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In This Wolf Man, There Are Enduring Echoes Of Aldo
July 29, 2021
In This Wolf Man, There Are Enduring Echoes Of Aldo
Greater Yellowstone-based scientist Mike Phillips receives Leopold Award, highest honor given by The Wildlife Society for having an impactful career in conservation
Wolf conservation has have been a big part of Phillips' life. In 1989, he (in hat) and field colleague Michael Morse gently handle the first red wolf born in the wild. Photo courtesy Mike Phillips
by Todd Wilkinson
Up in the Far US North, he spent months studying grizzlies on the tundra, sleeping out in a tent on nights when the summer sun barely dipped below the horizon. On the other side of the thin wall of polyester, he could hear massive brown bears walking close—the shadows they cast so near he smelled their breath. As part of his own curiosity, he studied 200 wolf skulls, discovering that a high percentage had broken jaws with missing teeth or cranium cracks where moose hooves had delivered concussive blows to lobos. "It's not easy making a living with your mouth," he says.
In northern Minnesota he would be out all night, driving a 100-mile route on backroads, stopping along the way to howl, listening for replies as a way of doing a wolf census. Later, he would lead the return of imperiled species to ranch lands owned by Ted Turner—one of those animals, the Bolson tortoise, had roots in the post-Pleistocene but hadn’t been present in the Southwest US for millennia though a dwindling population persisted in Mexico.
His most famous contribution was being handpicked to carry out the historic reintroduction of 31 gray wolves in the mid 1990s to Yellowstone National Park, where they ironically had been exterminated.
"As a graduate student studying grizzly bear behavior and habitat use in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I was able to stand on the ground that most likely had never seen human feet. Given that humanity dominates nearly all of the planet’s terrestrial nooks and crannies, standing on a piece of Earth like that for the first time is a difficult and most humbling experience."
These are just a few of the experiences that serve as mileposts in a career Mike Phillips reflects upon as having three very different yet interwoven parts—that of field scientist grinding out research, day by day, on public land; helping to write a new chapter for wildlife conservation on private land, proving that saving imperiled species need not be a major burden for property owners; and then having a lengthy stint as an elected public official in the Montana legislature.
In July, Phillips was informed that he would receive the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award, the top honor bestowed by The Wildlife Society, one of the most respected professional organizations in the realm of wildlife science. While, as a conservation biologist, he's been in the center of discussions about endangered species, the theoretical concept of "rewilding," and drafting recovery plans for a number of different species you may have never heard of, foremost he is best known for his work with wolves.
In addition to Phillips' field assignments in the Southeast and Yellowstone, he was an advisor in emphasizing the real natural history of wolves, and sharing lessons learned from Yellowstone, before Coloradans went to the polls in 2020 and passed a resolution that compels the state game agency to restore wolves there in 2023. He also, this spring, helped orchestrate Mexican gray wolves being released on Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch in New Mexico.
One of those who nominated Phillips for the Leopold Award is the eminent Minnesota-based wolf biologist L. David Mech, whom Phillips regards as a mentor. “Mike’s contributions to wildlife management and conservation have been major and lasting,” Mech wrote.
“This is really a group award, no doubt in my mind, reflective of the great people I’ve been fortunate to work with in every phase of my career,” Phillips told Mountain Journal. "And I have gratitude to my family, whose patient support has enabled me to do what I do."
(Described as "scene painting with words," it's a book that every Mountain Journal reader ought to crack open, if they have a sincere interest in understanding why Greater Yellowstone is extraordinary as a still-inact yet perpetually threatened ecosystem. Many ranchers, farmers and forest managers, those who think holistically and are involved with re-generative agriculture, use it as a vital reference point).
Phillips says A Sand County Almanac is timely as ever and Leopold endures just as the principles spelled out in the US Constitution and the great thinkers of ancient civilizations—including those of indigenous cultures in America— hold undeniable wisdom that transcends ages. Phillips believes that callously accepting that species loss is a cost of progress is unacceptable.
"Mike is a pioneer in the field of wildlife restoration...," writes his colleague in conservation biology Dr. Carlos Carroll, director of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research. "He has, like Leopold, shown continuing creativity in working with diverse groups to find solutions to problems that hinder the stewardship of wildlife."
Perhaps the most quotable book ever written about issues that today reside at the center of debates over environmental protection, A Sand County Almanac was, in its day, considered radical, for it challenged such things as the national government campaign to eradicate certain species as a form of predator control, it scrutinized the mindset of industrial logging, farming, human development and even the footprint of outdoor recreation, and laid out a picture of why having unfragmented landscapes and protecting species matters. Read the MoJo interview with Leopold expert and biographer Curt Meine by clicking here.
What once was considered radical is today considered bedrock.
Some of Leopold's words that Phillips uses as a guiding light:
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
“If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
"To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part."
"Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal."
"In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial."
Not long ago, Phillips agreed to an interview on a wide range of topics, from wolves to working forTurner, to climate change and his own frustrations with the Montana legislature and its stubborn refusal to base important natural resource decisions on the best available science.
MIKE PHILLIPS: Because the award stands as testimony to a professional life—Leopold’s— well led and one given to others I greatly admire who have been fearless and strove to emulate his insistence that that we behold Nature with highest respect for what she is constantly trying to teach us.
TW: Your friend, E.O. Wilson, has popularized the term, biophilia, which speaks to an innate human urge to want to interact with other life forms and having a reverential attitude acknowledging their rightful place in the world, the same as our own. Others simply think of biophilia as our common love for nature, which is purely evident in children before they are taught to adopt biases about what species are allegedly "good" and others "bad." How and where did biophilia take hold in you and are there few seminal experiences that stand out?
PHILLIPS: I was gripped by biophilia as a 10-year old boy hunting quail with my father in southern Illinois. Without fail, throughout my life I have been more comfortable in natural settings than humanized settings, excepting baseball fields. This comfort was cemented when as a graduate student studying grizzly bear behavior and habitat use in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I was able to stand on the ground that most likely had never seen human feet. Given that humanity dominates nearly all of the planet’s terrestrial nooks and crannies, standing on a piece of Earth like that for the first time is a difficult and most humbling experience.
TW: You noted that receiving the Leopold Award is a double honor because some of the earlier recipients were friends of yours or people you admire. Tell us about some of those.
PHILLIPS: I’ve known several previous Leopold winners, including Durward Allen (1969), Glen Sanderson (1992), John Craighead (1998), Dave Klein (1999), and Paul Krausman (2006). But it was Dave Mech (1993) who had the greatest personal impact on my career. He gave me my first shot at being a wildlife biologist in 1980 when he hired me to work on his wolf/prey study in northeastern Minnesota on the edge of the Boundary Waters. He later spoke in my favor for leading the red wolf restoration effort for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1980s and then the Yellowstone wolf restoration in the early 1990s. Without Dave’s support, there is no telling the direction my career would have taken.
TW: Your assignment in Yellowstone with wolves—restoring the species and giving them a second chance—was momentous and ranks right up there in the legacy of significant American conservation achievements. It was bold and controversial. Opponents predicted disasters for livestock and wildlife that didn't play out. Science has been vindicated. But let’s back up. You mentioned a different wolf project in the Southeastern US—one that had high hopes but ultimately did not meet its full objectives.
PHILLIPS: I led the red wolf restoration effort for the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1986 through1994 when I left the project to lead the Yellowstone wolf effort. The red wolf project was truly historic all its own, as it represented the first attempt in the history of mankind to restore a carnivore species that had been declared extinct in the wild. When I left in1994 the project was on a solid trajectory with the nascent population of red wolves growing to 100 and beyond. But there was an inkling brewing as we began to detect hybridization between red wolves and coyotes. That inkling became a resolute problem within the decade and has persisted through present. That, combined with what many consider mismanagement by senior officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service over the last 25 years has put the recovery effort on very uncertain footing.
TW: Why do we bother bringing species back from the brink or give them a second chance in places where they were extirpated? Many Americans would argue it has no direct relevance to their daily lives. What's your answer to those questions. Leopold wrote this: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, 'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
PHILLIPS: Restoration of imperiled species is a direct and effective response to the extinction crisis, and as such should motivate everyone everywhere. We are now firmly in the grip of the 6th great extinction crisis to envelope the planet over the last 500 million years. Notably, the crisis is humanity’s most pressing yet least attended problem. Its redress should matter to everyone everywhere. Why? If you are a person of faith the crisis should matter because how can you love the Creator and not love the Creation. And how can anyone stand by and watch something they love needlessly destroyed. Or alternatively, if you are a secular humanist and you believe that rather than faith what matters most is logic, data, empiricism, then the crisis should motivate action.
TW: You’ve had the opportunity to converse with the leading thinkers on the health of the Earth’s biosphere and you've mentioned that the level of concern is grave but the public doesn't yet realize what's happening. Between climate change affecting the atmosphere, and oxygen levels declining in a warming ocean while at the same time ocean acidity is rising, and with species being erased largely by human activity, we are dangerously close to seeing ecosystems unravel.
PHILLIPS:The best available science makes clear that the fate of humanity has always been and will always be decided by the ecological health of local landscapes the world over. And yet, the crisis makes clear those landscapes are not the least bit healthy. No matter who you are, the extinction crisis and efforts to halt its advance should matter.
The morning that wolves were restored to Yellowstone National Park in a project that made global conservation history. Against the backdrop of several lawsuits filed to block the reintroduction, it proceeded. People come from around the world to see wolves in Yellowstone and the effort is cited as an important precedent and reason for bringing species back. The photo also is filled with symbolism. Sixty years after humans deliberately annihilated wolves in Yellowstone, the top wildlife managers in the country decided to humbly hand carry a crate with a wolf inside to the Lamar Valley. Those in the photo are, left to right, Phillips, Jim Evanoff, the late Mollie Beattie (then director of the Fish and Wildlife Service), Mike Finley (Yellowstone superintendent) and Bruce Babbitt (US Interior Secretary). Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
TW: Now that you've had a quarter century to reflect on wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone with facts that silenced the hysteria of naysayers—yet given what happened in 2021 with state legislatures and governors in Montana and Idaho sanctioning potential re-decimation of wolf populations in these states—what's so hard for people to accept about wolves?
PHILLIPS: People struggle to accept that which they do not understand. Since many folks have only a rudimentary understanding of the importance of wild, self-willed nature they tend to deeply discount or set aside altogether important ecological processes like predation. From there it is a small step to discount or set aside altogether the importance of predators like the wolf. The general ecological illiteracy of far too many legislators does not serve this country well.
TW: You’re a scientist but, like journalists, you push back against distortion of biological facts and contentions that do not hold up to scrutiny. What’s the most troubling pertaining to wolves?
PHILLIPS: The most egregious claims about wolves are that they represent a threat to human safety, the livestock industry, and the recreational, big game killing industry. They do not. The best available science, the most reliable knowledge gained over the last 50 years, makes clear that coexisting with wolves is a straightforward affair that requires only a modicum of accommodation.
TW: After a few years in Yellowstone, you were tapped by Ted Turner to launch a new initiative, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, that has demonstrated how private landowners can aid recovery of imperiled species. Now with Turner's grown children and grandchildren involved, it's also an example of how families can come together around a shared interest in wildlife. What was its genesis and what are a few of your successes that delivered the most satisfaction?
PHILLIPS: Not long after meeting Ted in Yellowstone in 1995 it became clear that we shared a determination to magnify the importance of private land for conserving biological diversity with an emphasis on imperiled species. From there it was a small step to join forces to give rise to the Turner Endangered Species Fund and Turner Biodiversity Divisions. Since inception, both have implemented historic restoration efforts on behalf of many imperiled species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast, prairie dog as a means to improve the chances of survival for the critically endangered black-footed ferret, creating refugia for imperiled westslope cutthroat trout and Rio Grande cutthroat trout, gopher tortoise, bolson tortoise, Chupadera springsnail, Chiricahua leopard frog, desert bighorn sheep, northern Rocky Mountains wolf, and Mexican gray wolf.
TW: Some influential people who own land have been inspired by these projects. They've approached you and Ted and members of your team, seeking your advice. Is what you’re doing replicable?
PHILLIPS: All these projects operate at a sufficient scale to generate meaningful ecological consequences and advance range wide recovery of the species. The projects make clear that private lands can serve as beachheads of security for imperiled species, even controversial species like the prairie dog and gray wolf.
The moment Ted Turner stepped forward and peered through a spotting scope to see the place where the first wolves, dispersing from Yellowstone, had been feeding on a winter-weakened elk. Phillips had phoned Turner and informed him that wolves were back on the ranch, fulfilling the media mogul's desire to have his property be a home for every wildlife species that originally inhabited that southwest corner of the Gallatin Valley. After Turner received Phillips' call, he headed for Montana immediately to bear witness. Today, the Flying D is home to one of the largest wolf packs in America and its presence has not had a major negative impact on Turner's private bison or with public elk that live on the ranch and pass through it. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
TW: Next you entered politics, and were elected to a couple of terms each in the Montana House and Senate. In fact, you are the first Leopold Award recipient ever to hold elected office. What drove you to run and what did you learn, particularly with regard to natural resource policy as it’s discussed and debated in Helena?
PHILLIPS: I was motivated to seek elected office by my belief that conservation science needs to be applied, otherwise it is useless. I thought that a good way to help apply that science was earning a seat at decision-making tables by winning elections. By science I mean nothing more than the systematic accumulation of reliable knowledge.
TW: That sounds sensible. But were you a bit too idealistic in believing that science would hold cachet among colleagues in Montana who readily dismiss it if it doesn’t confirm their personal views of how nature really works?
PHILLIPS: Sadly, as a 14-year legislator, I learned that far too many elected officials are ignorant of science—how it is best assembled and how it is best applied—and quite comfortable making important, sometimes life and death decisions based on unreliable knowledge. By doing so they belittle the importance of their service and shortchange Montanans.
"Sadly, as a 14-year legislator, I learned that far too many elected officials are ignorant of science—how it is best assembled and how it is best applied—and quite comfortable making important, sometimes life and death decisions based on unreliable knowledge. By doing so they belittle the importance of their service and shortchange Montanans."
TW: Many believe we were forever advancing in our ability to wisely co-exist with nature but legislation that promotes the decimation of wolves and killing of grizzlies, written by elected officials in Montana and Idaho and signed into law by Republican governors, has, on a national scale, given the states a backward reputation.
PHILLIPS: And deservedly so, the same with climate change. Other states are moving forward and embracing a more enlightened future that will benefit citizens. I believe that some states in our part of the West are living in the past and that they're falling behind when they could be out front leading.
TW: Leopold, along with people like biologists Adolph and Olaus Murie who were based in Jackson Hole, dared to call out America’s unenlightened attitudes toward predator-control targeting bears, wolves, and cougars.
TW: You have been a scientist taking note of animal behavior and as a politician pondering both the noble an ignoble conduct of our own species. What will it take for us to rally together, change our consumptive behavior and confront the existential challenges, such as loss of biodiversity and climate change?
PHILLIPS: A new relationship with Mother Earth based on regard and restoration rather than disregard and exploitation.
TW: I've seen you, over the years, read one of Leopold's most moving passages about how he felt after gratuitously killing a mother wolf and her pups in the Southwest, not far in fact from Turner's Ladder Ranch and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. It is one that always causes people to pause because it forces us as individuals to reflect and ponder how, through our own indifference or silence, destructive things are happening to wildlife and future generations will pin the ownership of inaction on us. For readers who don't know the Leopold passage, would you share it?
PHILLIPS: He wrote, "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
TW: Since you were honored with the Leopold Award, what do you believe Aldo Leopold might be telling us today were he alive?
PHILLIPS: He would posit, as he did decades ago, that “our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
And then he would add: “We best get busy because time is short for developing tools sufficient for caring for rather than spoiling land.”
TW: You're in your 60s but a long way from retiring, if it's even possible for you to contemplate. What's next?
PHILLIPS: I’m more interested in what I’m going to do rather than what I’ve done. The next at bat is always important. All of us need to be willing to step up to the plate.
NOTE: Phillips has served as a mentor to young people interested in science careers and helped colleagues find opportunities to do remarkable work, who could very well become Leopold Award winners in the future. He says there are plenty of outstanding women in the biological sciences who have not received the recognition they deserve. One of them is wolf biologist Diane Boyd and another is Val Asher who leads wolf research on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch outside of Bozeman. Enjoy the short Mountain Journal film below produced by Daniel Glick and in which Phillips is interviewed.. (If you're looking for a talented filmmaker we recommend that you check out Glick's work).