Lion King

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

Lion King
Keeping it wild by making the world safe for predators

What Goodall and Fossey did for primates, a lone biologist has done for Canis lupus

The alpha female in an overwhelmingly macho pack of animal researchers, 44-year-old Diane Boyd may be the most astute wolf tracker on Earth. Now a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist based in Helena, Montana, she witnessed the first tentative return of the wolf to the American West—a full decade and a half before the much-heralded Yellowstone reintroduction.

In 1979, when Boyd arrived in a ramshackle cabin bordering Glacier National Park, a few phantom wolves were stealing across the Canadian border and denning in the park, eventually forming packs that would swell to northern Montana's current 50-plus wolf population. Armed with binoculars, cross-country skis, and an uncanny gift for divining the spoor of Canis lupus, the young University of Montana grad student was the first to document how wolves recolonize terrain. "A wolf's every step, pause, scent mark, and bed," she has written, "are waiting to be read like an adventure novel."

Boyd has been called the Jane Goodall of wolves because her patient observations have led to an understanding of packs and profoundly influenced reintroduction projects from New Mexico to New England. But unlike Goodall, who has largely turned her attention to advocacy work, Boyd remains steadfastly committed to working in the field. While her passion is beyond question—her imitation howls are so authentic they're often answered by genuine ones—her work has never been freighted with the sanctimony that typically clouds the subject of wolves. Her motto: "Data don't lie." She has an intuitive sense of their movements because she stalks the same prey, hunting deer and elk for food. Ranchers and hunters respect her despite her government job, impressed with her pragmatism and her bush skills. "The militant crusaders don't do much good," the native Minnesotan says, her self-described Fargo accent as sharp as an ice auger. "I'd rather listen."

As a graduate student in wildlife biology at the University of Montana in the early 1960s, Maurice Hornocker was struggling to make a name for himself. Felis concolor—aka mountain lion, cougar, puma—was struggling, too: reviled, bounty-hunted, and dwindling.

Hornocker spent ten winters sleeping in the snow, tracking cougars across the Idaho wilderness with hounds and radio collars. His study showed that lions live within territories that are passed on when an older cat dies, and it debunked two widespread myths: that cougars would overpopulate if not hunted and that the cats are a major threat to deer and elk. (Culling the sick and the old can actually promote healthy populations.) In magazine articles and television specials, Hornocker softened public perceptions of cougars; he helped lobby western states to repeal their bounties; and as a result, mountain lions may be as abundant in the West today as they were when Europeans arrived.

"All the things that we admire, they are," Hornocker says. "Intelligent, athletic, independent...adaptable. This is an animal that can live in the desert, in alpine regions, in a rain forest." And on the edges of suburbia—where humans have built homes in prime cougar habitat. Seven people have died from cougar attacks over the last decade, and even Hornocker thinks it's time to reintroduce limited hunting in California, where it's outlawed.

In the 1970s and '80s, Hornocker pioneered radio-tracking techniques in his international studies of bobcats, lynx, wolverines, jaguars, leopards, and tigers, vastly expanding our knowledge of predators. He's created a private, nonprofit institute, based at the University of Idaho, that specializes in decade-long studies of carnivores. At age 68, Hornocker continues to educate the public; his photographs of endangered Siberian tigers, taken during field research in Russia's Far East, will appear in Peter Matthiessen's forthcoming book, Tigers in the Snow, due in November. "I've always been proud of my photography," Hornocker explains, "but I've been preoccupied with my science.''

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web