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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wolf Tourism

Air Date: Week of

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has brought cries of joy from some, and howls of protest from others. Travis Bullock was on of those opposed, but now the wolves are paying some of his bills. His business of leading hunters into the back country has expanded to include parties of wolf watchers. Jyl Hoyt reports from Boise.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. When gray wolves were transplanted to Yellowstone National Park in the central Idaho wilderness during the past 2 winters, most Americans supported the program. But surveys also showed that many ranchers and hunters, especially in Idaho, opposed bringing back wolves. Now a small but significant change is taking place. Some of those most vehemently opposed to the reintroduction are finding that wolves bring some unexpected benefits to the region. From member station KBSU in Boise, Jyl Hoyt explains.

(Flowing water)

HOYT: An icy creek threads across a mountain meadow full of thigh-high grasses that wave in the afternoon breeze. Lush meadows like this one lace Idaho's Frank Church River of no return wilderness where outfitter Travis Bullock has spent much of his 27 years.

BULLOCK: Probably one of my number one loves is to be back here in this wilderness area, and I love it to death.

(A horse snorts)

HOYT: Every fall Mr. Bullock guides hunters looking for elk and bighorn sheep through the pine forests that border these meadows. Now, for the first time, this swarthy outfitter with a handlebar mustache is leading tourists who hope to spot some of the 35 gray wolves the US Fish and Wildlife Service transplanted here. It's a big change for him. He used to be a vocal opponent of wolf reintroduction. As he saddles his horse, Travis Bullock admits watching wolves doesn't exactly fit his character.

BULLOCK: I'm a redneck, and I'm proud of it. I got a lot of friends that tease me about that, and that's just fine. I consider myself a cowboy sometimes. But at the same time I also consider myself a public person, a public servant, and I really enjoy doing that.

(To tourists: "Heads up. Let's go." The horse snorts.)

CONNINGTON: My name's Mike Connington and I'm from Bergenfield, New Jersey, which is about 10 miles outside New York City. I sponsor wolves and that's why I'm out here today.

ZIMMERMAN: My name is Margaret Zimmerman. I think a lot of people on the East Coast have the same feeling that Mike and I do. That it's important to conserve and to protect our environment, and part of that is bringing the wolf back.

(The horse snorts)

HOYT: Ms. Zimmerman and Mr. Connington are among 8 people that Travis Bullock has outfitted on mules and horses for this 5-day trip. He has a lot more trips planned.

(The horse snorts)

HOYT: The trips came about because of an encounter with his former nemesis, Suzanne Laverty of the Boise-based Wolf Education and Research Center. Ms. Laverty suggested to the outfitter that if he were smart he'd capitalize on the wolf's popularity. Despite their different feelings about wolves the 2 now work together leading trips.

(A woman laughs)

LAVERTY: I guess I, I kinda like him. [Laughs]

BULLOCK: Half of Suzanne's body is covered in hair, she likes wolves so much.

LAVERTY: [Laughs] Shut up, Travis. [Laughs]

BULLOCK: I think she's half wolf herself.

(A crackling fire)

HOYT: As they chow down huge steaks and Idaho spuds in front of the campfire, the 2 laugh together like old friends. It wasn't always this way, says Suzanne Laverty, opening her journal.

LAVERTY: And somewhere in here, Travis Bullock. The word butthead I know was around here somewhere, because I remember sitting here thinking golly, he was so stubborn. Last summer when I was at the Western Idaho Fair, he came into the booth and he -- [pitches voice to tenor] I like wildlife but I think this wolf project is just for the birds. No, it shouldn't be happening in my state. [Voice back to normal] You know, it's like, well, why?

HOYT: Mr. Bullock worried wolves would eat too many bighorn sheep and other wildlife, which could hurt his outfitting business. But Ms. Laverty convinced him that there was something in it for him.

BULLOCK: Business money. And I should -- I shouldn't sound so selfish in that way. I wanted to get into this.

HOYT: Mr. Bullock hopes that guiding tourists who are anxious to see and hear wolves will eventually generate half his income.

(Campfire. Fade to radio being tuned over static)

HOYT: The next day, along a ridge, Ms. Laverty scans various frequencies on telemetry equipment, trying to locate wolves that were fitted with radio collars during their reintroduction. She needs to count exactly how many new pups were born this year.

LAVERTY: Maybe 8 litters in the entire state of Idaho in one year. The reintroduction's been very successful.

HOYT: But it still faces a lot of local opposition. Ms. Laverty was shot at once. Her organization still gets lots of hate mail. Mr. Bullock expects to get some grief, too.

BULLOCK: Yeah, when I first started I was afraid that I would take some flack, and there's a good chance I still will. There's still a lot of sentiment against wolves in Idaho.

(Paper being unfolded)

HOYT: By the third day the group has seen herds of elk and deer as well as moose and bear. But still no wolves.

(Unfolding continues)

HOYT: Travis Bullock unfolds a map and plans the next day's ride.

BULLOCK: We'll come up here and come to the west.


BULLOCK: Up one of these 2 drainages.

LAVERTY: Okay. Right there will be a great spot to do some tracking. Awesome.

BULLOCK: It's gonna be fun.

(Laverty laughs)

HOYT: After a few days in the wilderness tracking wolves, Mr. Bullock is starting to see more than dollar signs.

LAVERTY: Yeah. More than one. Yeah, there's more than one down there.

BULLOCK: You serious?

LAVERTY: Yeah. Yeah.

BULLOCK: This is cool.

LAVERTY: This is cool. [Laughs] Let's go.

HOYT: On the fourth day, the group finally hears wolves howling in the distance. Too far away for a microphone to pick up. Suzanne Laverty wears a big grin.

LAVERTY: Sounds like we got some high ones and some low ones together, so adults and maybe pups with them. Yeah, I think we're onto something today.


HOYT: The group heads down the ridge, trying to get closer to the wolf pack. Teacher Denise DeClaire talks excitedly about how she'll share her experience with her sixth grade class in Gainesville, Florida.

DeCLAIRE: Margaret and Mike and myself are indicative of people on the East Coast who feel the lure of going to Montana or Wyoming or Idaho, you know, we dream about it like some westward movement.

HOYT: Ms. DeClaire is not alone. Tourism is Idaho's third largest economy. Two recent studies found wolf tourism could bring up to $20 million a year to the region.


HOYT: Back at camp, Suzanne Laverty sits quietly on the meadow's edge, thinking about the role her new friend, Travis Bullock, plays in the changing American west.

LAVERTY: What Travis is doing is answering the question that's been really hard to answer to rural citizens who have been opposed to having wolves come back. And that is, what good are wolves? Travis can answer now, they're helping me make a living. And that's something that the people he lives with can relate to. And all of a sudden they have a way of actually valuing wolves, which will help the wolves survive in the long run.

(Campfire. Fade to wolf howls -- by humans)

HOYT: Throughout the trip the group has imitated wolves howling, hoping the predators will respond.

(Howls continue)

HOYT: At the last campfire, Travis Bullock, for the first time, joins in. After 5 days in the wild his conversion may be nearly complete.

LAVERTY: Travis, we've never heard you howl so low before.


LAVERTY: Come on. Come on, this is the time.

(The group urges him on)

BULLOCK: All I do is one pitch because I'm afraid I'm going to throw a vocal cord out if I do anything else.

(Human howling continues)

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt.



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