Mike Phillips — How to Save a Species (#383)

“Humans and cockroaches and coyotes are going to inherit the earth.”

— Mike Phillips

[Visit tim.blog/wolf for the most important links from this interview and my personal next steps.]

Mike Phillips has served as the Executive Director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund and advisor to the Turner Biodiversity Divisions since he co-founded both with Ted Turner in June 1997. Before that, Mike worked for the U.S. Department of Interior, leading historic efforts to restore red wolves to the southeastern US and gray wolves to the Yellowstone National Park. He also conducted important research on the impacts of oil and gas development on grizzly bears in the Arctic, predation costs for gray wolves in Alaska, and dingo ecology in Australia. These days, Mike is an advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.

In 2006 Mike was elected to the Montana House of Representatives. He served there until elected to the Montana Senate in 2012. His service in the senate will extend through 2020.

Mike received his MSc in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Alaska in 1986 and his BSc, Ecology from the University of Illinois in 1980.

Please enjoy!

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#383: Mike Phillips — How to Save a Species

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Want to hear another episode with someone who’s working hard to save the planet? — Listen to my conversation with Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, in which we discuss monkey birthday cakes, storytelling, respect, common misconceptions about conservation, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#285: Overcoming Doubt, Battling the Busy Trap, and Enhancing Life — M. Sanjayan

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Visit tim.blog/wolf for the most important links and my personal next steps
  • Get Involved with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and Action Fund

Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund | Rocky Mountain Wolf Project | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • Who is Mike Phillips? [03:56]
  • Why might a grizzly bear’s muzzle be bloodstained while its teeth are green? [07:27]
  • What inspired Mike to become an ecologist who focuses on predators? [12:26]
  • Is it true that menstruating women shouldn’t hike in grizzly bear country? Here’s how Mike took aim at answering this age-old question. [15:33]
  • To his mind, what is the craziest study Mike has gotten funded? Two words: radioactive wolves. [18:47]
  • What are the most effective deterrents, defensive tools, and practices for preventing and reacting to grizzly attacks? [20:39]
  • What role do predators play in an ecosystem, and what happens when they’re extirpated from that ecosystem? [26:30]
  • What is a trophic cascade? [30:11]
  • Why was a 300-year war launched in the US on the once ubiquitous gray wolf, and how was this mass-scale extermination accomplished? [34:23]
  • How did Mike get the opportunity to lead red wolf recovery in North Carolina and gray wolf recovery in Yellowstone? [38:42]
  • What changes has Mike personally observed in Yellowstone over the past 24 years since gray wolves were reintroduced? [42:08]
  • What did two wolves teach Mike about the value of private land in advancing the recovery of endangered species, and how did this lead to Mike leaving Yellowstone in ’97 to co-found the Turner Endangered Species Fund and Turner Biodiversity Divisions with Ted Turner? [45:00]
  • The extinction crisis and why it matters, the likely fate of humanity should we ignore it, and what conservationists most often get wrong. [47:40]
  • Does Mike ever get overwhelmed by the seemingly unstoppable harm that humans are wreaking on the planet? If so, how does he overcome the feeling and continue working to counter it? [53:06]
  • Why does Mike consider western Colorado to be the last missing piece in the effort to restore gray wolves, and why should someone who doesn’t live in Colorado support this effort? [58:12]
  • If we’re looking at the opportunity to reestablish a major carnivore at an intercontinental scale, how many wolves need to be reintroduced over what period of time for this to stand a good chance of being realized? [1:01:51]
  • If such an initiative is successful, what would Mike hope some of its ripple effects to be? [1:05:49]
  • Why is wolf restoration such a controversial topic? [1:08:06]
  • How hard is it to make a living in the woods with your teeth if you’re a wolf, how often do they fail at hunting, and what two assets do they have going for them? [1:09:33]
  • What are the justified and unjustified concerns people raise with regards to wolf restoration? [1:14:33]
  • Tools that can be helpful toward wolf reintroduction efforts in minimizing wolf versus human conflict. [1:20:31]
  • How can we incentivize ranchers to non-lethally deter predation when the path of least resistance is to just shoot the offending wolf? [1:23:51]
  • What changes to the Endangered Species Act are currently being proposed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and what does Mike think will come of them? [1:29:54]
  • How much of its historical range does the gray wolf currently inhabit? [1:31:50]
  • Why are different animals proposed for delisting at different points in their rehabitation of their historical range? [1:32:33]
  • What is the state of gray wolf reintroduction in western Colorado right now, what is the time-sensitive nature of the effort, and how can you help? [1:35:15]
  • If my audience can provide $100,000 to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund within a week of this podcast coming out, I will match that, and provide another $100,000. [1:42:11]
  • Where can someone who wants to contribute more than a modest sum to this effort make their donation? [1:46:42]
  • In what other ways can someone who’s strapped for cash help? [1:49:27]
  • A book recommendation. [1:51:27]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:53:02]


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43 Replies to “Mike Phillips — How to Save a Species (#383)”

  1. RE: The star thrower. Please overcome any urge to act like typical ignorant internet commentors, and instead read Loren Eiseley (you may also look up his profession and background). The Star Thrower was a chapter in one of his seminal books, an autobiographical essay among many.

    It is NOT a mere trope, but worthy of some reflection within, and along with much more in that body of work.

    1. And concerning private land in the US west:

      If you actually travel this area, as I have and do, you will find that almost without exception ALL winter habitat – the areas to which nonhibernating animals go to in the cold and snow season, is the low valleys. This terrible exclusion and taking of the most important lands from natural systems and native species is the most devastating effect we impose upon them.

      This is where the wolves , the griz, the native ungulates die in droves.

      Ecology is a computational science, and all work requires numerical /spatial understanding. Many profoundly accomplished ecologists such as E. O. Wilson (although he was originally an insect biologist, his most important work occurred developing with Robert MacArthur, the theories and concepts of Island Biogeography, which see) understand that the habitat fragmentation that results from our taking, our unrelieved exploitation, is the largest factor in theongoing mass extinction event, which Phillips miscalls the”Anthropocene” era. Geological eras and periods cover vast amounts of time, and our full time of destroying other creatures of earth, of collapsing entire life systems, is still short – a mere deadly extinction event.

      Thesame ecologists and population bioologists also recognize and prescribe that humans withdraw from 1/2 of earth’s land, and avoid expliting as much of its waters, in order to preserve the biosphere from this presently ongoing extinction event.

      Some ecologists have computed that it is best,or only functional, if we completely withdraw from exploitation of 2/3 of the earth’s surface.

      As one who has done some research on the wolf and other organisms, recognizing this arrogation of North America’s winter habitats I have seen the continuing loss, and can only recommend the strongest prescriptions be followed.

      Another issue: Since the American Society of Mammalogists first warned against human wolf extirpations in the early 1920s, when Leopold was eagerly out executing them, repeated population biological studies based upon typical mammal genetic constraints, a necessary minimum connected population to prevent inexorable fall to homozygosity is regarded as a mean of 5400 or so animals, with significant support for a connected population of over 9500 individuals.

      Since the Gray Wolf differs from the typical modeled animals in reproductive individuals being only about 1/10 of their population totals, a safe mean to avoid the inbreeding problems that killed off the Isle Royale wolves, and is working on damaging the Canis lupus baileyi “Mexican” wolf population’s future, is rather near 10 times the mean numbers mentioned above.

      Further, long-term researchers like Gordon Haber have repeatedly found that wolves especially in some seasons, subsist on as much as 85% carrion – animals that have died by OTHER reasons than wolf predation.

      We have not touched upon the actual information departing from the common fantasies. Europeans originally mistakenly vilified the wolf for several reasons, of which one, the repeated plagues which caused human mortality so massive in that dense human population during Medieval times into the 1700s ( a heavy cholera outbreak occurred in the 1820s, but wolves had been targeted and extirpated by then).

      Because so many humans had died during those events, the carrion-focused wolf was often observed recycling the humans that could not be buried. So the common inference was NOT causal, but mere guilt by association with the death imposed by microorganisms.

      Humans live largely in their imaginations, and not through normal sensory reality or any capacity to reason.

      Instead we live, like all else in the universe, through information gathered through experience,especially experience that involves perception of threat. Heuristics are methods of decision making with incomplete information. Fear drives us, not understanding – we are mere mid-level omnivores,evolved in a place where huge carnivores and large defensive herbivores affected our perception of the world.

      We respond most to gossip – and gossip, , as can be inferred through the malassociation of wolves with the unburied dead of plague-ridden Europe – can very quickly become completely contrafactual.

    1. When actually observing the exploitation of mature forests , one finds the loss of these essential and often unique ecosystems ranges around percentages over 95%.

      Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood forest system, is now composed of around 2% of its original pre-1850 area and numbers. This particular tree has now been shown to be the single greatest organism which COULD remove the excess atmospheric carbon the our kind have injected into the atmosphere from largely fossil sources, changing climate within a human lifetime beyond the climatological range occurring in the past 3 million years.

      When actually observing the exploitation of mature forests , one finds the loss of these essential and often unique ecosystems ranges around percentages over 95%.

      Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood forest system, is now composed of around 2% of its original pre-1850 area and numbers. This particular tree has now been shown to be the single greatest organism which COULD remove the excess atmospheric carbon the our kind have injected into the atmosphere from largely fossil sources, changing climate within a human lifetime beyond the climatological range occurring in the past 3 million years.

      I’ve seen the destruction of the largest and oldest Jeffrey Pine forest within a few decades – nearly ALL the oldest well-armored bark adult trees were taken leaving only the fire-prone young.

      Speaking of young, imagine if you yourself and your close relatives were killed at about 1/200th of your natural lifespan. THIS is what is occurring in the Coast Redwood forest.

      I ha e dropped into the low camps from the Pacific Crest Trail, seeing the quasi-illegal taking of the largest cooling doug firs, with bark that had just protected the eldest and most fecund trees from a severe (there are three grades of wildfire intensity), due to Forest Supervisors allowing the excessive consumptive use endangering forest to which I averred above.

      Local and international conservation organizations, along with native tribal North American nations have attempted to use science as well as conservation-related social and psychological understanding to prevent this devastation.

      I’ve watched the loss of Cascade and other western mountain forest fires, passing through them, exploring the attempt by the trees to (and even the bears who seem often to be the first replanters returning,dropping seeds i their scat) repopulate.

      Instead, the corrupt “salvage” logging projects that further prevent forests from ever returning – at least for the next few hundred years – are the priorities of USDA FS managers.

      Do not underestimate the ecological destruction and acceleration imposed on extinctions occurring through such presumption that trees are returning or can return in the face of our depredation.

      I will tell you of one more little thing found by researcher Steve Sillett or Atkins, but one of this group, once, recently, found, high up in an ancient redwood, a 120 foot Sitka Spruce growing in the long-collected litter of what you might call its armpit. We are not the crown of creation – trees are.

      I don’t remember whether it was Leopold or conservation biologist Michael Soule’ who pointed out that ecologists understand that we live in a world of wounds , imposed by ourselves.

      Although Ive commonly contributed to the Colorado Wolf group, among many others, also endangered by present political attacks, I’m going there now again – their email directed me here – to add to possible fulfillment of the challenge.

  2. Tim – I donated to the RMWAF to support your challenge. How do we share the details of our contributions to ensure that the goal and match succeed? Thanks – Roger

    1. Tim, is there a way to track progress toward the $100k and $600k goals over the coming weeks? What happens if listener contributions don’t reach $100k – are you planning to match any amount up to $100k, or is it a $0 or $100k match?

      1. Thanks so much, guys! I am tracking things closely (and daily) with Mike and will continue to promote. We are at nearly $70K now, so I am confident that if people continue to share the podcast and tim.blog/wolf, we should be able to make the $100K by cut-off date. I’m focused on that for now, but I’ll also ask Mike about the $600K and if possible to get some type of meter showing progress. Upward and onward!

    2. Me too, donate $25 from the UK, not sure how you are tracking, but love this cause, your energy and rile model here Tim, thank you.

  3. An Australian perspective – Hi Tim, Fascinating a brief overview of wolves. Will check out the podcast.

    Down Under, kangaroo populations require culling and graze to the pastoral land’s detriment. Slightly different to the Yellowstone situation, and it wouldn’t do to introduce a foreign predator. There is a similar pattern. The huge amounts of wild pigs up north comes to mind as well.

    There is more to think about this. I’ll need to listen to more stuff and give it some more thought. Thanks buddy.

  4. Tim, i was born and raised in Redwood City. Now I live up the road (DFW) and pastor a non-denominational church called Bara Church. Bara is the Hebrew word for create. It means to create something out of nothing. The work of the Creator.

    Your blog always brings new ideas to us all. I’m deeply grateful for you. I hope you love Austin. If you’re ever up this way, I’ll buy you a steak or a salad or both.

    Question: I like many of us, met you via The Four Hour Work Week. How many hours do you “work” these days and how do you even define work at this stage of your life?

    Peace and Joy!

    – Joel

  5. I just watched the Wolf video – it is impressive but it mentions mostly the effect on deer population but the majority of the pictures were of Elk . There were a couple of deer shots but not many. If someone wants to find fault with this whole story they can say “ those people don’t know an elk from a deer “ and it doesn’t take much to lose your credibility!

    1. Agreed. I noted that in my newsletter. The one major gripe I have is their use of the word “deer” when footage of elks is shown.

  6. This must-listen podcast raised a question that I haven’t been able to find an answer to. I don’t know if we can find an answer but thinking about it may help to bridge the divide between wilderness and private land (and rights to public land). by connecting the story of wolves to the prosperity of ranchers in a positive way.

    Quick backstory: “Silvopasture” is a system where ruminants like cows graze and manage a “savannah” style ecosystem in a style known as “mob grazing” typically accomplished via moving a herd strategically through different paddocked sections. This system works (it’s productive, less energy intensive than grain-based systems, and it’s the #1 proactive thing we can do in temperate regions to sequester carbon, see https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/silvopasture)

    The system works because it directly mirrors nature: the natural landscape (one of

    grasses and perennials), plus it mirrors the natural behaviors of wild ruminants (like Elk) when they are under direct predator (Gray Wolf) pressure. In short. wolf packs force ruminants into tight herds which then profoundly impact the soil via pee, poo and hooves. The ruminants then move on, leaving that highly impacted land alone so it can rebound with increased furvor. When the new generation of grasses and other forage reach peak nutrition, the herd returns and the process continues.

    One of many other benefits that mob-grazing delivers is that it helps build up the plant species that the grazers prefer while outcompeting unwanted or invasive weeds. Non-managed grazing leads to the opposite- and so requires increased chemical inputs in the forms of herbicide and fertilizer.There is much more to say about the why and how of the system of silvopasture but to sum it up for our purposes here. let’s say that its purpose is to mimic predator behavior to influence prey behavior in such a way that it profoundly increases the productivity (animal protein per acre) of perennial pasture.

    On to the question: CAN THE REINTRODUCTION OF GRAY WOLVES AROUND CATTLE RANCHES ENCOURAGE MOB-GRAZING BEHAVIOR IN HERDS WITHOUT THE NEED FOR FENCED PADDOCKS? if the answer is yes, we would expect pasture quality on ranches to improve, directly benefitting the bottom line of ranchers. Once could easily compare the increased number of cattle to the tiny (avoidable) losses of cattle at the fangs of wolves (which Phillips said was less than 0.1%).

    Thank You Tim for bringing this guest on to tell us stories of ecology, of the power of human intervention, of the endless potential for innovation within the human-natural systems. There is so much room for our best and brightest to find ways of scaling these types of regenerative practices into the economy and landscape. I hope you continue to bring guests in to tell these stories. I would recommend Eric Toensmeier who wrote “The Carbon Farming Solution”

    -a mushroom farmer

    1. This is a great question, and I’ll ask some scientists for their input. I know that one of the non-lethal wolf deterrents for ranchers with cattle is to effectively emulate tighter “mob herds” as you describe, but I want to ensure I have my facts straight.

  7. I think the story of wolf reintroduction not only to Yellowstone but also to other areas in Western North America is inspiring, amazing and deserves far more attention and funding that it has received over the last 25 years. I have even personally donated money toward this effort. However, there are some professors who disagree with the claims in this video specifically, some of which are documented in the following article:


    In lieu of your investment, I am curious to hear what you have to say in regard to these statements. It would also be very interesting to hear what Mike Phillips has to say on this disagreement as well.

    1. Hi Bruce. I do think “trophic cascade” gets thrown around a lot in the wrong context and with often hyperbolic/misinformed claims. That said, I spoke with multiple scientists I vetted to the best of my ability, and the net-net conclusion I came to was that reintroduction still made sense on multiple levels from an ecological perspective.

  8. WHY ARE WOLVES MORE IMPORTANT THAN SALMON? Here in Idaho, where wolves have been recovered, our salmon, steelhead and lamprey runs are on the brink of extinction. They were the very basis of the food chain, bringing 10s of millions of tons of marine nutrient to the environment EVERY YEAR. Now only 0.5% of historic numbers return. So I ask, how can wolves bring that kind of restoration to a river system? This focus on large carnivores is wrongheaded at best.

    1. I think salmon are also important. Just gotta pick your fights, and I can’t pick them all. I encourage you to get into the effort to reestablish/restore salmon in Idaho. Seems like a great cause and mission worth dedicating time to.

  9. The wolf/Yellowstone video was narrated by George Monbiot, author of the book “Feral” about rewilding. I’d love to hear an interview with him. Thanks, looking forward to this on my horrible commute in my fossil fuel burner.

  10. Tim,

    Really enjoyed this podcast and followed up by watching the Smithsonian video on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and watching a wolf jump out from its crate and into the wild gave me chills.

    I am planning on donating before your deadline. One question, the contributions are not tax deductible at the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, but are deductible at the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. Any reason why, and would a contribution have greater impact at the Action Fund rather than its sister organization the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (deductible)? A tax deduction isn’t going to prevent me and I’m sure others from contributing, but some clarity would be helpful in making a decision.



    1. Thank you, Christian. And thank you for planning to donate. In answer to your question, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project are closely related, but the first is a 501(c)(4)—a political organization focused on the ballot initiative—and the second is a 501(c)(3)—an educational organization. The US government allows donations to a 501(c)(3) to be tax-deductible but not donations to a 501(c)(4). Our goal is to impact the ballot initiative, so Tim has asked his listenership to please donate to the Action Fund. Thank you again.


  11. TIM – Is there a countdown or a way we can track what has been raised so far for the Wolf Action Fund? I just threw in 100 bucks but would love to see what you have been able to generate thus far and MOST importantly QUANTIFY how much we still need. Also Thank you so much for your generous offer – I really hope this drives the results you are striving for.


    Chrissi Beck

  12. Hi Tim,

    Great episode. I’d like to get your thoughts on species reintegration vs. efforts to mitigate climate change. Could it be that progress on the former is easier to track but that the latter may be more important to overall survival?

    1. Agreed 100%, which is why I’m looking closely at both. I think they can be studied and pursued simultaneously.

  13. I have mede a contribution through Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.

    Here is the receipt, to be included on Tim Ferriss’s list of contributions to increase the total amount contributed thus far.


    Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, a Project of Tides Center

    Thank you for your generous contribution to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.

    The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project has partnered with ActBlue Charities, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to securely process your online donation via ActBlue Charities (tax ID # 47-3739141). No goods or services were received in consideration of this gift.

    Your contribution receipt


    One-time contribution

    Thank you for your contribution in support of Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, a Project of Tides Center!

    Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, a Project of Tides Center $1,000.00

    Total charged $1,000.00

    Name jaime P

    [Moderator: order number recorded but removed here.]

    Order Date 8/27/2019

    1. Many thanks for your contribution, Jaime. We are able to track Tim Ferriss listener contributions when listeners use the link Tim provided at the top of the post. Thank you again.


  14. Honored to make a small contribution to match your generosity, Tim. Only wish I could do more. Thanks so much for bringing Mike on the podcast and for your interest and investment in the cause. Stay wild…

  15. Tim,

    Thank you for bringing this issue to your podcast and audience. I have never thought of conservation in this manner and it is amazing to think about the impact that something like the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action fund can make. My wife and I are avid campers and hope to one day share our national parks with kids of our own, and it is because of people like you and Mike Phillips that we will be able to enjoy all of the amazing natural features of these parks. I just made my first donation to the Wolf Action Fund and hope to continue moving forward. Thank you again for this podcast and for all of the great work that you do.

  16. Thanks as ever for the podcast. Just this week discovered a wonderful wolf inspired background noise / working soundtrack. Its beautiful – melancholic, but in a good way. Its called The Wolf’s Heart and its at a site called NoiseMachines – my favourite place to find sounds to focus to. You can set it to change over time, so different elements become more prominent, enabling you to listen for longer.

  17. Tim-

    Just a friendly suggestion– you should tweet/email/5BF/insta out a link for digital signatures. I think you may be surprised at how much more effective that might be. I was happy to donate some money, and glad so many others did too, but I imagine many of your fans (myself included) could probably just as easily get a few CO friends each to sign it. The expected cost per signature for the outreach just seemed needlessly high. I bet you could inspire and mobilize your universe to round up 25% of the total signatures with some limited messaging and zero dollars spent. Might even net out more impactful than your generous 100k donation…

    Good luck…Morgan

  18. Hi Tim,

    This podcast with Mike Phillips is, in my humble opinion, possibly the best work of your career to date.

    I am a massive fan but have always been secretly hoping you would direct your attention more to this area much the same as you have done for mental health.

    Keep it up mate, this beautiful planet of ours needs you!!

  19. Hi Tim and team,

    It looks to me that your interests swing more to the big picture, ecology and the future of our culture on this planet.

    The reasons are shows like this and your mention of “The Biggest Little Farm” in the “5-Bullet Friday” from 9 days ago.

    Because of this I propose you try to get my Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton [1] as a guest.



    [1] Permaculture: Geoff Lawton at TEDxAjman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CxP0Thljr4

    Permaculture Greening the Desert – Geoff Lawton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xcZS7arcgk

    PS: I write you here as your “5-Bullet Friday” footer discourages sending emails.

  20. This had me feeling like I’ve been lax in my own conservation efforts. Glad there are people like this in the world