Completing the circle
John Turner grew up on the Triangle X Ranch in Teton County. After serving 20 years in the Wyoming Legislature, Turner was appointed as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. As director Turner was instrumental in developing the plan to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Turner was inducted into the Wyoming Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2012.
Earlier this winter Turner and his daughter, Kathryn, joined Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists collaring wolves north of Jackson. Turner’s love for wildlife has been passed down to his daughter who has become a world-renowned wildlife artist living in Jackson.
Following the event, Game and Fish Wolf Biologist Ken Mills sat down with Turner for a conversation about his early days spent planning the return of wolves to Wyoming.

Mills: It was a difficult and courageous thing you did as far as wolves are concerned, but what got you into wildlife to begin with?

Turner: I was blessed to grow up in this wonderful, wildlife resource-rich area. I grew up hunting, fishing and guiding. That was a good background. My family were ranchers, outfitters, dude ranchers and wildlife was integral to our business, so that passion for critters was embedded early. Then I had great opportunities along the way, whether it was here in Jackson Hole or serving in the Wyoming Legislature and helping to forge policies regarding wildlife management, river management and public land management. I was honored to have an opportunity to do that at the federal level, and then even at the international level. I was blessed with opportunities.

Mills: You were coming out of graduate school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when there was a lot going on with the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental policies. You got to watch some of that develop. What's your impression of that time?

Turner: During those years I served on a student advisory panel to the Secretary of Interior so that kind of got me interested in the policy side. The country was really on fire — Vietnam, civil rights — and environmental interests had started to peak. It became my passion and interest. I ran for election my first year back in Teton County on a wildlife ecology platform, and as I look back I’m pretty sure nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. But after my 45 years of public service it was a good choice with good opportunities. 
Ken Mills, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf biologist, has been highly involved with wolf management in the state. (Photo by Mark Gocke/WGFD)

Mills: Certainly the wolf issue was something you were aware of and had thoughts about long before 1989 when you were appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What's the history there and your thinking? 

Turner: As I think back I must have been pretty naive, and maybe a little arrogant, but I was certainly aware of the national interest to return the wolf to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I had to admit before my old bones were carried over the great divide, wouldn't it be great to hear a wolf here in our backyard, here in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone? I grew up in the cattle business. I know ranching and I know hunting and fishing and what the concerns are for maintaining healthy big game herds. I’d been a legislator, so I understood the interests and had a strong predilection to the people of the state owning a resource and then being able to manage it. 
I was honored to be appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by President Bush. I thought wolves are such an emotional issue, but maybe coming from the West I could forge a solution to the wolf reintroduction issue that would be compatible with people in the Rocky Mountain West and still meet the objectives of people around the country who were interested in wolves. I understand the passion for wolves.
I said we’ve got to find a way under the Endangered Species Act to reintroduce wolves in Yellowstone. For 30 years western delegations had not only said no, but hell no, we do not want wolves back in Yellowstone. As we tried to forge a compromise, I spent time on Capitol Hill with the delegations of our friends from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and some of the other states trying to bring them along and say let's work together to find a way to meet this national interest. I wanted a way where the states have a stake and a say and have a management role.
I remember we had hearings throughout the three states. People like Ed Bangs, wolf project recovery leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others went for weeks and weeks around the West holding public hearings. They got their tires punctured, were spit on and avoided potential fist fights all because of the passion about wolves. I remember the secretary of the Department of Interior called me and said, “John, you've had a lot of hearings, but not enough.” I said, “Mr. Secretary, we've done 200 or 300 meetings.” He said it wasn’t enough. I called Bangs and he said, “Mr. Turner, please don't put us back on the road. We haven't seen our families; we've been abused.” I said, “Ed, we're going to do more hearings.” He said, “Yes sir, if that's what it takes.” I still think those guys deserve some kind of award.

Mills: So once the process was laid into motion things happened really fast. I mean recovery happened quite quickly.

Turner: Agency biologists predicted it might take 12 years for wolves to reach the desired numbers and breeding pairs for a sustainable population, but those rascals hit the targets in three years. The prey base and the conditions were so benevolent. The plan was once they hit the target management would revert to the states. There's a lot of people who aren't aware that the states own the wildlife except for within the boundary of Yellowstone. That's the way we had envisioned it and unfortunately a lot of the environmental groups that cheered us on wanted to move the goalposts, went to court and didn't stand by their early pledges. I resent that. But the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, with what they're doing now, are meeting that commitment with good research, good management, trying to address when wolves have an impact on private lands, ranchers, wool growers, cattlemen or they start hitting our game herds pretty heavily. You’ve got a tough job. 

Mills: Through time I think as an agency we've been able to build a lot of public tolerance for wolves in northwest Wyoming by dealing with the conflicts and complications that arise from having wolves on the landscape. 

Turner: Well, I think you and your colleagues have done such an outstanding job. It's a species that can cause a lot of impact, and there are those in the public sphere that want them listed forever. It's really a success story under the Endangered Species Act. We ought to celebrate that. It's neat to have them back as part of this great ecosystem, a place we all call home. But it's not an easy one, and it is appropriate they are under state management now.

Mills: No, it's not easy. But just because they're inconvenient doesn't mean they're less valuable, either. There’s a balance. As you work with wolves in a multiuse human-dominated environment, you care about the species but you also care about the humans that are impacted. 

Turner: I do need to mention when I went to Washington I said I had to take a couple people with me who I trust, and usually appointees don't get to do that. I snuck in Mike Brennan as my special assistant, and I swiped the Assistant Director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Doug Crowe. This was going to be a partnership with the states who were to have the primary responsibility of research and management long term. Crowe was invaluable. 

Mills: Doug Crowe was really a mentor to a generation of Game and Fish employees.

Turner: He was a superb biologist, but Doug was totally irreverent. While working for Game and Fish he was the one that dealt with the Wyoming Legislature because he was candid and honest. He was rough, but they knew they could trust him and he did not shoot blanks. Some of the people in the federal government didn't appreciate him because of his style, but he was a key asset for me.

Mills: I love that, because we really are so dependent on one another, right? Running a good wolf program in Wyoming takes everybody being willing to work together and support each other. A legislature that's willing to let the Game and Fish do what the science tells us, a Game and Fish Commission that listens to our science and the long-term data, in part because of the early U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitoring. 

Turner: And not only are the resource issues more complicated, you need more science and better science. But the big factor is bringing the public with you. You need to bring the public along, and that's why I think it's important to have that done at the state level. In Wyoming, part of our charm is we don't necessarily trust the federal government, God bless them. So to have confidence in the state, the job they’ve done and are currently doing is so important. Thank you.

Mills: Well, you're welcome. It's an honor to do it. 

Turner: You know, Ken, it was one thing to devise a plan and run it through the political trap lines, but you and your colleagues are the ones building a legacy. You're bringing it to fruition through hard work, good thinking, good science and long hours. You’re bringing that dream to fruition. 

Mills: We're trying to do it justice. We do our best. 

Turner: I'm sitting here thinking of an old rancher who hated the federal government. He'd have posters published against the U.S. Park Service and U.S. Forest Service and put them up around town. He called at me and said, “Come over here. I want to talk to you about wolves.” I was home from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I thought I was going to get crucified because we had this plan for wolves to come back to the Rocky Mountains. He said, “John, it's about your wolves.” I said, “Yeah, what about?” He said, “Thank you.” I said, “What?” He said, “You know I don't like wolves. I don't want wolves, but you cut us the best deal anybody ever could. You did a good job.”
I remember it to this day because I thought I was going to get the tar beat out of me, but he said thank you. We're going to do all right with wolves. 
Interestingly, Turner wrote an article about his work with eagles for Wyoming Wildlife magazine in September, 1971. In closing that article, Turner posed the following question with regard to bald eagles in Wyoming at that time: Can Wyoming do without its eagles? 
“The obvious answer is ‘probably so.’ But the loss would mean Wyoming had changed — that we have abused her land and lost that which has made our state unique in today’s world. It will mean that we as people and as a state have lost our ability to sustain a very important ingredient of our heritage — that of wildness.”
When asked if the question could apply to wolves in Wyoming today, Turner replied with an emphatic, “Hell, yes.”

— Mark Gocke is the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s information and education specialist for the Jackson and Pinedale regions. Doug McWhirter is the wildlife management coordinator for the Jackson Region. Hilton Graham, from Love Affair Creative media productions, provided the audio files from this interview and is working on an upcoming documentary on the life and conservation legacy of John Turner.

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