Living with Wolves
Jim and Jamie Dutcher stop in Santa Monica on their campaign to make peace with the wild
By Bliss Bowen
Who among us hasn’t heard nursery rhymes and jokes about “the big bad wolf” from the time our eyes first flew open in wonder? Little Red Riding Hood and those three little pigs conditioned us to distrust strangers with pointy ears and sharp teeth that howl at the moon. The wolf is an icon of wildness — fierce, majestic, mysterious, predatory.
Similar to his onetime friend: the human.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Jim Dutcher and his naturalist wife Jamie lived with a pack of untamed wolves for six years on 25 acres in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, an astonishing experience they chronicled in three documentaries and a remarkably insightful book, 2013’s “The Hidden Life of Wolves.”
The Dutchers head to Santa Monica next week to speak about their adventures in the context of mounting threats against wolves in the American wild — namely state-sanctioned efforts to eliminate wolves that until recently were protected by the Endangered Species Act. The event is produced by National Geographic, which last year published the Duchters’ children’s book, “A Friend for Lakota: The Incredible True Story of a Wolf Who Braved Bullying.”
The couple’s initial meeting in an airport had sparked a seven-year correspondence that persuaded Jamie to leave the East Coast and join Jim at Wolf Camp in Idaho, where he proposed. They had much to celebrate in 1996 when pups were born to the Sawtooth pack’s alpha wolves — the first wolf pups born in those mountains in more than five decades. They hoped to dispel dangerous myths about the reclusive carnivores by documenting the pack’s habits, songs and social behavior.
At the time, it seemed the future was finally brightening for North American wolves. In 1995, when wild wolf habitat was essentially confined to Alaska and Minnesota, gray wolf packs were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho after years of painstaking negotiations; it had been seven decades since wolves roamed Yellowstone.
By 2014, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 5,500 gray wolves existed in the contiguous United States. While some environmentalists dispute that tally and its meaning, it’s encouraging, not least because wolves have quantifiably benefitted the overall health of local ecosystems.
Now, again, wolves and ecosystem balance are threatened. In 2011, Congress removed the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species List — the first time an animal was de-listed for political rather than strictly scientific reasons.
Wolf management was handed over to states. Populations have been subsequently targeted for drastic reduction in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — all livestock-heavy states — and management debates are raging from Wisconsin to Washington.
As the Dutchers remind, “ranchers help keep the West wild,” and private and public programs have compensated them for livestock deaths caused by wolves. Those losses hurt individual ranchers, but Fish and Wildlife Service reports show that losses of cattle and sheep to birthing complications, disease and weather overwhelm those caused by wolf predation.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Montana was home to over 2.5 million cattle and almost 250,000 sheep in 2010. The year before, per Montana’s annual wolf report, it lost 97 cows and 202 sheep to wolves — so 145 wolves were killed, out of a state population of 524. It’s a brutal tit-for-tat fixated on one corner of the big ecosystem picture.
Many hunters view wolves as competition; population numbers of the elk and deer that are wolves’ preferred meal exploded when wolves were absent or scarce. That hunters’ license fees support budgets for some governmental departments charged with wolf oversight is a conflicted topic for another story.
Here in California, where gray wolves were granted endangered species
protection in 2014, a Fish and Wildlife official sighted OR-7 in 2011, the first
wild gray wolf inside state borders in
close to 100 years; he’d crossed over from Oregon. Last August, another discovery was made in Siskiyou County: the Shasta pack, five pups and two adults, one believed to be OR-7. Now calls are being made to return the critically endangered Mexican wolf to Southern California’s Mojave Desert, where the last wild wolf was trapped in 1922.
Environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife are working with the state to educate ranchers about nonlethal wolf management techniques such as air horns, guard dogs, telemetry, turbo-fladry and the removal of tempting carcasses from rangeland. So far, there seems to be more interest in coexistence than extermination. But in Western states like Idaho, where the Dutchers oversee their nonprofit organization Living With Wolves, tolerance itself is endangered.
How will your multimedia presentation at The Broad differ from your documentaries and book?
JAMIE: It’s delving deeper into the social lives of wolves and our personal story.
JIM: The hierarchy, the language of wolves, how wolves improve the ecosystem. There have been many improvements in Yellowstone that have been recorded by various scientific studies. Having wolves back benefits trout, aspen, birds of prey, antelope — numerous animals. For one thing, wolves have changed the elk’s [habits]. They became lethargic without wolves there, [which affected] rivers and streams because they had no animal that preyed upon them and ate all the vegetation; having wolves back has brought back the trees and willows, and that cools the water, so it’s much better for trout.
Mountain lions and bears don’t trigger the hysteria that wolves do. Why?
JIM: Over the past 100 years, there have been possibly two cases where a wolf killed a human being in North America. But over the past 12 years, bears have killed 35.
JAMIE: Cougars are relatively solitary; bears are relatively solitary. With wolves, it’s a pack, people think of a gang. But it’s not a gang; it’s a family — parents, siblings, uncles. Wolves are terribly afraid of us, but at the same time they’re curious. It’s that curiosity that allowed us to domesticate the wolf into the dog. … Humans and wolves actually lived side by side for a long time. It was a symbiotic relationship until we became more pastoral and started raising cattle and sheep, and suddenly they became the enemy.
JIM: They’re so bonded to each other. If you kill a wolf or threaten pups, the pack will rally around and come to the rescue. Whereas coyotes split up. But wolves are easy to kill because they’re so social.
JAMIE: A Fish & Game biologist in Alaska took us to this lab where a skull of this wolf showed that the wolf had suffered a severely broken jaw, yet the jaw healed and the wolf lived. The only way that wolf could have survived was for other members of the pack to take care of him — they wouldn’t leave him behind to starve.
JIM: We had an omega wolf killed by a mountain lion. The omega instigates play, gets other wolves to chase it. But with the loss of this wolf, the pack stopped playing for about six weeks. They used to play every day.
You wrote that the omega wolf Lakota sounded like he was “singing the blues.” Are wolf songs a form of self-expression?
JAMIE: They’ll howl to see who’s out there, to call in the rest of the pack; they’ll howl after they’ve eaten a really good meal and they’re all full. They’ll howl in celebration or longing. Within the howls, wolves have a huge repertoire of sounds, whines, whimpers, barks, growls. … They’re discovering that wolves have accents, depending on what region they grew up in. [Laughs.] It’s very expressive. Sort of like whales; whales have a huge repertoire of sounds and clicks and inflections.
You observed the Sawtooth Pack as “social partners” rather than as scientists; how do those approaches differ?
JAMIE: A lot of research is done on wolves with radio telemetry from a great distance. It’s important to know that we were living with the wolves on their terms; we could never go up to them. When wolves came up to us it was because they chose to; we never tried to dominate the wolves. That changes their behavior. We never submitted, we never dominated them, so they never did that to us either. We were pretty much just there. You could never put a collar on them or call them by name; they didn’t know what their names were.
Last August the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that the gray wolf has rebounded from the brink of extinction to “exceed population targets by as much as 300%” and claimed that “wolf numbers continue to be robust, stable and self-sustaining.” Many environmentalists disagree, but Western states are increasing wolf kills.
JIM: In Idaho we kill 40% to 60% of the wolves every year. That’s Fish and Game’s plan, to eliminate them. They just went into the remote Lolo National Forest with helicopters, locating 20 wolves with radio telemetry, and shot them all. We kill about 400 or so just with recreational hunting in this state. That kind of hunting of wolves is really disrupting the social behavior of these animals. They can’t pass on information, they can’t grow. You have a pack of 10 or 11, and [they] go in and start killing them, and then you have small packs of twos or threes, all traumatized, and they go after what’s easy to eat. So hunting wolves makes it easy for ranchers.
JAMIE: Wolf numbers can regulate themselves. This huge amount of recreational hunting, also the government killing of wolves, really distorts the family structure. And wolves really can’t sustain that. These wolves in Lolo weren’t killed for any reason other than keeping elk numbers artificially high. … Wolves function as a pack, a family. The more you destroy the fabric of the family, the more damage.
You hoped to overcome people’s fear by showing them “subtle acts of compassion and care” by wolves.
JAMIE: We’ve been able to help bring wolves to the forefront and make people more aware. I think there’s a huge upswell [in interest] from kids, which is important; they’re going to be our decision makers. What’s going on now, especially in the West, is a small vocal minority has a lot of power behind them. Most people want wolves back. … We remind them that wolves belong to all of us. They were brought back with all of our tax dollars. They live on federal land, for the most part. That land belongs to all of us and we have a say in what happens to wolves. The more people realize they have a voice and they can speak out for their wolves, the better it will be for wolves.
JIM: When the last member of our Sawtooth pack died, 98,000 people on Facebook shared the loss of his passing.
Do you believe wolves will survive in the wild outside of Yellowstone and wolf sanctuaries?
JAMIE: We believe it, because if not, then there really isn’t hope for any other animal. Wolves are the iconic symbol of the wild. If we can’t save wolves, if they can’t be allowed to live in wild places, then there really is no hope for anything.
Jim and Jamie Dutcher speak at 7:30 p.m. on March 31 and April 1 at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $55 to $75. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit livingwithwolves.org.