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HELENA — Ed Bangs, who for 23 years led the effort to reintroduce and recover healthy wolf populations in the northern Rocky Mountains, is retiring from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June.

As the federal agency’s wolf recovery coordinator, Bangs was the face of the wolf reintroduction, giving thousands of interviews and holding hundreds meetings to explain the effort to the public. He was heralded as a hero and denounced as a wolf lover, or hater, all at the same time.

Charming both sides

Yet Bangs’ humor and reputation for fairness managed to charm many on both sides of the wolf wars.

“He would get in front of a group trying to ridicule and criticize him, and Ed would beat them to the punch,” recalled Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services supervisor who worked with Bangs for decades.

“One time, we were in Grangeville, Idaho, in front of a hostile crowd, with one guy leading the charge. He said, ‘Tell me what ... good the blankety-blank wolves ever did.’ Ed chimed up and said, ‘They gave me this cushy job,’ and the whole audience cracked up. The man got up and left because he was so angry.

“He would win the crowd over because they thought he was kind of funny, and that would get things going.”

Suzanne Stone with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife also worked with Bangs on wolf reintroduction and said he had a huge effect on the effort, writing the environmental impact statement — which drew more than 180,000 comments from throughout the world — and fighting for federal funding.

“He set the course,” Stone said. “He was willing to work with us, but not much would deter him from the course he had in mind.”

Controversial issues

Jay Bodner with the Montana Stockgrowers Association noted that Bangs always brought professionalism to the wolf reintroduction debate and never avoided controversial issues.

“He didn’t take things personally, and, when he provided his point of view, he was all right when folks disagreed with him,” Bodner said.

Bangs notes that “wilderness groups loved me” when he was reintroducing the wolves, and the ranchers hated him. That flipped once he decided that wolf populations had recovered enough to take them off the list of animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Now (environmentalists) say I’m in the ranchers’ pocket, and the ranchers say I’m not such a bad guy,” he joked.

Bangs grew up in Ventura, Calif., and worked through high school and college as a chemical plant laborer, a cattle ranch and feedlot hand and an oil field roughneck. He also loved to hunt and fish.

“I was going to be a welder, but my dad said that ... I was going to be a college-educated welder,” Bangs said. “So, I went to a junior college to be a welder, took some biology classes and said, ‘You mean you’ll pay me to walk in the woods and hunt and fish?’ “

After earning a degree in game management from Utah State University, he got a job at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as a seasonal biological technician in 1975.

“The reason they hired me was they had a new garbage truck with hydraulics, and I was the only guy who applied for the job who knew how to work those,” Bangs said.

“So they said I was going to do biological studies, but my first job was picking up garbage in the campground. The refuge was a Quonset hut where we’d get snowed in some days and have to take a snowmobile to work. It was a great life.”

He helped reintroduce caribou, studied the effects of oil and gas development on wintering moose and worked on lynx conservation and recalls jumping from helicopters in the morning to tag brown bears and return to town in time for breakfast.

It was a dream job. But, when he heard about a new position being created to help states, the federal government, tribes, ranchers and others figure out how to deal with what seemed to be a growing population of gray wolves in northwestern Montana, he was intrigued.

Gray wolves were listed as an endangered species, and only about 10 wolves were known to live in the Glacier National Park area in the Northern Rockies. Then wolves started killing livestock in 1987. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was looking for someone to figure out how to deal with depredations and to do research, outreach and education, which was right up Bangs’ alley. He got the job.

Around that time, Carolyn Sime was in Kalispell, doing a study on radio-collared deer for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Bangs, the USFWS service project leader for wolf recovery, approached the department and proposed a swap: He would help find federal funding if they would help monitor radio-collared wolves.

“So, I started flying to check out the Murphy Pack and any other collared wolves in the mid- to late-1990s,” Sime said. “What struck me then, and it’s been that way throughout Ed’s tenure, is his amazing ability to engage other people, both professionally and personally.”

She eventually became Montana’s wolf management coordinator until the position recently was discontinued.

“He always pushed us to really make data and science the basis of the state plan, and that set us up to succeed,” Sime said.

Mike Jimenez, now in charge of Wyoming’s wolf recovery program, also worked with Bangs and said he created the blueprint for bringing together people with different interests to work out the issues.

“He set the template for what came later on, creating a tightly knit organization, with a general policy for interaction on the ground with everybody,” Jimenez said.

Bangs led the team that captured wolves in Canada and released them, in the mid-1990s, in Yellowstone National Park. Niemeyer recalls that Bangs dealt with the “unpleasantries” in the pre-introduction arena.

“I consider him to be the guy who made it happen,” said Niemeyer, who recently released a book called “Wolfer” about his experiences. “I admired Ed for his tenacity in dealing with bureaucrats and politics. I don’t think anybody wanted that part of the job.”

Bangs jokes that wolves are actually kind of boring — calling them “just big dogs” that have been studied to death — but that people are fascinating, which is one reason that he didn’t hesitate when walking into rooms filled with angry people.

“I’m a big believer in interaction with the public, so I made a special effort to reach out to hunting groups, livestock groups, environmental groups; I’ve probably given 500 presentations myself,” Bangs said.

“I’ve met some really interesting people. You have to face people and hear their concerns firsthand to help resolve the conflicts.”

One of the big issues that he initially confronted was the sense that wolf reintroduction in the Rockies was forced on people here by bureaucrats back East. So he empowered his people to make decisions on the spot regarding how to handle problem wolves and had few reservations about shooting those that preyed on livestock repeatedly.

Those practices continue today.

Bangs said another important part of his job was to keep science at the forefront of the political debate and keep the reintroduction and recovery effort moving forward.

With the removal of wolves from the list of endangered species in Montana and Wyoming last week by an act of Congress, Bangs said he thinks he has successfully completed his job.

“The bottom line is science is being followed,” Bangs said. “The heavy lifting is over, and that’s cool.

“My upbringing was to complete your job; when we started there were 10 wolves near Glacier. Now there’s 1,700 in six states, and they’re being delisted. That’s pretty rewarding.”

As he prepares to walk away from his life’s work, Bangs knows that he’ll always carry it with him, in a sense. He explained in an email a statement posted on his office wall from someone saying that wolf scars are sexy.

Bangs said the statement was given to him as a joke after he was bitten on the wrist by a wolf in Wyoming. One tooth went through his wrist, but it didn’t break his arm. He finished the day’s work before getting the injury checked out in the emergency room.

“I did learn a valuable lesson (that) next time someone asks you to hold a wolf down for them, ask if it is immobilized,” Bangs wrote. “But I am an especially fun date during full moons!”

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Managing editor at The Billings Gazette.