OnEarth

By TODD WILKINSON, OnEarth magazine

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 wrote this article for OnEarth Magazine. He 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 writing a biography about media mogul turned bison rancher and environmental humanitarian Ted Turner.

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