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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.


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I think it's great that the wolves are back and doing well. I've never encountered them in the wild, but the possibility of doing that is a good thing, in my opinion. I'm not really in favor of a totally safe world. Most people today are like the elk you mention here, fat and careless. We could use some predators of our own to whip us into shape again.


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