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She Runs With The Wolves

Laurie Lyman keeps her eye on imperiled wolves.
A tale of devotion from Yellowstone National Park

Laurie Lyman is perched in the middle of a harmonic convergence. A lilt of wolf song is wafting from a broken line of mountains in front of her, answered by a howling soloist on the flanks of Specimen Ridge, about a mile to the south.

She is bundled beneath a layer of goose down, a hat with ear flaps, and footwear that looks like an astronaut's. As she tries to locate the canid clans in her spotting scope, she explains in a whisper that the larger chorus belongs to the Druid Peak pack. "Let's listen," she says, "and see if members of the Agate Creek pack reply."

Lyman is one of the most highly regarded wolf trackers in Yellowstone National Park. And, at age 58, she serves as a lesson to anyone carrying an AARP card that real adventure still lies ahead: until six years ago, she was a grade school teacher in suburban San Diego. Now, says Rick McIntyre, a biologist with the park's wolf project, "Laurie is a better spotter than I am." In fact, he adds, she is "one of the best in the world" in terms of her ability to observe and interpret the subtleties of wolf behavior in the wild.

Hauling around a spyglass mounted on a tripod nearly as tall as she is, Lyman is out every day, logging her observations in a field journal. Each evening, she e-mails the day's highlights to McIntyre and other researchers. Her work is unpaid, just a hobby one might say, but McIntyre and wildlife advocates consider it especially valuable at a time when federal agencies are struggling to fund vital research.

On this frigid morning the Agate Creek pack remains elusive. But from signals emitted by the wolves' radio collars, Lyman knows the pack is on the move, so she will be too. She'll spend the next few hours driving her Subaru station wagon along an undulating road in search of the best vantage points for spotting wolves. From there she will record notes about who's mating with whom, who's leading hunts, which wolves are helping to rear newborn pups, and which packs are fighting with other wolves­-or running up against other deadly predators, namely grizzlies.

Last fall, when Montana wildlife officials allowed the state's first wolf hunt in the better part of a century, Lyman realized that one of the wolves killed was the alpha female of the Cottonwood pack, a regular in the valley. With her deep knowledge of wolf behavior and pack dynamics, Lyman knew the loss of 527, as the fallen female was known, would inevitably lead to the death of others in her pack. What appeared on paper to be the death of a single wolf was in fact much more.

"Her shooting and the subsequent loss of others have caused chaos among the wolf populations of the Lamar Valley," Lyman says. "After [527] was shot, her pack splintered," she adds, motioning toward the location of their former territory. When an alpha wolf is killed, packs are often left aimless or killed off by rival packs, she explains. Sometimes individuals disperse to establish new territories.

Immediately after she noticed that 527 had been shot, Lyman sent out an e-mail alerting fellow wolf watchers and advocates. Her message intensified an already heated campaign to close the hunt. Hunters had taken out 13 wolves in southwestern Montana, surpassing the government's quota of 12. The state suspended the hunt and resolved to revise its rules before this year's hunt.

"These amateur wolf watchers are giving us information that allows us to understand a bigger picture," says Lisa Upson, a wildlife advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which, along with other environmental groups, filed a lawsuit in June 2009 to stop the federal government from stripping the wolves of their protection under the Endangered Species Act.

If successful, there will be no hunt this year at all. Lyman's contributions are vital, Upson says, because they provide "a special kind of knowledge that doesn't come through in government data."

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Todd Wilkinson has been an environmental journalist for 25 years. A contributor to many national magazines and newspapers, he is the author of the critically-acclaimed book "Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War On Nature and Truth." He is writin... READ MORE >

laurie is a great and uniqe indivitual her knowledge about wolfs is trmendous what she does is surley a labor of love keep it going laurie

I have had the pleasure to spend time around Lori and have learned so much about BOTH sides of this fight. She is a strong advocate for these amazing animals and a great teacher as well.. Glad to see she is getting some recognition! Thanks for everything you do Lori!!

Laurie is one of the most dedicated wolf watchers that ever lived. I remember the first time we met and I asked do you know if there are any wolves around here. With a big smile she set down her scope and said take a look in here. Wow are those wolves! Yes, she said and proceeded to explain what pack they were and a quick history of them. She is the wolf ambassador of Yellowstone..

Laurie is a passionate, knowledgeable wildlife enthusiast. We appreciate all the expertize she shares with wolf watchers. Trips to YNP are always more enjoyable because of her. Thanks Laurie!!!

Laurie is a great ambassador for The Yellowstone Natioal Park Wolf Project. Her devotion to the wolves and Yellowstone National Park helps new time watchers and veteran watchers attain a new level of understanding of the compex wolf program. We are glad to see her get recognition for all her efforts.

Hmmmmmm, I wonder if she will guide me to find one for my wall...? Maybe she should go into a side business.

She has my dream job. Wolves are the most spiritual animal on earth, not to mention the most beautiful. Fantastic article

I say kill them all..

Thank heavens for volunteers like this! I salute you for what you are doing to help the park and to help the wolves.

This is a noble and valiant effort on behalf of the wof population. I'd loce an opportunity to work with her. I too am from San Diego, and have been a (silent) wolf advocate for many years. The tragedy is that the US government primarily listens to the ranchers - they are not always right in their vision of the wolves. Thanks for her efforts!! Applause.

Great to see Laurie here. Her work has been invaluable to people trying to protect wolves in the Yellowstone area. People can make a difference!!!

I am a So. Calif. artist who was so touched by Laurie's article in the LA Times last year about the loss of 527F, and further inspired by Christine Balesta's journal piece entitled "Looking for 527", that I decided to do a body of work on this Wolf. I visited Yellowstone shortly after the wolf restoration program began so have a growing appreciation for those who study and track the wolves.

(Please excuse my lack of statistical data for my response, but you can easily yahoo / google the info and verify the impact of wolves on other species.) I believe that hunting wolves, unchecked and almost to the point of extinction in the 1800s, was the ultimate example of humans having no understanding, compassion or caring for the species God put on this earth. When I learned that wolves were being reintroduced to Yellowstone, I thought it was a great step toward restoring an integral part of wild America.. However, I incorrectly (ass / u / me d) that educated federal and state biologists would be allowed to monitor the packs, determine their impact and most importantly, would be allowed to determine the best methods to control the wolves, as needed. That has not been the case. Instead, special interest groups have lobbied, sued and presented biased and / or inaccurate information to sway public opinion and pressure political & judicial action, preventing common sense & science based control of wolves. Consequently, wolves have far surpassed their targeted population and are spreading. As the packs grow and expand, so does their predation on elk, deer, bison and other speciies. The Yellowstone elk herd has dropped drastically and continues to do so. I don't understand why people want to "save the wolf" at the expense of other species, which do not prey on each other or other species. If you want a truly balance ecosystem, control the wolves via licensed & quota monitored hunting. I'm not advocating a "kill them all" mentality, just controlling them so other species can also thrive. To let the wolf population spread unchecked, is irresponsible and cruel to other species. The calf recruitment / survival ratio in wolf inhabited areas of Yellowstone is so low, that biologists state that those elk herds will cease to grow, eventually dwindling to unsustainbable numbers. There are simply not be enough calves surviving to sustain herd populations. The combination of natural mortality AND the added wolf predation will simply killed off those herds. What has been accomplished by allowing that to happen? Come on people, wolves hamstring, pull down and and eat their victims alive. I understand that it's part of nature, but put some checks and balances on wolves and let the biologists do their jobs. You can't have an unchecked wolf population...and you know it! I suspect that the fight to limit wolve control is part of a step by step process toward another, unstated goal. Allow a BALANCED ecosystem by controlling wolf populations. Thanks, Rory