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On the brink: As debate over wolves rages, leader of Yellowstone reintroduction honored

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Mike Phillips prevents animals from going extinct.

Phillips helped to reintroduce red wolves in North Carolina. It was the first attempt by biologists to reintroduce a carnivore species considered extinct in the wild.

Later in the 1990s, Phillips came west to lead the effort to restore gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

That led to him teaming up with Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, to form the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which works to help imperiled species all over — Mexican wolves and bolson tortoises in New Mexico, Tasmanian devils in Tasmania and many more.

Whatever the animal, wherever the location, Phillips and the small team of biologists at the Turner Endangered Species Fund have always approached their work with four principles in mind.

“We don’t make promises we can’t keep, we don’t give a hoot about fanfare, we are very steady on our feet … and we are patient,” he said. “We are determined to be something other than trivial. We recognized the need for wolf recovery to go forward even though it was difficult.”

This summer, Phillips received The Wildlife Society’s Aldo Leopold Memorial Award for his career in wildlife conservation. It’s the highest honor bestowed by the international nonprofit association. The award honors Aldo Leopold — the conservationist considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology.

The award was announced not long after Montana and Idaho passed sweeping hunting and trapping policies designed to reduce gray wolf populations around the Greater Yellowstone region.

Some fear the states’ new laws will undo the work that Phillips and other biologists have done to restore wolves in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In response, dozens of conservation groups have petitioned the federal government to grant wolves Endangered Species Act protections.

Others contend that wolves are biologically recovered, and populations need to be managed sustainably for ungulates and the people who live among the apex predators.

It’s a debate that might not even be happening without Phillips’ work 27 years ago.

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Exchange Yellowstone in Winter

A gray wolf from the Wapiti Lake Pack surveys the area surrounding what remains of a carcass in Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range on Feb. 20.

Reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park was — and remains — controversial, but Phillips has never chosen the path of least resistance. That would lead him on a trivial journey, he said.

The project started decades after wolves were wiped out in government-backed predator control programs. In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed establishing an experimental gray wolf population in the park.

Phillips at the time already had about a decade of experience reintroducing red wolves in North Carolina. That project was the first attempt by biologists to reintroduce a carnivore species considered extinct in the wild.

He led the reintroduction from 1994 to 1997. His team released 31 radio-collared Canadian gray wolves and tracked how it impacted the ecosystem over time.

Western Gray Wolf 25 Years

In this Jan. 12, 1995, photo provided by the National Park Service, from left, Mike Phillips, Yellowstone National Park Wolf project leader, Jim Evanoff of Yellowstone National Park, Molly Beattie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, Mike Finley, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, and Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of Interior, carrying the first wolf to arrive in Yellowstone at the Crystal Bench Pen in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Wolves have repopulated the mountains and forests of the American West with remarkable speed since their reintroduction 25 years ago, expanding to more than 300 packs in six states.

Doug Smith, the park’s senior wildlife biologist, served as a biologist on the project at the time Phillips led it. He took over as project leader when Phillips left.

In May, Smith received the Craighead Conservation Award from the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative for his career working with gray wolves. The award is in honor of Frank and John Craighead, twin brothers and biologists renowned for their work with grizzly bears. Smith was not available for an interview before deadline.

Phillips left the wolf project to found the endangered species fund with Ted Turner in 1997. They later built out the Turner Biodiversity Divisions.

“The fund and the divisions have collectively stood as the most significant private effort in the world to use reintroductions to restore imperiled species as redressing the extinction crisis,” Phillips said.

Less than a decade after helping found the fund, Phillips decided to enter another arena: politics.

Mike Phillips Wolf

Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund and leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project, stands under a tree in Graf Park on Tuesday, April 17, 2021.

From 2006 to 2021, he served in the Montana Legislature as a Democrat — first in the House of Representatives, later in the Senate.

“It’s not common for scientists like myself to put their name in a ballot and jump into the moshpit of politics …. That matters because application of reliable knowledge — application of science — only counts if it’s applied,” he said. “I served in Helena to drive home the point that science matters.”

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Twenty-six years after it began, the wolf recovery program has turned into one of the most detailed studies of a large carnivore in the world, according to Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit arm.

It offered scientists an opportunity to study and understand how a translocated species can recover, said Dan Stahler, the project’s lead biologist, in a video from the park. It has also driven research on genetic health, population diversity, behavior, diseases and predator-prey dynamics.

While scientists researched Yellowstone’s packs in the decades following the reintroduction, the animals expanded their ranges, inhabiting parts of surrounding states. That drew opposition from livestock producers and others out on the landscape.

“Wolves have to live with people outside of Yellowstone, and that does create conflict,” Smith said in a video from the park. “It is true to say that life is easier without wolves than with them. They can compete with us for elk and deer and they do occasionally kill dogs and livestock, and so they need to be managed outside the park.”

Wolves in the Northern Rockies were federally protected until 2011, when a legislative rider shifted management back to Montana and Idaho. Wyoming assumed management of the species in 2017.

Montana and Idaho established wolf management plans, which were vetted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Populations fluctuate annually in part because of regulated hunting and trapping.

Last October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ruled that gray wolf populations were biologically recovered in the entire lower 48 states. The agency gave management back to states, a move that prompted a lawsuit from conservation groups represented by Earthjustice.

The delisting happened just before the 2021 legislative sessions in Montana and Idaho.

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Exchange Yellowstone Wolves Mange

In this March 2019 aerial file photo provided by the National Park Service, the Junction Butte wolf pack rests in the snow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

This spring, bills designed to increase wolf harvests and deregulate hunting and trapping passed Republican-dominated state legislatures. They were signed by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and Idaho Gov. Brad Little, both Republicans.

In Idaho, a new law allowed hunters and trappers to kill up to 90% of the state’s wolves. The state also greenlit year-round trapping, snaring and hunting of wolves on private land.

In Montana, new laws passed that extend the wolf hunting and trapping season, permit the use of snares to kill wolves and permit reimbursement for wolf hunters and trappers.

Rep. Paul Fielder and Sen. Bob Brown, both Republicans from Thompson Falls, sponsored the new wolf hunting and trapping bills in Montana.

Fielder, who sponsored bills to permit snaring and extend the wolf trapping season, said at multiple legislative hearings on the bills that the new rules he sponsored would give wildlife managers, livestock producers and sportsmen more tools for reducing wolf populations in Montana.

Wolf numbers are over objective in some areas of the state, according to minimum requirements set in Montana’s Wolf Management Plan, he said. Supporters of his bills claimed that elk numbers were suffering because of wolves.

Fielder and Brown did not respond to a request for interviews.

On Friday, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved wolf regulations for the 2021 through 2022 season. The new regulations were an attempt to incorporate the intent of the new wolf legislation into on-the-ground rules.

The regulations require that the commission consider in-season adjustments after a harvest of 450 wolves is reached statewide. Following that, commissioners must consider more in-season regulation adjustments at intervals of 50 wolves killed.

In accordance with the new laws, the commission also voted to increase bag limits on wolves, allow snaring of wolves during the trapping season, extend the dates for the trapping season, permit baiting of wolves on private land and allow people to hunt wolves at night.

The motion proposed by Vice Chair Pat Tabor passed 3 to 2. Commissioners Patrick Byorth and KC Walsh both opposed the proposal, citing concerns over night hunting and baiting of wolves.

“We know that we have a responsibility to manage this population, but from my perspective, we need to manage it responsibly,” Tabor said. “This is going to allow the commission to monitor this very closely and not allow the population to get run on, but have very specific control over it.”

Byorth said state legislators gave the commission a number of tools for managing wolves, but commissioners were only required to do two things: reduce the wolf population and permit the use of snares.

“My largest concern is that we are selling our souls in fair chase in order to provide methods that are unnecessary and more likely to have repercussions and unanticipated outcomes,” Byorth said.

wolves

A wolf is shown in Yellowstone National Park.

Montana’s Wolf Management Plan requires the state to support at least 150 wolves and at least 15 breeding wolf pairs. There were about 1,177 wolves in the state at the end of 2020, according to estimates by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Hunters and trappers killed 328 wolves that year.

Brian Wakeling, game management bureau chief for FWP, said at Friday’s commission meeting that it’s difficult to know to what degree wolves are affecting trends in ungulate populations.

The relationship between predators and prey in ecosystems is complex, especially when taking into account different habitat types and different predator and prey species out on a landscape, he said.

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The new laws in Idaho and Montana alarmed conservation groups nationwide.

In July, 70 groups led by the Western Watersheds Project sent a formal petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging the agency to relist gray wolves as an endangered species.

Clint Nagel, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, one of the groups that signed the petition, said the point of the wolf reintroduction was to stabilize the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but increased hunting pressure and livestock depredation by wolves brought opposition.

“If (wolf numbers) get too low and they are not protected from that point on, the likelihood of the species getting back to where it should be is probably not going to happen,” he said. “Then, when you look back to all the science and investment and money that was put into the reintroduction into Yellowstone — all of that was for what?”

Shawn Regan, vice president of research at the Property and Environment Research Center, said that new wolf laws are extreme, but instead of pushing for a relisting, conservation groups should try to better understand the concerns of people who live with wolves out on the landscape.

Programs that compensate ranchers for livestock losses to wolves are critical for building more tolerance for the species, Regan said. Still, the programs aren’t perfect and some costs aren’t compensated.

To Regan, the worst way to honor the legacies of the people who reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone is to erode trust in wildlife management institutions.

“When we frame these issues as us versus them, everyone loses,” he said.

On Friday, a top official with the Biden administration told the Associated Press that federal officials would back the decision to remove gray wolves in the lower 48 states from the Endangered Species List.

“It’s shocking that Biden officials are backing Trump’s ruthless decision to strip protections from wolves. This move means more of our nation’s wolves will be slaughtered in states where politics have trumped science,” said Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a news release. “Biden can’t say his administration supports science-based decisions and then let Wisconsin, Montana and Idaho turn into a bloodbath for wolves.”

The Center for Biological Diversity was one of the groups represented by Earthjustice in the suit over delisting of wolves.

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Western Gray Wolf 25 Years

In this Jan. 12, 1995, photo provided by the National Park Service, from left, Mike Phillips, Yellowstone National Park Wolf project leader, Jim Evanoff of Yellowstone National Park, Molly Beattie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, Mike Finley, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, and Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of Interior, carrying the first wolf to arrive in Yellowstone at the Crystal Bench Pen in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Wolves have repopulated the mountains and forests of the American West with remarkable speed since their reintroduction 25 years ago, expanding to more than 300 packs in six states.

Phillips said the bills that significantly liberalize killing of gray wolves in Montana and Idaho were based on opinions rather than reliable knowledge.

They passed based on the opinions that there were too many wolves in the state and that the impact of wolves on the hunting and livestock industries were unacceptable, he said.

There are no data that support those claims, according to Phillips. Elk management units are over objective in many areas of the state, and wolves rarely prey on livestock, he said. When they do, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has programs to compensate ranchers for their losses.

“I’m offended by people who are so ecologically illiterate that they downplay, disregard, completely overlook the importance of predation as an ecological process,” Phillips said. “If they do that, by default, they overlook, downplay, disregard the importance of predators.”

Phillips said predation is an important process for ensuring the health of local landscapes, and the role of predators is to deliver death. If life is one of the most important forces in the universe, the flipside — death — has to be near equally important, he said.

“The diversity of life is a reflection of everything that’s alive trying to stay one step ahead of death,” Phillips said. “Death has to matter almost as much as living or as life. Consequently, predators have to matter.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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