Montana’s Diane Boyd: The Jane Goodall of wolves
KALISPELL, Mont. — In 1979, Diane Boyd left her native Minnesota and headed west to begin tracking the first radio-collared gray wolf from Canada to recolonize the Western U.S., where humans had effectively eliminated the species by the 1930s through hunting, poisoning and habitat loss. Boyd, a 24-year-old wildlife biology graduate student at University of Montana, was fueled by optimistic idealism and boundless energy. When she pulled up to her new home, deep in northwestern Montana’s rugged North Fork Flathead River valley, it was apparent she would need both.
“It was like, ‘Wow,”’ Boyd recalls of seeing the cabin, which had no plumbing, electricity or means of communicating with the outside world. “I’d spent a lot of time outdoors, but this was true isolation.”
Though wolves had been extirpated statewide, reports of sightings and shootings started trickling in during the 1960s and ’70s, leading University of Montana professor Bob Ream to launch the Wolf Ecology Project in 1973, the same year that Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves were listed under the Endangered Species Act. It was through the Wolf Ecology Project that researcher Joe Smith trapped a female wolf, dubbed Kishinena, on April 4, 1979, in the North Fork drainage along the northwestern edge of Glacier National Park.
From a formal scientific standpoint, the story of gray wolf recovery in the Western U.S. starts with Kishinena, and nobody is better suited to tell it than Boyd, who would study and live among wolves, beginning with Kishinena and her descendant “Magic Pack,” for the better part of two decades, mostly without running water or power, and at times without funding. As a veritable Jane Goodall of wolves, her work has been widely cited and led to national attention, with Sports Illustrated profiling her in a 1993 feature entitled, “The Woman Who Runs with the Wolves.”
Now, nearly four decades after she first arrived in Montana and following years of non-wolf work, Boyd has orbited back to her professional origins with her new role as wolf management and carnivore specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 1. She brings a uniquely qualified long-view perspective to a public discussion that often gets bogged down in short-sighted squabbling. This is a woman, after all, who still melts snow or treks to the river for water. She’s patient.
“I’ve come completely full circle,” Boyd, now 62, said from her Kalispell office in January. “This is where I want to be.”
Boyd grew up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area. Her father was a hunter and outdoorsman, and he passed down a love of nature to his daughter. As a little girl, Boyd would play in a marshy expanse she called “The Swamp.” Though hardly wilderness by Montana standards, those modest wetlands set her imagination free.
“It was as wild as a kid could get in the Twin Cities,” she says. “It was my wild. For all I knew, there were wolves and panthers out there.”
The Swamp probably didn’t have any wolves, but other parts of Minnesota did. The state’s northeastern lake and sub-boreal forest region held the last remaining viable population of wild gray wolves in the lower 48. There were also wolves on Michigan’s remote Isle Royale and periodic sightings in Wisconsin, but Minnesota was the true final American frontier for the species.
“Wolves were kind of the mystery animal, the essence of what was wild,” she said.
Boyd enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s wildlife management program and, as a “starry-eyed” 18-year-old freshman, immediately began pestering L. David Mech to give her field work. Mech is one of the leading figures in modern gray wolf research and the founder of the International Wolf Center. He didn’t have much time for starry eyes. But Boyd wouldn’t be denied.
“I was like a good parasite — persist, persist, persist,” she said.
Mech finally relented and gave her a summer position. After graduating college, Boyd worked in Alaska and then accepted a trapping job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back in her home state. She wasn’t aware of a single other female trapper, in Minnesota or anywhere else.
“It was a time of huge growth for me, personally and professionally,” she said. “I gained a lot of perspective. Here I was, a girl in this male-dominated field, walking up to farmers to talk about wolves killing their livestock.”
After wrapping up her Minnesota USFWS job, Boyd enrolled in University of Montana’s wildlife biology graduate school and showed up in Missoula in September 1979 with everything she owned stuffed into her car. Ream, the founder of the Wolf Ecology Project, greeted her and let her stay at his home the first night.
“The next day, I got her signed up at the university, gave her the equipment she needed, and then she took off up the North Fork,” Ream said in a recent interview.
Ream said Boyd arrived with strong recommendations and surprisingly ample experience for a fresh college graduate. Through Ream’s Wolf Ecology Project, funded by multiple federal and state entities, Boyd and Mike Fairchild, another biologist, headed into the Flathead in search of the lost lobos.
“She was very enthusiastic, she had a good head on her shoulders, and she was a good organizer,” Ream said. “Put those things together and you have a pretty good combination.”
At the time, wolves were novel, almost mythical, and not yet a heated political football. Loggers would take photos of them and share information about sightings with Boyd. One woman who had shot a wolf up the North Fork in 1970 had apparently reconsidered her actions and implored Boyd not to harass her furry neighbors.
“They had been gone so long, there wasn’t the hatred,” Boyd said. “It’s been an amazing evolution of cultural perspective.”
Scattered sightings in the greater Glacier Park region, including on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation opposite of the North Fork, became more frequent in the 70s leading up to Kishinena’s capture. Ream started the Wolf Ecology Project to document the increasing sightings in the Rockies, the majority of which occurred in northwestern Montana. He maintained his teaching job and residence in Missoula, making his field work sporadic. Boyd and Fairchild provided the primary boots on the ground, along with other researchers and volunteers.
While Fairchild, who passed away in 1998, had a house in Kalispell, Boyd huddled up in her rudimentary cabin in a region known for brutal winters. She became part of the landscape, a resident of the wild not unlike the animals she was there to study. Her cabin in Moose City, a former homestead settlement along the Canadian border, was built in 1909. As for amenities, “it barely had walls.”
“It was very, very rustic,” Boyd said. “I shared it with mice, chipmunks, packrats, weasels and my dogs.”
Boyd melted snow or retrieved river water, boiling it on a wood stove, a way of life she would continue at a different cabin that she built later up the North Fork and still calls home.
“You learn to depend on your brain,” she said, “and not technology.”
Boyd monitored Kishinena’s movements from a distance that would not disrupt her natural behavior. She spent many of her days tracking the radio-collar signal, on foot or in her pickup, skiing or snowmobiling in the winter, and flying in airplanes. She plotted the findings on a map. Then, Kishinena, already shy and enigmatic, disappeared. The radio collar had quit transmitting. With only one wolf documented in the Flathead drainage, interest in the research declined and funding evaporated in 1982.
But around the same time, Glacier Park rangers discovered the tracks of a three-toed male wolf. It had presumably lost its toe in a trap. Those distinctive tracks merged with a familiar set: Kishinena’s. In the spring of 1982, Bruce McLellan, a biologist who had been with Smith when Kishinena was captured, located the two wolves’ litter of seven pups. But the male died the same year, leaving the pups’ future in serious doubt.
“A female with seven pups and no male, we thought they would die,” Boyd said. “But we were still seeing the tracks of eight wolves in winter. It was amazing.”
After more than a half-century of absence, a wolf pack roamed Montana’s wilderness, although it spent much of its time in Canada. Its descendants would be dubbed the Magic Pack. Yet, the research program’s funding wasn’t renewed. Rather than admit defeat, Boyd stayed in the North Fork, working at the Cyclone Lookout from 1983-1985 and doing other odd jobs to make ends meet while she continued studying the pack largely on her own dime. Ream, who says “she was pretty much on her own for a while,” helped as much as he could, providing a truck and gas.
“I worked at the lookout to feed my wolf habit,” Boyd said. “I had gotten to know them. I didn’t want to leave.”
After funding arrived in 1985, Boyd and Fairchild returned to full-time wolf research. The following year, biologists discovered that the Magic Pack was denning in Glacier National Park, the first time in over 50 years that a wolf den had been documented in the Western U.S.
In a 1986 article in Natural History magazine, Clifford Martinka, the former longtime supervisory biologist at Glacier National Park, summed up the significance of gray wolves’ return: “In reviewing the history of the park, I think this is the biggest thing that has happened here since the creation of the park itself.”
Through the rest of the ’80s into the ’90s, new packs emerged around western Montana, including in the Ninemile Valley near Missoula. Wolves were naturally recolonizing the state from Canada, and Boyd was on the front lines to document it. Meanwhile, Ream was a member of the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team, which drafted a management strategy in 1980 and revised it in 1987.
Boyd lived in the North Fork and completely immersed herself in her research until 1993, when she started work on a Ph.D. from University of Montana. For the next four years, she spent part of her time in Missoula. She finally left the North Fork for good in 1997, although she maintained her new cabin there. The original one was swept away in a 1995 flood.
Boyd and Ream were against reintroducing wolves to the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem, which occurred in 1995. They believed wolves would get there on their own, which would have been a more organic way for recovery to unfold and also far more politically palatable.
In fact, wolves had already made their way there. One was shot in Wyoming near Yellowstone Park in 1991 and another was filmed in the area prior to reintroduction. Boyd acknowledges today that reintroduction proved to be a springboard for recovery, but it did make wolves more controversial.
In the end, Boyd believes gray wolf recovery has been a towering achievement in American conservation. When Montana’s wolves were delisted in 2011, removing federal protections and transferring management to the state, the minimum wolf count statewide was 653, although the true population was higher.
“Biologically, it’s been successful beyond belief,” she said. “Sociologically, it’s still challenging.”
In 1997, Boyd went to Arizona to work for the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, which released captive-raised wolves. To Boyd, after running with wild wolves for so many years, these seemed like domestic dogs. She ditched out quickly and returned to Montana in 1998 to work under USFWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator Ed Bangs.
Then came a long period away from wolf work, besides another one-year stint under Bangs, although she remained an affiliate faculty member at UM and continued wolf research on her own. She alternated jobs with organizations such as the Prickly Pear Land Trust, Nature Conservancy and as executive director of the Bitterroot Valley’s Teller Wildlife Refuge. An avid bird hunter, she also served from 2010-2013 as an FWP upland game biologist based out of Conrad. After that gig, she retired to her North Fork cabin, which is plumbed with propane but still has no running water or electricity, and committed to an art career, painting in solitude.
“The cabin is just like the one in Moose City,” she noted, “except it’s tight and warm and there aren’t any animals living there.”
But a mournful howl kept beckoning her back to the woods: “My wolves were always in my heart.”
When FWP’s Region 1 wolf management specialist position opened up, following Kent Laudon’s departure, she saw her opportunity to answer it. Boyd took the helm in May 2016. Along with wolves, she oversees all other carnivores, such as wolverines, bobcats and mountain lions. She has been renting a house in Kalispell because a daily commute from the North Fork is unfeasible. She’s getting used to simply turning on the faucet for water.
Ream says nobody else could match Boyd’s institutional knowledge, understanding of the issues and network of connections.
“She’s the best person they could get for the job,” he said.
After all these years, Boyd hasn’t lost the childlike curiosity that decades ago first compelled her to venture into the Minnesota marsh. This past winter, she would set out alone on skis into the frozen North Fork to research wolverines, relieved to get out of the office, into the timber where she feels most at home.
Nor does she speak of wolves with any hint of professional fatigue. They remain majestic animals continually capable of astonishing her with their intelligence, their personality, their tale of redemption. There may be nothing special scientifically about a Washington wolf venturing 700 miles to central-Montana’s Judith Gap or another trekking 540 miles in seven months through all sorts of terrain, because wolves routinely make epic voyages. But in her telling, the story is shrouded in wonder.
It’s not just that she sees an incredible creature; she sees herself. Sometimes the journey ends where it should.
“This will be my last stop,” Boyd said of the FWP job. “I’m doing what I want to do. I was kind of like that wolf, moving around, trying to find what I wanted. And I found it. I’m here. I’m happy.”