varied topics and speakers including:

"Howling Differentiation between North American Gray Wolves" by Nicholas Bromen of Wolf Haven International, "Costs of Wolves' Visits on Cattle and Elk" by Isabelle Laporte - a Masters student at the University of Calgary and "Assessing Ranchers' Attitudes toward Livestock Compensation in the Southwest" by Stacy Vynne of the University of Oregon.

Besides the informative presentations all week, many people expressed their thoughts that the most beneficial take-away from the wolf conference was the ability to meet and discuss ideas freely with experts, agency employees, ranchers, scientists, and tribe representatives among others in a casual setting. Dinners, lunches, and coffee breaks saw unlikely parties laughing together and learning from each other - hopefully mending some bridges, expanding some networks, and setting the stage for the long-term support of wolves in the Northern Rockies.

For those lucky people who stuck around for an extra night, there was an early morning field trip into Yellowstone National Park to see the wolves in their natural surroundings. We were guided by Carl Swoboda of Safari Yellowstone and Linda Thurston of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker and their long experience with the wolves in the park, along with their enthusiasm and passion were evident. As was that of wolf researcher and seasonal park ranger Rick McIntyre - who was on the radio with the pilot of the yellow plane that flies around keeping tabs on the wolves in the park while we were there.

It was an exhilarating experience seeing wolves living their complex lives in the park. A highlight was seeing a lone, limping, bob-tailed wolf run across the snow-covered flat and howl to other wolves in the area. It was an enchanting sound that I will not forget any time soon.

April 09, 2008

Wednesday at the Conference

The last full day of wolf presentations has wrapped up.

The morning was largely focused on delisting, with a panel including statements from Peggy Struhsacker with NRDC, Ralph Maughan with the Wolf Recovery Foundation, Carolyn Sime with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and our own Mike Leahy. The panel touched on many of the issues already discussed at the conference including the adequacy of the state management plans, interpreting specific language in the ESA, delisting rule, and Idaho's new bill, connectivity, and long-term recovery concerns.

The afternoon was more focused on in-depth scientific analysis of gene connectivity, population structure, and movements, prey and habitat selection.

David Ausband of the University of Montana presented his research regarding methods of keeping track of wolf population in the Northern Rockies post-delisting. His research and varied techniques are particularly important given that with federal protections removed, so are federal monitoring dollars that were previously used to gauge overal wolf population health.

The evening was full of festivities including the awards banquet where Rick Williamson of USDA Idaho Wildlife Services was presented with the "Alpha Award" for his many years of dedication and hard work on behalf of wolves in the Northern Rockies.

The night wrapped-up with an energetic live auction where various items were sold -- all proceeds going towards funding continued proactive efforts in the region.

Tomorrow (Thursday) is the last day of the conference - we will keep you updated.

April 08, 2008

Live from the Conference...

Today was jam-packed with 30 minute presentations from a wide array of wolf experts. Some highlights of the day included:

A very brave (given the crowd) Carolyn Sime, Gray Wolf Program Coordinator, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, spoke about the thought process behind the Montana plan and inspired a lively question and answer session. She maintains that the Montana plan largely drew on an extensive public comment period and that it represents the interests of both the wolves, and the residents of the state of Montana.

Harriet Allen from the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife layed out Washington State's wolf management plan which is in the final stages and are being discussed by a desingnated "wolf working group" comprised of people representing the many different interest groups in WA. The plan will borrow language from the Oregon and Montana plans.

Biologist Carlos Carrol of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research presented his scientific projections regarding wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies -- specifically, how many are needed to ensure wolf recovery goals under the Endangered Species Act. His research shows that in order for long-term sustainability and genetic variability to be ensured, there needs to be a population of approximately 5,000 wolves region-wide.

A Proactive Projects Panel comprised of:

The panel discussed various proactive projects  (such as some of the ones discussed by Jesse in earlier posts) and their effectiveness and importance. Insights came from both sides; the ranchers who are in need of proactive measures in order to prevent livestock depradation, and the people who work with ranchers to ensure that these needs are met.   An interview with Robin Bauer of the Bauer Ranch is below:

 

Me: "Why - post delisting - is it still important for ranchers to work with organizations to find non-lethal solutions to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts"

Robin: "It's still important because managing wolves by ourselves is not a realistic option. Everyone loves seeing wildlife, it's fun to see wolves in the wild, the only problem for us is when they kill livestock. We want to coexist with wolves, and if putting proactive measures in place helps us coexist without problems then we're open to it."

Me: "What proactive measure has proven most   effective, in your case (at the Bauer Ranch)"

Robin: "The Range Rider program along with the collaring of three wolves and the receiver we were given so that our Range Rider can monitor where they are at all times has made a big difference in depradation numbers."

Tomorrow will feature a panel on delisting which is sure to inspire many questions. Feel free to check out the conference agenda.

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