If you ever plan to dart a wild wolf sprinting over a snow-covered mountain from a low-flying helicopter, there are a few things you need to know. The wolf should be running away, and you should be aiming for the back or butt. Never take a shot at a wolf that’s facing you. The risk of injuring the animal with a dart to the face is too high. Also, a dart shoots hard but it’s not a bullet; you need to loft your shot. Try to keep the chase under a quarter mile. Push a distressed wolf much farther and you’re being cruel. Finally, while you’re leaning out over the helicopter’s landing skids focusing on the wolf, don’t forget the treetops rushing by under your feet. If you get snagged, you’re done.
These were the lessons Doug Smith took home after a trip to the Alaskan outback in 1999. Smith had recently become director of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, the research program that followed the reintroduction of wolves into the national park four years earlier. At the heart of the nascent program was the winter study, when Smith and his team would track packs deep into the park, collect predation data, and fix individual wolves with radio collars.
The study relied heavily on aerial darting. Smith grew up shooting guns but hitting a moving wolf from an aircraft was a different challenge. He phoned Layne Adams, a darting pro with the U.S. Biological Survey, who was doing work at Denali National Park, and asked if he could come to Alaska to study his craft. The pair spent a week in the air. Smith vividly remembers the first wolf he darted. It was an evasive alpha female. His first shot missed.
“Take those fucking gloves off!” the pilot shouted into his headset. Smith was wearing flying gloves. He ditched them. Below, the wolf stopped running, took shelter in a patch of brush, and faced the strange object hovering above her. The pilot was shouting at Smith to shoot. Smith was shouting at the pilot to reposition. The wolf took off. Smith can’t recall how many darts he fired, but he knows that the last one hit its mark.
Smith darted six more wolves in Denali that week. Back in Yellowstone, over the next two and half decades, he darted some 600 more. The captures became the backbone of the winter study — today a top contender for the world’s most respected predator research project. Smith spent all year waiting for the snow to come, thinking about what the last winter revealed, obsessing over how to improve. He took those lessons to heart. “I never computed my long-term average, but I was getting down to like 1.2, 1.3 darts per wolf,” he told me recently. “Two days in my career, I fired 10 darts and got 10 wolves.”
When future historians sit down to tell the story of how wolves regained a foothold in the United States after near total annihilation, they will find many names. Few, if any, are likely to surface as often as Doug Smith. For more than a quarter century, Smith was the face of one of the most historic and controversial government conservation initiatives of all time. In November, he retired.
When we met on an overcast morning in Bozeman, Montana, Smith was six weeks into his new post-Yellowstone life. His former colleagues were in the midst of their first winter without him. “It’s the first time since the beginning I wasn’t there to handle capture,” he said. Smith was not yet sure if stepping away was the right call. He wavered sometimes. “It was a very hard decision,” he said. “I’m still doubting it some days.”
Photos: Max Lowe for The Intercept
Now free from the constraints of federal employment, the veteran biologist offered critical observations on the way wolves are seen, managed, and killed in the Northern Rockies, and the values that treatment reflects. Smith’s exit comes at a tumultuous time for wolves in the Northern Rockies and wildlife more broadly. Last winter, he and his colleagues recorded the deadliest season in Yellowstone history. With 25 wolves killed, more than double the previous record, roughly a fifth of the park’s entire wolf population was lost.
The killing was concentrated on Yellowstone’s northern border, which cuts into southwestern Montana. In the run up to the unprecedented season, a panel of wildlife commissioners appointed by Montana’s first Republican governor in a decade and a half, Greg Gianforte, abolished quotas that had limited the number of wolves that could be killed north of the park.
With its 2023 legislative session now underway, Montana’s new GOP supermajority remains intent on dramatically slashing the state’s wolf population with an array of highly controversial and recently legalized hunting and trapping methods. Many of the West’s most respected wildlife biologists have spoken out at what they see as a politicized wave of “anti-predator hysteria” sweeping the region. Meanwhile, mass habitat loss continues to fuel biodiversity loss at a staggering pace, leaving national parks like Yellowstone among the only places on Earth where large predators like wolves are both protected and studied in depth.
“Literally, if you get the wrong wolf at the wrong time, that pack can fall apart.”
In the weeks leading up to his retirement, Smith completed a major paper with more than a dozen biologists from national parks across North America. A decade in the making, the rare, interpark collaboration — titled “Human-caused mortality triggers pack instability in gray wolves” and published in “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment” in January — tackled the question of how wolf hunting outside of national parks impacts the social stability of wolf packs living inside them. The research showed that while wolf populations are remarkably resilient, the loss of a single wolf can be devastating to an individual pack. This was especially true in the case of leaders. “Literally, if you get the wrong wolf at the wrong time, that pack can fall apart,” Smith said. The study also found that despite living in the most protected environs available, wolves in national parks experience “high levels” of human-caused mortality. Last winter, Smith and his colleagues witnessed those effects firsthand at an unprecedented scale.
The paper was a fitting exit for one the country’s most celebrated biologists. The entirety of Smith’s Yellowstone career was bound up in questions of how the outside world shaped the bubble of preservation he signed up to study and protect. Under his tenure, the park’s wolf program became an exemplar of predator preservation and research worldwide. Taking advantage of Yellowstone’s unmatched observational opportunities, Smith oversaw studies detailing how the return of apex predators — not just wolves, but grizzly bears and cougars as well — helped usher in an era of ecological recovery rarely witnessed in the modern world. At the same time, while always keeping an eye on the science and planning for the next winter study, Smith’s work required navigating a social and political minefield. “Cross-boundary management is a bugaboo in wildlife management,” he told me. “Most of the time, people go, ‘They’re not our jurisdiction anymore, so we’re not going to do anything’ — that doesn’t benefit the resource at all.”
The borders invite questions that policymakers generally try to avoid asking.
The boundaries that divide national parks and states are more than a delineation between jurisdictions. Those invisible lines represent different worlds, both for the animals that cross them and for the human institutions on either side. The borders invite questions that policymakers generally try to avoid asking. After two and a half decades on the front line, Smith firmly believes those discussions, uncomfortable though they might be, must happen for wildlife to have any chance of survival. The study, in addition to its scientific revelations, was an attempt to spur those conversations. “That was the other reason we did it,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘Let’s shine a light on this.’ You have to expose painful topics to solve them.”
Early in Smith’s Yellowstone career, a legendary park ranger named Jerry Mernin offered him a piece of advice he would never forget. “You’re not doing your job. No one gives a shit about your science,” Mernin told him. “What you gotta do is you gotta go in the mountains, on horseback, and talk to the people riding around with guns. That’s conservation.”
Mernin was referring to the outfitting camps that ring Yellowstone’s border, providing guided hunts for paying clients, particularly those in pursuit of elk. Along with livestock interests, the outfitters were among the most vocal opponents of the federal program to repopulate the West with wolves. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t want it, and they saw the wolves as a threat to their bottom line. Smith could see that Mernin was right. He needed to talk to them. Together, they loaded up their horses and rode out.
Like his winter study, Smith’s visits to the camps became a tradition. As it was with darting, the learning curve was steep. Smith quickly discovered that riding in with a list of points to hammer home never worked. “Literally, you had to go in and just establish contact, a rapport, a relationship,” he said. “Listen more than you talk.” Smith did not expect to uproot deeply held convictions. The goal was subtler, more human. “If you let those guys go, they will go,” he said. “So most of the time, you’re just rapping, and you’re trying to establish that I’m not as bad as they think I am, and even though I’m a government employee, they shouldn’t hate me for that — because they hate the government.”
Nothing was ever perfect, tensions and resentments remained, but bit by bit relationships were built. “I continued that almost until the day I retired,” Smith said. “I would consider it to be one of the more effective conservation efforts that I did in my career.”
Raised in rural northeastern Ohio on a horse camp that his parents ran, Smith began working with wolves as a teenager. He earned his Ph.D. studying under the legends of the field, old-school biologists whose groundbreaking insights were the product of handwritten notes compiled while trudging through deep snow in remote places. Among his mentors was L. David Mech. In an email, Mech, who is considered by many to be the most authoritative wolf expert in the world, described Smith’s predation studies in Yellowstone as “the most intensive and extensive wolf-prey system ever scientifically investigated.”
Smith lived for the science, but he also recognized that the most important decisions in wildlife management happen outside the realms of biology and ecology.
In 2011, facing a precarious vote in the upcoming midterm elections, Montana’s lone Democratic senator, Jon Tester, attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill reversing a federal judge’s order returning wolves in the Northern Rockies to the Endangered Species List. The move was unheard of — Congress had never intervened to remove an animal from the endangered species list before — and led to state authorization of wolf hunting and trapping seasons. The following year, Smith and his colleagues released a report unlike anything they had published before, documenting the then-unprecedented loss of 12 wolves to hunting and trapping, many just over the edge of the park’s boundary lines.
Smith understood well that the goal of the Endangered Species Act was delisting, and that delisting meant state management, and state management meant hunting. Still, there were elements to the way the states structured their approach that he found ethically unsettling. Smith was a lifelong hunter, using elk and deer to fill his fridge. The meat was the “resource value” of the animal he killed. A wolf’s resource value was ostensibly its pelt, and yet Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho — then and now — started their seasons during the transition from summer to fall, when wolves’ pelts were at their least valuable. “You’re killing for a full two months for what?” Smith asked, before answering his own question. “Hatred.”
Following the deadly 2012 season, wolf advocates lobbied for hunting quotas north of Yellowstone. While most of the park’s boundaries lie in remote areas, well-removed from human settlement, Yellowstone’s iconic northern entrance is in the unincorporated community of Gardiner, Montana, where open access to wildlife moving out of the park is readily available. The region is but a tiny sliver of Montana. Still, opponents of wolf hunting quotas on Yellowstone’s boundary line argued that the park was pushing out its border and asked, with great frustration, where do you draw the line?
For Smith, it was the wrong question. Hard boundary lines didn’t make sense for wildlife in general and for wolves in Yellowstone specifically. The wolves spent 96 percent of their time in the park, with much of that time in Wyoming — meaning that killing those wolves to reduce Montana’s wolf population made little sense. There was limited livestock ranching in the pocket of Montana that the park pushed up against, and the state routinely reported healthy elk populations in the area. That meant two of the most common arguments for heavy wolf killing — livestock and elk protection — were shaky at best. Finally, because the wolves were born and raised in a national park, they grew up with little reason to fear humans watching them from a distance. This habituation raised serious ethical questions about the shooting of a wolf that stood 100 feet north of a line that it didn’t know existed by humans who it didn’t see as a danger. As an alternative, hunters and trappers in Montana still had access to the rest of the fourth largest state in the country, where they could stalk wolves that actually knew they were being pursued.
“They’re tolerant of having people watching, and so you can’t have an arbitrary line on a landscape — go from that, complete protection, to no protection,” Smith said. It was matter of fair chase, an ethical principle undergirding the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of pillars revered by many hunters around the world. In a fair chase hunt, “an animal knows you’re after it,” Smith said. “You’re not riding a four-wheeler chasing it down. You’re not using walkie talkies to trap it. Those are all fair chase measures. This is one of them.”
In place of a hard line, Smith and others advocated for a zone of protection that gradually faded into the broader state management regime. For many, it was the economics of Yellowstone’s wolf program that served as the strongest argument for such an approach: According to an economic study published in 2022, wolf watching alone in Yellowstone generates $82 million a year in local ecotourism dollars.
Though he wouldn’t disagree with the value of ecotourism, Smith’s arguments tended to reflect his dual identity as a scientist and public servant. With the wolf reintroduction, Yellowstone, and by extension the broader public, gained an incomparable asset, allowing for deeper insights into the innerworkings of one of the last great ecosystems of North America. If there were ever an example of a National Park Service initiative achieving its mission of preservation and public access, it was the Yellowstone Wolf Project. “I believe in the mission,” Smith said. “I would argue — and I know the world does not work this way — don’t do a job unless you believe it.”
In his day-to-day work over the years, Smith routinely met with people whose opinions on that mission ranged from unaccommodating to outright hostile. For Kira Cassidy, who began her Yellowstone wolf career in 2008, it was Smith’s earnest interest in seeking out those conversations that made him indispensable. “For being such a science-focused person, he also has a very beautiful, philosophical way of looking at the human condition and human relationships with wildlife,” she said. “He’s not argumentative, but he’s convincing in what he believes.”
Gradually, through years of negotiations among an array of stakeholders, the number of wolves that could be killed in the two districts north of Yellowstone was pared down to one each. At the same time, statewide in Montana, wolf regulations were kept permissive, and hundreds of individual animals were hunted or trapped every year. Smith wasn’t an enthusiastic fan of the state’s wolf hunt, but he understood it as part of the complex world of trade-offs in which the Yellowstone Wolf Project was situated.
“That’s the give and take we need in our society,” he said. “The whole point here is reasonability, compromise,” he added. “I don’t think we’re being unreasonable by saying, ‘Look, you can kill them, you just can’t kill them all.’”
In 2016, the research into how human hunting affects wolves in national parks began to gather momentum. After a successful project with an Alaska-based biologist in Denali National Park, Smith and Cassidy began kicking around the idea of bringing in collaborators from around the continent. Eventually, they assembled a wide-ranging team of wolf researchers from Denali, Grand Teton, and Voyageurs national parks, as well as the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in remote eastern Alaska.
In addition to hunting, the biologists included vehicle strikes, poaching, lethal control by government agencies, and rare incidents of death during research capture in their analysis. With data stretching back to the 1980s, they had an extraordinary wealth of information to pull from. While Cassidy delved into the nitty-gritty of the research, Smith navigated the complexities of wrangling multiple national parks in a study that was inherently controversial.
“It was tough,” he said. “A lot of people were like, ‘Leave it alone. When they leave the park, they’re none of your business.’” To Smith, that response was premature. The research had not been done to determine the extent of the issue, so who was to say whether it was the business of national parks or not? “I’m OK with not doing anything,” Smith said. “But don’t you want the information to know?”
No adjustment to the status quo after reviewing data was one thing. “I’m actually OK with that,” he said. “But that’s different than ‘We don’t know, and everything’s fine.’”
As it turned out, everything was not fine. In August 2021, Montana eliminated the hunting quotas north of Yellowstone entirely. In the months that followed, the wolf project recorded an unprecedented 480 percent increase in mortality compared to previous seasons. Smith and Cassidy watched in real time as patterns they had traced for years emerged again and again across the park’s Northern Range.
The hunters would arrive at dawn or dusk, often with assault rifles, at known lookout points on the park’s border. They used predator calls to draw wolves over the line and often left the carcasses where they fell. Just as data coming in from parks around the country indicated, larger packs fared better in the face of the heavy human killing. Smaller packs did not.
The Phantom Lake Pack was a stark example. The pack was relatively small and traditionally held its ground on the northernmost edge of the park. Seven of its members were killed in two months. “We think that one of the first wolves that they lost during the hunting season was probably their breeding female,” Cassidy said. “They seemed to crumble after that.” With the Phantom Lake wolves gone, Yellowstone’s largest pack moved in. Though the Junction Butte Pack lost eight wolves to the hunt after taking the newly available territory, most of were pups or yearlings, and the pack had gone into the season with nearly 30 members. The pack persisted.
Most illustrative of all was the Eight Mile Pack. Unlike other packs in the park, the wolves were elusive and seemed to consciously avoid humans. Cassidy attributed the evasiveness to the seasoned alpha female that had led the pack for five years: “It seemed like for years she knew exactly how to avoid human-caused mortalities.” The wolf did not, however, appear to understand traps and was caught and killed late in the season. “Within 48 hours after the alpha female was trapped, the pack got up and traveled all the way until Lamar Valley,” Cassidy said. The journey was nearly 40 miles. “We have never recorded them doing that,” she said. “It seemed to be in reaction to this pretty severe disruption.”
As the biologists suspected, numbers alone failed to tell the full story of what happened inside packs when humans killed wolves. The process of confirming their hypothesis, however, was painfully grim. “This is the kind of study you don’t want to see succeed,” Smith said. “It relies on dead wolves being killed by people.”
The hunt marked the worst year of Smith’s career. It wasn’t just the loss of the individual wolves or the scientific setbacks, though both were brutal; it was also the damage done to the project of compromise and moderation in which he had invested so much time and effort.
Smith spent last summer working to convince the governor’s wildlife commissioners of the unique value of the Yellowstone’s wolf program and the important role quotas played in helping the Park Service achieve its mission. In August, at a hearing to establish this year’s regulations, he thanked the commissioners for hearing him out. In the end, the commissioners — some of whom had been prepared to begin another season with no quotas in place — agreed to a park proposal of a six wolf limit. Smith was sent to deliver the proposal. Following his remarks, a woman whispered to him that he had let the wolf advocates down. “That caused me to flinch,” he said.
At that point, the subject of retirement was already on his mind. Smith would be 62 soon, the age at which he and his wife had agreed to discuss a potential change in direction. Following the hearing, the couple took a canoe trip around Yellowstone Lake. The quotas may have been reinstated, but laws aiming to slash wolf populations in Montana and Idaho were still on the books. Smith knew that his words carried weight in the Northern Rockies. He thought hard on whether he should stick it out a little longer.
Though he managed to hold onto his flying and winter study captures until the very end, the fieldwork and research that gave him purpose had been subsumed in recent years. “I had become a supervisor and administrator and a bureaucrat,” Smith said. “More and more of my job became keeping the show on the road, and less and less biology, ecology.” As he and his wife took in Yellowstone’s late summer beauty, Smith decided the time had come. Three months later, he retired.
“This is really the first time in 44 years I haven’t had my finger on the button,” Smith told me. “And you know, that’s hard. I’m still thinking about what that looks like.”
Just as the loss of a longtime leader can disrupt the most experienced pack, the loss of Doug Smith rattled Yellowstone’s tight-knit core of wolf researchers. “It was hard for us to even bring up really,” Cassidy said. The park’s 55th winter study was just gearing up and the project had lost its most seasoned darter: counting Smith, there were only two.
Smith was uneasy when their paper finally published. The concluding paragraphs called for a “renewed interest in interagency collaboration … defined by compromise and based on science.” To the layperson, the language would appear inoffensive, but Smith knew it would ruffle feathers. He worried he’d be seen as coaching his former colleagues from the sidelines. That was not his intent. As usual, he was looking to start a conversation. “I think it’s critical,” he said. Smith is not done with wolves — far from it. He’s itching to get back in the field, somewhere new perhaps. “Credit is not what I’m after,” he said. After a lifetime of studying wolves — and people — he still has questions. He’d like to find some answers. “I’m interested,” he said. “That’s what I’m after.”