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‘People Love Them or Hate Them:’ Wolf Talk with a Yellowstone Photographer

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy has spent 37 years exploring Yellowstone National Park and photographing its many wild inhabitants, including wolves, in an effort to show the public how important it is to protect them.

Matt Grainer/Earthjustice

Tom Murphy grew up on a cattle ranch east of the Black Hills of South Dakota, seemingly destined to be a cowboy. But the truth is he detests cows. He’s not fond of horses either. They both mean work to him. Instead he left home to study chemistry, but abandoned that pursuit to bum around the country for five years before landing in Livingston, Montana near the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. A self-taught photographer, he has spent more than 3,000 days hiking, skiing and rafting through the park taking pictures of the grizzlies, wolves and bison that cross his path. His work has been featured in National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine.

I sat down with him at the B Bar Ranch in Montana during a recent Earthjustice wildlife expedition to talk about how his upbringing has influenced how he interacts with and advocates for wolves.

Maggie Caldwell: You were raised as a cowboy. Did you ever hunt?

Tom Murphy: As a kid I shot a lot of jackrabbits and deer. But I’m sort of a catch and release hunter now. I find it more difficult to make a good photograph of an animal than to shoot it and kill it. You have to observe them, spend time with them. With hunting, if I can get within 200 yards of an animal, I can shoot it and that’s it. Boom.

MC: When you are photographing animals do they know you’re there, or are you secretive?

Members of the famed Druid Pack of gray wolves.
Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy
Members of the Druid Pack of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

TM: I want them to know I’m there and I want to stay as far away as possible. I’m not trying to sneak up on them. If they’re nervous, then I don’t get the kind of pictures that I want. What I want is to illustrate is what their life is like, what their behavior is. I don’t want to get too close to them because then they start interacting with me and they modify their behavior.

MC: Why do you take pictures?

TM: I want to be outside. When I see these wonderful things, I photograph them. That creates beauty, and that creates value in these creatures and in this land. People will be more likely to save these things if people think they’re valuable.

MC: What’s different about photographing wolves?

TM: Grizzly bears are charismatic mega fauna, but people don’t generally have strong feelings for or against grizzly bears. They don’t want to go out hiking and get hurt by a bear, but if they see one from a distance, they’re all excited. Wolves are totally different. People either love them or hate them. I photograph them and try to illustrate how beautiful and necessary they are to the ecosystem, but the problem with the discussions of wolves is that both sides have strong emotions.

People either see wolves as this divine, beautiful thing, but they don’t realize they’ve got blood in their teeth when they eat. They don’t eat kibbles and bits. And then you’ve got the other extreme where people are saying wolves have always got blood in their teeth, they’re always killing, and they only want to kill. It’s difficult to get a good, rational discussion about wolves because people are so polarized.

Photographer Tom Murphy
Matt Grainer/Earthjustice
Photographer Tom Murphy

MC: You’re basically saying that both sides have mythologized the wolf too much. So then how do you talk about wolves?

TM: My goal is simply to illustrate their behavior, show that they are truly beautiful creatures and tell the stories you know rather than repeat stuff that you’ve just heard. It’s all about building this database of true stories.

MC: The wolf population in Yellowstone is protected, but leaving Bozeman, I saw a big billboard that says ‘Save Our Elk’ all big and flashy that was blaming wolves for killing the elk.

TM: Outside the park you figure there are maybe 1,500 animals in three states, but Wyoming wants to kill them all, basically. Montana wants to kill more than half of them and Idaho wants to kill more than half. And that worries me because the health of the ecosystem—all these places—needs these wolves.

When I was a kid coyotes were the thing—everybody hates coyotes in the agricultural community. Well my dad, he was a good rancher who checked his cattle every day and watched them carefully and he never lost an animal to a coyote, never. All our neighbors would lose stuff like cattle; the cattle would be dead and they’d see a coyote on it and they’d say the coyote killed it. And I think that’s a similar thing to wolves. If you’re not a good manager, you’re going to have more predation. 

January catch of Forest Service hunter T.B. Bledsaw, Kaibab National Forest, circa 1914.
Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy
The sunset light illuminated these bald eagles while the mountain ridge and clouds cloaked in the blue-gray dusk.

MC: What about the claims by the hunting industry?

TM: The elk hunters’ complaint is that the wolves are killing our elk, and I vehemently disagree with that. If you’re raising guppies or cows or elk, which ones do you want to keep? You want to keep the young, healthy ones, the big males, the healthy cows. You get rid of the old ones, the ones that are sick, the ones that are weak—you thin them out. You need more food for the healthy ones. Which ones do the elk hunters kill? The biggest, best, strongest, most valuable ones. Which ones do the wolves kill? They kill the weak ones that should be taken out anyway. And that’s what I wish people would learn. If they want to go out and kill a big elk, then you should encourage the wolves to go kill the old, weak ones so the others can get bigger.

MC: You were here before wolves were reintroduced to the park. What was your experience of the wolves coming back?

TM: We’d drive into Lamar Valley before the wolf project … and there were 7,000 elk going by. Then, as the wolf population grew, the elk learned how to deal with these giant coyotes—the wolves—and left the valley and started dispersing. So now I might see 500 head of elk up there and people might say, ‘Well that’s because the wolves ate them all,’ but they didn’t. If you get off the road, you can find elk everywhere. But the difference is they’re not concentrated.

And the second thing is the change in the vegetation with the trophic cascade. There were no willows, the aspen rows were dying, the mature aspens had the bark all scarred up as high as an elk could reach.  It was dying, the ecosystem was dying. Now there’s all these willow thickets.

That’s probably one of the best environmental things we have done on this continent, to bring the wolf back where it belongs and where it needs to be. 

Sunrise over the Yellowstone River
Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy
Sunrise over the Yellowstone River

About this series

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction of gray wolves to the northern Rockies, and since that time wolves have been under nearly constant threat of losing their protections. The Weekly Howl provides insights and education about the gray wolf and updates on the status of its protections while celebrating the iconic species as a vital part of a functioning, healthy ecosystem. Posts will appear every Wednesday starting June 17 and running through the summer.

Don’t miss last week’s post: “Battle for the Wild: Confronting Idaho's Controversial Wolf Management Practices”

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