Ely, Minn. – On her brother's wedding day, Lori Schmidt and her father left the reception — they had to milk cows. But rather than begrudge the circumstance, she said it has served her well throughout her career in natural resources and as the wolf curator at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
"Growing up on a dairy farm, you have that added commitment twice a day to the animals. That's a significant part of my upbringing that led me to see conservation as a lifestyle — not just a job," Schmidt said.
The family farm was in Kewaskum, Wis. From that start, Schmidt, 57, said she didn't turn down any opportunities that might broaden her knowledge. In high school, her natural stewardship led her to working for the Youth Conservation Corps and seasonal employment with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She later became a forest technician planting trees, and researched biodiversity and carbon dioxide for NASA.
Her desire for more hands-on immersion in natural resources at an educational level led her to Vermilion Community College in Ely. "I started looking around for … a college career where I didn't read about things, I actually did them," she said.
As life would have it, she currently teaches at the college a quarter-mile down the road from the wolf center.
Responding to further opportunities as they arose, Schmidt found herself entering the wolf center on the ground floor. While working on a project with wolf expert Dave Mech and famed nature photographer Jim Brandenburg in 1986, she was introduced to the center's concept of sharing knowledge. Schmidt was hired as curator when the center opened to the public in 1989.
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Schmidt.
On "situational awareness"
The health of the animals is the first priority. Staff safety is equally important. "Situational awareness" means the minute I come into work I look at every individual wolf: Are they walking differently? Are they holding their ear one way? Are they blinking often? Are they licking their lips a lot? How are they holding their tail? Yawning three times means more about stress than about being tired.
I work very hard to have a forested facility. But with trees come windstorms and downed fences. On a stormy night, I wonder if the place is secure. Every animal's well-being is on my mind every waking moment.
Wolves are carnivores, so we're not feeding them dog food. We try to manage them so they have a natural diet. Wolves have different colored scat based on food consumption. We monitor those scats for a sense of who's getting enough food.
On human perceptions
There's much misinformation on both sides from wolf lovers to people who don't care for wolves. Everyone knows wolves kill things. What they don't understand, is that to be a really efficient predator, there's a social dynamic that makes them work cooperatively. It's their own situational awareness. They're aware of weaknesses and vulnerability. They take opportunities to do what's easiest, what's most efficient to feed their social group. People try to use humanistic terms like "they're up to something" or "they're plotting something." You know what? They're just surviving.
Look at what deer and moose like to eat because deer and moose are what wolves eat. Quality habitat, forest management and food availability are huge components for both of those prey populations. Without quality habitat, species are not going to sustain themselves.
On contradiction and reward
Every individual wolf is a different personality. We adopt and raise wolf pups every four years. We don't let wolves breed; all are born in captivity elsewhere. That's contradictory to the wildlife training I had. We're taught to look at the population as a whole, not the individual, and that sometimes individuals are sacrificed for the good of the population. In captivity, the focus is reversed. It's understanding the individual, and its comfort and tolerance which forms the social group. That sets up the most memorable moment: when non-related pups are introduced to the adult wolves. On the first day they see the pups, they begin nurturing behavior and regurgitate meat for them. It gets to the raw instinct of the animal to be a pack animal. The pups are their future.
On wolf hunting vs. sterilization
When wolf hunting issues arise, I hear people ask why wolf populations aren't reduced by sterilization. Wolves' entire DNA is about pup-rearing. To take that away from them through sterilization to control their population is an ethical question the public needs to decide. Is altering an animal's behavioral patterns and its entire existence to rear pups — the future of their pack — the best decision for the animal? Or is that the best decision for the human? Pro or con for wolves, that's your values and your place to decide.
The wolf center is not here to tell people what to think. We're here to educate. If you're going to make decisions, make decisions based on fact.
Wildlife can't create its own carrying capacity or change its own habitat. When humans have such an influence on other species, I think there's a moral obligation to other species that we are good stewards of that land and we don't put profit before ethics.
On new revisions of the Endangered Species Act
From a biological perspective, the Endangered Species Act identifies population levels and habitat required to recover and sustain a viable population to a desired numerical value known as "carrying capacity." In recent years, there seems to be a change in the definition of viable populations in respect to original ranges and the view of carrying capacity. It has a social perspective that is value driven vs. numerical data. This appears to be a component of the recent announcement from the Department of the Interior and can be challenging to define. It's important to recognize that habitat will always be a key component to species viability. Placing a value on wild lands that support endangered species should be a priority.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.