The Experience of Living With Wolves
This article is part of our series Wolves in Colorado: Science & Stories, a special five-part virtual presentation of the Institute for Science & Policy and Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, in partnership with the Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, CSU Extension, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Watch the full recording of the session and explore the episode archive.
For many in the Lower 48, the idea of living alongside wolves isn’t theoretical. Before the last wolf was killed in Colorado around 1940, Indigenous Americans lived with wolves for millenia. In the Upper Midwest, wolves never completely disappeared. And in the Northern Rockies, people have had Canis lupis as a neighbor for decades now and understand the values, concerns, and tradeoffs in a way that few others can. As Coloradans begin to head to the polls to determine the fate of Proposition 114, these communities can offer lessons and paradigms for what lies ahead should wolves eventually return to the Centennial State.
In the third episode of our ongoing series about wolf reintroduction in Colorado, the Institute’s Senior Policy Advisor Kristan Uhlenbrock and Center for Collaborative Conservation Director John Sanderson chatted with Shane Doyle (Apsaalooke/Crow), an educational and cultural consultant; Denny Iverson, Rancher and Logger at Iverson Ranch (Montana) and Secretary of the Blackfoot Challenge; and Kim Skyelander, Associate Director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University about wolf-human co-existence strategies and share what they’ve learned about balancing diverse viewpoints.
This transcript has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Watch the full recording of the session here.
JOHN SANDERSON: Shane, I wanted to start with you and wonder if you could talk about the history and relationship with wolves that Indigenous residents have had dating back centuries.
SHANE DOYLE: It's a great honor to be sitting on the panel, and good evening to everyone. That's a great question, John. I think that that relationship predates the actual Crow tribe. I think that that relationship goes back over 13,000 years. And I think one of the things that separates it from the wolf relationships that we see in other parts of the world is that people who lived on this continent did not have domesticated animals. They didn't have walking food supplies out there that they had to protect from wolves. That, I think, is one major issue that is going to always come up with wolf introduction.
So I want to preface the relationship on that fact - and going back all those many thousands of years, you know, it's hard to say when – that Crow tribe tradition has us really kind of starting as our own group of people within about the past thousand years. But again, as I mentioned, that relationship with the wolves goes much further back than that. And I think that the relationship has always been one of very little conflict. And in fact, the relationship was so mutual that the wolves did not play a big role in the oral tradition of Native people, at least, in the Crow people and others of the Northern Plains as being like the Big Bad Wolf type image that you see coming out of Europe. There's nothing bad about wolves that Native people have really ever expressed.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: Denny, you moved to Montana in the 1970s, back at a time when there were no wolves. So why don't you take a few minutes to share your perspective about how wolves first came on your radar so many years ago and how did you feel at that time.
DENNY IVERSON: Well, first, thanks for having me. This is a real pleasure. Yeah, you know, I have to go back to something Shane talked about a little bit about, the history with his people and wolves. My dad actually remembers wolves on the landscape in southern Minnesota as a young boy. They were quickly eradicated and they retreated to the north of Minnesota. But I remember him telling the stories. But he wasn't a fan.
Here in the Blackfoot, I think we had the benefit of having grizzly bears on the landscape first. Through the Blackfoot Challenge, we had put together a group of folks, mostly stockmen and then some biologists that that were getting together quarterly or maybe once a month just to deal with grizzly bears. And we thought we had it all figured out. And we've worked with a lot of partners to fence out some calving yards to keep the bears out and we cleaned up our old boneyards where we dumped our old dead animals, and that kind of thing. And so we thought we had the grizzly bear thing pretty well figured out.
And then when the wolves started showing up, the emotions got just crazy amongst that group, and of course, amongst all our neighbors. I like to play devil's advocate sometimes, just to get a good conversation going. And in those early meetings about grizzly bears, those meetings would always end with, well, what are we going to do about all these elk? And we were talking, we're meeting to visit about grizzly bears, but we would always end with, there's too many elk, what are we gonna do with all these elk? And so, when the wolf came on the scene, I said, well hold on guys, you know, if these wolves behave themselves they might be the best friend remember we have. Of course, you know that didn't fly very far, but it did open some conversation.
Maybe there was a place for wolves on the landscape, and we really didn't have a choice. They were moving in from the north, from Canada naturally, and moving up from the reintroduction down in Yellowstone. So we had to come together and, you know, we had to, we had to recalibrate a little bit about how we were doing business. And, you know, the nice thing about bears is that they went to sleep for little while in the wintertime and the wolves didn't.
It was an emotional time. I think the fear of the unknown was, are we gonna have any cows, or [start to lose calves]. We just didn’t know. It was really a hard pill to swallow.
The folks that I was working with very closely accepted pretty quickly that there are going to be wolves on the landscape. So, let's figure out how to live with them. And so that that opened up a lot of discussion around what can we do for our producers to help them live with wolves. And I think, you know, from time to time, there's still some depredation. But by and large, some of the things that we've implemented really helped. And I can get into some of those later. But yeah, it was an emotional time.
One of my close neighbors here has been gathering cattle in the last month and finding a lot of carcasses. He got the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks up there and our wolf biologists with Montana and they're trying to figure out what's happened since last year. What's happened is a big pack of wolves moved in there. And so, that communication that we have with those agencies is very helpful. They can react real quickly. And he's not going to get all the ammo from the gun store in town to try and shoot all the wolves. He's like, well, we've got an issue, now let's see what we could do with it. I think that's different than in the early days.
And so, at any rate, that's kind of where we've been and I can get into more of some of the tools that we've used and how some of those attitudes have changed over time in the last 10-12 years.
JS: Kim, you’ve had your own experiences with wolves as well.
KIM SKYELANDER: My closest encounter was probably in my own neighborhood. I had some neighbors where they proceeded to set up deer feeding stations, and they were feeding the deer year round. It is now illegal to do that within the city limits or just on the outside of the city limits. And I went and talked to them and I said, you do realize that this will probably bring in some of our predators.
Whenever when I walked out and I find out a black bear was walking down the street because it was there. Another day I'd walk out, the wolves were here. So I learned to be cautious when I opened my front door and when I took my dog out, I always had him on leash, and so on.
I was walking down a two lane road just to the west of my house and I was surrounded by Superior National Forest. So we were walking down the road and my German Shepherd stopped and kind of pressed up against me, looked over his shoulder and I thought, you want to go home and no, we're going to keep going. So I want a little bit farther and he did the same thing. And I look over my shoulder and there was a wolf paralleling us on the other side of the road, just walking down the road.
I never felt like I was personally in danger but a few of us got together and talked to the game warden and said, Can you please talk to a neighbor to stop feeding the deer? They did eventually stop.
JS: Shane, I’m interested in your more modern experience as it relates to the current tribe and your lived experience of Montana. And I'm curious what emotions, what feelings, what changes have you experienced around wolves.
SD: Growing up on the Crow Indian Reservation, and just in the relationships I've had over the years with Native people here in Montana and elsewhere, wolves have not been a real a very emotional topic for them. Bison are much more of a concern. And I think that when the wolves were eliminated and Native people were going through such a traumatic time, I don't know if they really actually were [so affected]. Buffalo were limited as well before the wolves were eliminated. And so I think that maybe their emotional attachment to the wolf is not as great as we see in Western culture, just because of the role that the wolf plays in Western culture, history and in literature and modern day reality on the ground.
When wolves came back, I loved it - but I'm not a rancher or farmer. I'm all for it. I mean, bring them all back as far as I'm concerned. Bring every animal that was here back. That's my sentiment. I don't see any reason why we should get rid of animals. But I am pretty sure that growing up in the society that I've grown up in and getting the education that I've received, I know full well that there are many people that would not agree with that perspective. And I understand that. But I feel like we now have the infrastructure in place to negotiate, to come up with solutions, to come together as communities to make decisions.
Looking at the ballot initiative in Colorado, just the fact that it's even on the ballot, just the fact that we've gotten that far, shows that there is some kind of a shift going on in the consciousness and possibly in the voting electorate.
KU: Denny, you mentioned that you took a couple of very specific actions to deal with the challenges that the grizzly bears presented. I wonder if you could share a little bit more about the tools that you used, the approaches you've used, what you've learned, but then also some of the costs?
DI: Sure. One of the best tools we have is our range rider program, and that came to us from Idaho and some other areas near Yellowstone Park that were that were affected earlier with the reintroduction down there. The range rider tool is simply having some boots out on the ground in the summertime. At first, we thought we had to have somebody with a wildlife biology degree or something, and we really didn’t. We just needed people that like to be outdoors. Maybe like to ride their horse a lot, or they like to ride their motorcycles a lot. And we just had to train them a little bit on you know what to look for as far as tracks and scat. We actually think the folks that use a motorcycle or something like that can cover a lot of ground and those folks are out in the landscape all summer. It's not like they're spending every day with my cows. They might see my cows once a week. The local gal that does it for us, she puts in way more hours than we pay her for. But she just loves being out there and she has learned what to look for.
But the biggest benefit of that is just the communication back to me and my neighbors that have cattle out on landscape, just knowing where the wolves are. Just checking on the cows and seeing how skittish they are, if they’re not laying around under the shade or seem to be more agitated or something like that. Then she communicates that information back to me and so I have a clue what's going on out there because I'm busy and I can't really afford to hire an extra hand just to watch the cows all summer. And we get that paid for, through some of our partners. NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife still to this day are great partners covering some of these costs.
I talked a little bit about fencing early on, with the calving yards and there's some good NRCS programs to help with that cost, oftentimes without too much cost to the landowner, but the landowner has to maintain it. Anytime you put up an infrastructure, you have to maintain it. Another tool that's working really well in Montana is hunting. Our population got to a point where our state legislature said, I think we can start hunting them, and our wolves got a lot smarter and a lot harder to see on the landscape when hunting came on. And they're much more skittish around people now. Early on, it was super easy to go out and find wolves. I mean, you just go and listen and check it out and you could go find them. And when they started getting shot at, they shut up. They became much more aloof and there's been less depredation.
But that's not the main tool. The main tool that we've used is range riders and some fencing. And there's this fencing called flaggery, a single wire with flags on it, and we’ll actually deploy that out in in the hills sometimes if, let's say, a pack of wolves shows up. And if our rangers are doing a good job there, they're cluing into where those wolves are hanging out. And so we've employed some flaggery and that keeps the wolves from moving toward our cows.
The other thing that we do through the range rider program is okay, the wolves are here, so let's use this pasture over here at this time of year. And then when they move on, now we can go to that pasture. And that's what our range riders can really help us with: discovering some of those habits out of the wolves and what they’re up to.
We have a real close relationship with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and with our Wildlife Services here in Montana. And I can't say enough good about the Wildlife Services program through USDA. Those folks are really trained well. And, you know, we can find a carcass all that’s left is bones. And if we alert him to that, they're right there and they can look at the bite marks on the bones and so forth and discover what killed that critter or if it died from natural causes. A good technician can tell that and so then we can get some compensation, through our Department of Agriculture and compensation program in Montana that our legislature is funded. Not everybody gets compensated for every animal they lose, but it's been pretty successful here in Montana.
JS: Shane, a lot of your work is around helping other people understand Native American and Indian culture, both historically and modern. I'm wondering if you could just reflect a little bit or share something about the intersection of the land and animals.
SD: You always have to refer back to the natural ecosystem as it was mostly influenced by people with fires, and they lit fires for a number of different reasons, typically after a big bison kill. And that was probably the main way that they were able to influence the landscape, to regenerate grasses, to clear out brush, to clear away animals like predators like grizzly bears after they've hunted.
Over the course of generations, there's less fuel to start a real hot fire and that was the way one of the ways that they maintained kind of a balance and able to return to the same hunting grounds again and again. Because of course, once you've burned that area, and the grass turns green, it's gonna attract the ungulates – the wind is gonna blow the spell of the grass. And along with all of those natural resources the wolf was seen as integral to all of those things.
And with wolves, people understood that they really weren't a threat to human beings per se. There's different sentiments about those big cats. But the wolf is used consistently in all Plains Indian vernacular, and it's used interchangeably with terms that we all know of as human terms. For example, the term ‘scout.’ If you look at the different languages here in Montana, we have many different languages and several from different linguistic language families, so not even a single word in common. Yet, within almost every single tradition, the word ‘scout’ is the same word that's used for wolves. And I've found that to be the case across the board.
And it's interesting here in Bozeman where I live, near the Bridger Mountains. They're named after Jim Bridger the famous scout. But the name that all of the Native people have for those mountains was the Wolf Mountains. And, you know, there's a lot of different reasons why they call them the Wolf Mountains, but one of the primary reasons was because they were great for scouting. When you get up there, you can see hundreds of square miles east or west. And so, just the sensibilities that they use embedded within their language and within their traditions had so much respect and reverence for wolves and understanding that tremendous skill and ability, that wolves can cover tremendous distances, and that they were extremely astute observes of single thing that is out there that's possible to hear or smell. They see, they hear, and they smell, and they understood. This allowed them to be masters of their domain.
The wolf shows up frequently throughout the Crow tribal tradition. One of the best ones I can think of off the top of my head is, you know, in the teepee, and all of the different poles in the Crow teepee can represent an animal, either an animal or sometimes a season. The four seasons. But the two door poles as you come into the teepee, the one on the right hand side coming out is a wolf and stories are, if there's a pack of wolves there and they go after something, they're going to get it. And so that's why you want to have that wolf protecting your door. Not that the wolves would turn on us, just for any kind of bad spirit or threat that would come into your house, we want to have wolf there. So those are some of the things that really kind of give us some more insight into this very fruitful and respectful relationship.
JS: Kim, something that's commonly worried about is human safety. We've heard about that in some of our previous episodes, and Dr. Kevin crooks mentioned in the first episode that contrary to this fear, there are no documented deaths of people from wild wolves in the 20th Century. So we have that data. But I wonder if you could speak a little bit to the gap between data and the actual experience.
KS: [In Minnesota], wolves were only hunted from 2012-14 species and they have not been hunted or trapped since then. And you know without being hunted or trapped, they're still pretty shy. I talked to quite a few people that I know, asked what are your impressions of them as an animal, and to the person, they said that they’re pretty shy, we hardly ever see them ,we see tracks, or you run into them by accident. People put up trail cameras on their properties and they're surprised to know that they're both going through every night and they don't ever see them.
If you're a pet owner, you just follow common sense, the same thing you would do if you had bears in the area or mountain lions or anything else. You're going to want to make sure you're not feeding your dog outside or leaving any kind of garbage or food out. Or just let them run off leash. People live with grizzly bears or mountain lion. If there were a wolfpack in the area, I also would not let my grandchildren out in the yard without supervision just because they are predators after all. Same thing with my dog. So it's just an awareness and being aware, being cautious.
KU: One question asked about differences of landscapes and Montana has more open grassland or conifers, where the potential reintroduction would start here in Colorado there's concerns, about the density of our brush and aspens. So this is, of course, specific to ranching. But in general, this could be also tied in to the fears of potentially not seeing predators. Any advice on how you would imagine a co- existence in potentially understanding ranching near forestry land?
DI: So, our land is heavily timber. And we do have a lot of brush, and we have a lot of wetland areas within our timber areas. It's a real mosaic of different types of landscapes here in the mountains of western Montana. I've been fencing, and I'm walking through an open meadow that's maybe only four or five acres in size, and then immediately into a creek bottom marshy area that's wet and densely forested with conifers and cedars. You can't see 10 yards down the fence line. And that's where our cattle are.
That that creates a challenge for range riders at times to, you know, find the cows and to find the wolves. But they usually use the roads. There's roads intersecting most everything and, and our riders use the roads a lot to look for scouting tracks and then start looking for the different things. So I think our landscape is similar to what a lot of the ranchers in Colorado will be experiencing. And the same kinds of issues that we've had to deal with, I think they'll be dealing with.
One thing that we really learned is that we don't have to have huge fences to keep wolves or bears out. Neither one of them like electric fences. And so a four foot fence works just fine and that's about less than half the original infrastructure we were putting in. Cows don't like electric fences either, so it keeps the cows in really well too.
JS: We've talked a lot about the need for stakeholder engagement and processes that allow many voices and perspectives to be heard. And I wonder if you can speak briefly to your experience in navigating an issue where collaboration and partnerships were an essential part of the process.
SD: As long as everybody comes to the table and you've got everybody there and they're interested in making things happen, my experience has been very good.
DI: I'd say the same. What was interesting for us, I think early on, was getting our local wildlife biologists, to let us ranchers know what the rules were. And when we develop that trust - that we weren't going to go out and just kill them off, we were just interested in where they were - they were much more forthcoming with information about known packs and where they were wintering, where they were summering, those kinds of things. So making those partnerships early is key, absolutely key.
KU: Denny, give us one tip for lowering the temperature on this issue.
DI: If the meeting last 10 years, you're golden. I hate public meetings, but they're so important. We have learned here in the Blackfoot that sometimes people just need to let off steam. And, you know, if you're passionate about something, it's going to come out. Folks just got to get it off their chest. Letting people have their say. Oftentimes you can't cure what's ailing them emotionally. But you can listen and take that into account as an organization. Just getting everybody to the table, as Shane said, is key, but making sure that everybody is at the table, no matter what their emotions are. You can't lower the temperature. But you can listen, which is something we can all do better.
JS: Kim, you teach collaborative conservation, you have been teaching it for a long time. What core bit of advice do you have us have for us about this dialogue?
KS: Trust is huge. Building trust, having all the stakeholders to the table, whether you agree with them or not, all different angles pros and cons - people need to be listened to. They need to have their values heard, they need to have their concerns aired, even if you don't agree with each other. You can listen to the other person and try to say, oh, this is really key. The best collaborations work when people are willing to meet each other halfway and say I disagree with this, but I want to hear your side of the story, where you're coming from.
I was on the information Education team for Forest Service during the original Yellowstone introduction and people were not feeling heard and there were a lot of very strong emotions and they would just get riled up. I think Colorado is way far ahead of the game by learning from the different states like Montana about what it means to listen to each other.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.