Couple will share in Aspen the experience of living six years with wolf pack | SummitDaily.com

Couple will share in Aspen the experience of living six years with wolf pack

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Jim and Jamie Dutcher don't want to cram gray wolf reintroduction down the throats of anyone in Colorado, but they hope that sharing their insights on the behavior of Canis lupus helps open some minds.

The Dutchers spent six years living with multiple generations of a pack of gray wolves living in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. It was a unique project to study the animals' social behavior.

They will share what they learned Monday at 5:30 p.m. in a multimedia presentation at the Pitkin County Library community room. An exhibit of their black-and-white photographs of the wolves is on display at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Monday's event is co-presented by Explore Booksellers.

"We're so fortunate to have this animal in North America. As humans, we've come to respect elephants in Africa, the great apes, dolphins, whales for their intelligence, and here we have this highly intelligent social animal right here in North America that we just can't seem to wrap our head around," Jamie Dutcher said.

Jim gained acclaim for film work that gave rare glimpses into the lives of two highly elusive creatures — beavers and mountain lions. But he said there is no way his polished techniques would have worked with wolves.

"Wolves are so intelligent and so afraid of people, your mere presence would change their behavior and they would run away," he said.

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So the Dutchers convinced the U.S. Forest Service in 1990 to grant them a special use permit to create a 25-acre fenced enclosure in a secluded part of national forest in the Idaho mountains.

They brought wolf pups to their enclosure to get the animals accustomed to their presence.

"We bottle-fed them from the moment they opened their eyes," Jim said.

Jamie said they were careful never to treat the animals like pets and they were neither dominant nor submissive with the wolves. The wolves were fed road kill and carcasses of elk, deer and antelope. The feeding mimicked how packs eat — they would gorge when they had the prey, then go a week or so before they ate again. The wolves also were able to hunt small game that wandered into the enclosure.

The wolves' familiarity with the Dutchers allowed them to make observations that otherwise would have been impossible, from being allowed by an alpha female to peer into her den after giving birth to watching how the alpha male would protect the omega male from wolves with mid-pack status.

The biggest revelations for the Dutchers over the six years were the wolves' incredible social behavior.

"They're social animals," Jim said. "I think people think of them as evil, vicious killers and they hang out with a pack that is a mob. A pack is really a family."

Jamie said they learned that wolf packs were a lot like the tight-knit, extended families of humans.

"They have a capacity for empathy, they need to belong to a family, every pack member holds a unique position, they care for their young, they care for their elderly," she said. "They have so much to offer us as far as their emotional lives and how they interact with each other."

Jim said the experience was a life-changer for him. An event that was seared in his memory came after a mountain lion managed to breach the fence around the enclosure.

"The moment that changed my perspective on wolves was when a mountain lion killed one of our wolves and I saw how the pack reacted to that death," he said. "They stopped playing for six weeks. Anybody that researches wolves knows that when a day goes by and you don't see some kind of play, that's an unusual day.

"With the Sawtooth Pack, they started howling in a different way. They started howling individually and not in a group," he added.

A significant amount of research has been done on the travel habits and hunting patterns of wolves. The Dutchers wanted to provide some groundbreaking research into the social aspect of the pack.

Many of the behaviors they observed have been verified as "spot-on" by researchers who have used spotting scopes to observe wild wolf packs after their reintroduction in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and elsewhere, according to Jamie.

The Dutchers were unable to get their special-use permit extended beyond 1996. The wolves were relocated to Nez Pearce land in northern Idaho where the animals lived out their lives as "ambassadors," Jim said.

They wrote a book about their experience called "The Wisdom of Wolves," which was published this month by National Geographic. They also formed the nonprofit Living With Wolves, http://www.livingwithwolves.org, to advocate for wolves.

The Dutchers have given 190 presentations around the world about the six years they spent with the wolves. Their appearance in Aspen is just the second presentation specifically related to the book.

They said they have witnessed their presentations change the opinions of hunters and ranchers.

"We had a hunter come up to us after a presentation and say, 'Man, I always wanted to kill a wolf but I can't do it now. I didn't know how family-oriented they are,'" Jamie said.

A tough-as-leather rancher in Midland, Texas, reacted similarly, she said.

They said the decision on reintroducing wolves to the Colorado mountains is best left up to residents of the state.

"It's quite polarizing, which is unfortunate," Jamie said. "We like to say wolves are neither demons or deities.

scondon@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO

What: ‘The Wisdom of Wolves’

Multi-media presentation, book signing

Who: Jim and Jamie Dutcher

When: Monday, 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Where: Pitkin County Library

Cost: Free and open to public