Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Woman Who Runs with the Wolves

Biologist Diane Boyd has spent 14 years studying the animals in the far reaches of the Rockies

The first few times I don't meet Diane Boyd, I become convinced she must be every inch the misanthrope that she is reputed to be. In the 56 days it took me to track down the held biologist, who is documenting the return of the wolf to the northern Rocky Mountains for the University of Montana's Wolf Ecology Project, I found phone calls and letters to be useless. Tips from her acquaintances and associates led to dead ends. Vague plans to meet were scrapped abruptly and without warning when she suddenly disappeared. "This is Diane. Don't come up. I won't be available" became a mantra my answering machine intoned almost every time I checked in. The woman was as elusive and difficult as the subjects of her research. "Finding Diane Boyd is a project unto itself," Jim Cole, a local cougar tracker warned me. "Sometimes the only way is to just go up there and find her."

So I am lying in wait—as a field biologist might—for my subject to appear in one of her haunts, the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge, Mont., a chuck-hole-sized town beside the North Fork of the Flathead River, 20 miles south of the Canadian border, 30 miles north of any paved roads. It's hot in the saloon on this late June day, and I'm sucking on a lukewarm beer after a five-hour drive from Missoula. My mission: to get an interview with the woman who runs with wolves.

The beer is warm because the North Fork, as the valley is called, lacks such amenities as electricity and running water. A handful of loners live here in log cabins. The locals use CBs instead of telephones and power their radios with car batteries, the sun or the occasional generator. It's the kind of place people go to when they want to be far from the modern world. It's also a place that is so wild that wolves live there.

The wolves are what brought Boyd, who was then 24 and had a degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota, to the North Fork in 1979. Locals had begun reporting sightings of the animals after an absence of 50 years. Wolves were once common in the northern Rockies, but after the first settlers killed off the wolves' prey—bison, deer and elk—the wolves turned to livestock for food. Enraged ranchers then killed off the wolves; more than 80,000 wolves were turned in for bounties in Montana alone between 1890 and 1930.

In 1973 federal officials listed the wolf as an endangered species. At about that time Bob Ream, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, started the Wolf Ecology Project to document the anticipated return of the wolf to the northern Rockies. A few wolves had begun to venture south from Canada, along the Continental Divide, and Ream needed experienced trappers to put radio collars on the wolves and track them. That was when he hired Boyd, who had worked for Ream's old mentor at the University of Minnesota, wolf guru David Mech, on his research projects in Minnesota and the Arctic.

That fall Boyd, beginning work on her master's degree from the University of Montana, came to live in a drafty and decrepit log cabin in Moose City on the Flathead River. For the next 12 years she would live alone, without running water or electricity or road access during the winter.

Moose City proved to be an ideal base for Boyd's work. Wolves occasionally trotted through her yard, sometimes inviting her dogs to play. That first year the project caught a lone female wolf and tracked it for two years. Then funding for the Wolf Ecology Project evaporated, and in 1981 Boyd was out of a job.

But she was so in love with the North Fork and her wolves that she stayed on with no pay, earning money by clearing brush, working as a fire lookout and selling her wildlife paintings. When the first litter of wolf pups was born, in 1982, Boyd drove 57 miles to the Forest Service district office in Columbia Falls and borrowed a trail bike for the summer so she could track the mother and her pups.

Today there are about 50 wolves in four packs thriving in the North Fork Study Area, some 1,000 square miles spanning the Canadian border in and just west of Glacier National Park. Twenty-three litters of pups have been born there since 1982; many of them have dispersed to ranges as far as 550 miles away. Money for the project, which received additional funding in 1984, now goes to a study of wolves' relationship with their prey. The data Boyd and other researchers are collecting will reveal the potential impact of the recovery of the wolf population on big game.

In Boyd, Ream says, he has found an ace natural-history detective. "Diane can look at a dead animal and tell if a wolf killed it and how the kill was made," he says. Part of her expertise was acquired working in the backcountry. Much of her work there is dangerous, such as crossing the Flathead River in hip boots in-20° weather or confronting a grizzly bear feeding on a wolf kill. Her phenomenal self-reliance and courage, say those who know Boyd, color every aspect of her personality. "She's a wild woman," says Ream. "You have to hold the reins."

The saloon doors swing open, and a tall, rangy blonde in mud-caked jeans walks up to the bar and orders a piece of strawberry pie. Her honey-colored hair frames a pugnacious, ruddy face. She has a spirited self-confidence, and her stride is nearly a swagger. When she finally turns my way, a plate of pie in her big-boned hand, I call out her name. Contact.

Boyd sits with me long enough to gulp down her pie. She tells me she's running traplines all month and that I can't go along. "That's not negotiable," she says. I'll have to come back to talk to her.

One month later I'm at Boyd's new cabin, which stands in a meadow of blue lupine and Indian paintbrush near the lip of a cliff that plunges 100 feet into a broad, rushing creek. She has been building the cabin, with logs salvaged from a pioneer homestead, since 1987. Compared with her primitive digs at Moose City, it is luxurious, featuring a propane refrigerator, a pine-paneled bathtub and skylights. From her bed upstairs she can see the Milky Way through double-paned windows. Condo camping, Boyd calls it.

Boyd's only contact with the outside world is through a two-way radio wired to a car battery and hooked to a big antenna perched atop the cabin roof like a church steeple. It's a fitting symbol for the almost religious passion Boyd brings to her work, a passion that has earned her the reputation of sometimes being difficult.

"Instead of Attila the Hun, it's Diane the Incorrigible," she says with a laugh as she fixes breakfast. "I'm not that bad—it's just that I care a lot about wolves, and that can be surprisingly at odds with the agenda of federal agencies, or even standard scientific practice. It's considered very unprofessional and unscientific to admit you like wolves. Thank god I decided that's bull."

Boyd says she loves the elusiveness of wolves, their canniness and intelligence, and their skill as hunters. In the winter, her busiest time, she may follow wolf tracks for up to 15 miles on skis, backtracking to the wolves' kill sites and analyzing, from only a few hairs and spots of blood on the snow, what they ate and how they killed their prey.

Boyd's only physical contact with wolves comes in summer and early fall, a couple of months after they've whelped their pups. That's when she lays out her traplines (with modified leghold traps that do not pierce an animal's skin) baited with foul-smelling lures. When Boyd and another researcher or volunteer find a trapped wolf, they sedate it, fit it with a radio collar, tag its ears, weigh it and take a blood sample, all the while monitoring its vital signs. The procedure takes about half an hour. Then they back off to watch the wolf through field glasses until it has shaken itself awake and walked away. The project has collared 34 wolves in the last five years.

Trapping is a big responsibility and can be emotionally exhausting, says Boyd. Her greatest worry is that a tourist, or worse, a bear, will find a trapped wolf before she does. One year Boyd chased off a grizzly that was preparing to make a meal of a female wolf still under anesthesia. Boyd says it never occurred to her that the bear might make a meal of her instead: "All I could think of was that it was my fault that the wolf was in this predicament, and I had to save her." Boyd, who grew up in Richfield, Minn., shared a passion for the outdoors with her father, Harold, a chemical engineer for General Mills, who died five years ago. As a child Boyd played in a marsh behind her family's home. When she was 10, a developer filled in the swampy area and began building houses on Boyd's former playground. She recalls confronting carpenters who were at work on one of the houses and demanding that they give her back her marsh.

Boyd's fierceness grew, she suspects, because she felt she had to prove herself as a woman in a male-dominated profession. As a federal trapper in Minnesota in 1979, catching wolves that killed sheep or cattle, she says she dealt often with irate dairy farmers. "The game warden would call me in, and the farmer would say, 'Well, where's the trapper?' Because all he saw was this blonde babe," she says. "They always went slack-jawed. It pissed me off."

But, she says, she has mellowed. While she jealously guards her privacy—her driveway is an unmarked dirt track—she is also passionate about the people she cares for. She's the organizer of hiking trips and berry-picking parties with her boyfriend, Lee Secrest, a carpenter and artisan, and his three children. She's the hostess of lavish annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. "All the strays in the North Fork come and bring their instruments, and we have music and a big feed," she says. One of her regular guests was her only Moose City neighbor, Tom Reynolds, an elderly recluse who was Boyd's date for the Pole-bridge Prom, held every September at the Northern Lights Saloon. As she talks of Reynolds her eyes become wet, and she runs upstairs to retrieve a photo album. She points to a picture of Reynolds in an immaculate tuxedo, looking like a European duke and dancing with Boyd, who is dressed in pink satin. Tears run down her face as she recalls the peaceful death of her friend last year at the age of 96.

Boyd's wit and charisma make her an outstanding public relations officer for the wolf. She talks with tourists, gives wolf lectures and once a year holds a "wolf weekend" at her place as a benefit for the Montana Wilderness Association. Boyd is a vital and amusing speaker with a Gary Larsonesque sense of humor: "Dogs are brain-dead wolves," she says one evening. "If the canine world were a school, the dogs would be in the special-ed class and the wolves would be taping notes to their backs that say NIP ME."

Boyd is convinced that tourism could help save the wolves. "The excitement people feel is contagious," she says. The next day, seeking the thrill of seeing a wolf myself, I go up in a small plane with Diane's fellow researcher, Kyran Kunkel, and David Hoerner, a pilot for Eagle Aviation, a small company in Kalispell that specializes in radio-telemetry flights. An antenna is affixed to each wing of the plane, and a radio in the cabin indicates which wing is receiving the strongest signal. When aloft, the plane can locate any wildlife wearing a radio collar.

Bumped by air pockets and squalls, we race down the river valley and through a rainbow's perfect arch, a Day-Glo smoke ring hanging in the stratosphere. The sharp edges of the Continental Divide rise like a razorback, running to the north.

Once Kunkel spots a mountain lion and a moose, we swing north, toward British Columbia, flying so close to the face of the steep mountains that it seems we can reach out and scoop up a handful of summer snow. Suddenly we're circling. The radio begins to beep so loudly, I can hear it over the noise of the plane's engine. We dive, swooping in over a meandering creek, and we see it, a large wolf with the markings of a malamute, sitting calmly on its hauches beside the creek, inscrutable, like the Sphinx.

Two months ago Boyd left the North Fork and returned to the University of Montana at Missoula for her doctorate in wildlife biology. Her hope is that the degree will help her attract the $100,000 in funding that the Wolf Ecology Project needs to pursue its next phase: finding and following the dozen or so tagged wolves that have dispersed from the four North Fork packs and determining if they've been successful at recolonizing new ranges, and why or why not. This research can provide a powerful tool for predicting where wolves will show up next and how they will fare when they get there. It's a tool badly needed by federal officials who soon must decide whether to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

Boyd says she finds life in a college town a cultural challenge after her years of isolation. There is no question that she will return to the North Fork. Living alone in the wilderness was the happiest time of her life, she says, and she knows how lucky she was to be there. "In the bakery of life," says Boyd, "I've got a really enormous cake."



Boyd gently examines a large male that has been trapped and tranquilized.



The travel patterns of wolves, including the one below, are charted with the help of a computer.



[See caption above.]



Boyd's cabin lacks running water, which she must haul in herself from a spring.

Perri Knize is a free-lance writer whose stories have appeared in "The Atlantic" and "Outside."