Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Mike Phillips, who 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. More recently, Mike has been serving as 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
[Visit tim.blog/wolf for the most important links from this interview and my personal next steps.]
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Tim Ferriss: Well, hello boys and girls, dingoes and wombats. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. I am mentioning more animals than usual for a reason. My job every episode, as some of you may know, is to deconstruct world-class performers and/or people who are extremely well known in their respective fields to deconstruct how they do what they do, the thinking, behaviors, influences, and so on that make them different. My guest this episode is Mike Phillips. There’s really something for everyone in this episode, whether you want to get a better understanding of the natural world and ecology or you just want to avoid being mauled by bears if you’re in bear country, there’s something for you.
Mike Phillips. Mike has served as the executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund and the advisor to the Turner Biodiversity Division since he co-founded both with Ted Turner in June of 1997. Before that, Mike worked for the U.S. Department of Interior, leading historic efforts to restore red wolves to the Southeastern U.S. and gray wolves to the Yellowstone National Park. If you’ve seen the video online, How Wolves Change Rivers on YouTube with 40 million-plus views, that is a short story, a reflection of those efforts.
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. 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 Master’s in Science and Wildlife Ecology from the University of Alaska and his Bachelor’s of Science in Ecology from the University of Illinois.
So this episode and past conversations with Mike have led me to find the opportunity that I’m currently most excited about. Aside from psychedelic research at places like Hopkins and Imperial College and elsewhere, this has become what I’m most excited about, and we’ll get to what that is in the episode. But I had the same feeling with this, and it’s not a common feeling, but the same tingle in the belly feeling that I had when I was first looking at getting involved with some of the startups that I’ve been involved with in early stages, Duolingo, Facebook, Twitter, Shopify.
So when you, say, engage or meet, I should say, a small team like the Shopify team at the time, which was something like 10 or 12 people, there is sometimes a tingle in the belly that reflects the feeling, the realization that this could be really, really big. This could really be huge and it makes sense. So we will talk about in this episode something that triggered that same response in me where I’m going to be applying a lot of focus. Without further ado, please enjoy, at times very hilarious, at times very profound and certainly wide-ranging conversation with Mike Phillips.
Mike, welcome to the show.
Mike Phillips: Well Tim, it’s my pleasure to be here. I couldn’t remember that I’d done all those things, so thank you for reminding me of where I have been in the past.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I may do more of that.
Mike Phillips: That would be helpful. As I get older, I get forgetful.
Tim Ferriss: One of those old memories that I thought we might stoke is related to grizzly bears. You and I connected through another scientist who recommended we speak, which came about because long ago I saw a video, and we’ll probably talk about this, but How Wolves Change Rivers. Which led me to reach out to my friend Sanjayan, who’s been on this podcast before, Conservation International. He led me to Kevin, who led me to you. That’s the background for people listening. Grizzly bears, I’m looking at one of these bullets, and it says that their muzzles are bloodstained but their teeth are green. Could you explain why that is?
Mike Phillips: That’s a great start, Tim. Thank you. Well, many years ago I was studying grizzly bear behavior and habitat use in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in anticipation of oil and gas development. For a period of time, I was part of a capture crew. We would dart grizzly bears from helicopters, the drug would take effect, the bear would lay and go to sleep. My job on the capture crew was to extract a premolar. If you take a tooth from a grizzly bear, or many other animals for that matter, you can section the tooth very finely. Just like with a tree, you can come up with a good estimate of age by counting yearly growth rings. My job was to be the local dentist, and pull a tooth from this grizzly bear.
Now every bear that I handled, Tim, the muzzles were bloody, dried blood or wet blood. The muzzles were bloody because at that time of the year, grizzly bears were making extensive use of caribou calves. The porcupine caribou herd, 140,000 animals strong, they calve en masse on the coastal plain of northern Alaska. Well, grizzly bears know this, and interested in a pulse of animal protein in early summer, they go out to the coastal plain and they hunt these caribou calves, quite successfully for at least a few days.
Every one of these bears had a bloody muzzle. You’d think, well what a fantastic carnivore, bloody muzzles. But every bear that I handled that I pulled a tooth from, when I would pull the lips of the bear back to get at the teeth, the teeth were all green. The teeth weren’t bloody. The teeth were stained a deep green. The message to that story, or the lesson from that story is: looks can be deceiving.
Grizzly bears all over the world mostly subsist on vegetation. They eat so much vegetation that their teeth are stained green, at least the animals I handled in the Arctic. In contrast, that flash of animal protein in the form of a few caribou calves across a few days gives you this dramatic portrayal of predation with blood on the muzzle. But gee whiz, for the ecology of the great bear, they’re mostly living on plants. Sometimes things aren’t as they seem.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I may share some grizzly bear stories later. I’ve spent some time in the Brooks Range in Alaska, and always wondered about that. I’ve been to the Brooks Range during caribou migrations and have seen grizzly bears. Which at least the locals sometimes refer to as barren ground grizzlies, because there’s almost no tree cover, at least where I was. It seemed very, very, very difficult for them to catch caribou, in which case what’s left, it’s green.
Mike Phillips: Yeah, it is tough. It is barren ground country. There are no trees. You’re well north of the tree line. Some of the shrubs are big enough they begin to resemble trees. This work was done in the Brooks Range. You and I spent a time in the same country. It is a tough place to make a living. The bears don’t have access to a long growing season. They’ve got to be smart about what they do. The smart bear understands that, while I might kill a few caribou calves over the course of a couple of days… When you understand caribou, caribou give birth to what would be called followers. The caribou calf within short order, a day or two, is able to follow the herd without any problem.
In contrast, other ungulates, hoofed mammals like white tail deer, white tail deer give birth to hiders. It takes a white tail deer fawn longer to mature, so their strategy is to be very good at hiding. Caribou calves, without a lot of country to hide in, oh boy, they give birth to followers. Those calves get up and go in short order, are very capable at following the herd. So capable, they can outrun a grizzly bear at two or three or four days of age. So the bears have this very narrow window of opportunity as that calf is beginning to get his hooves underneath him, so to speak.
Tim Ferriss: You could have taken so many different career paths. You could have studied so many different things. How did you end up focusing so much on predators?
Mike Phillips: Well, I’m intrigued by rareness. As an ecologist, I’m intrigued by rareness. By definition, just the way every natural system is structured, the way energy flows through a system, carnivores are always relatively uncommon, certainly far more uncommon than the prey that they consume. And of course the prey are more uncommon than the plants that they consume. I’ve been intrigued by predation for a long time. I’m intrigued by carnivores because of rareness. Early in my career, Tim, even before I did grizzly bear work, I was deeply situated in the world of wolf conservation.
While gray wolves are fantastic, and I’m fascinated by gray wolves, I’m fascinated by lots of native life forms. Gray wolves gave me the chance to focus on restoration. When I started gray wolf work back in 1980, and I’ve been working on wolf recovery nearly daily now since 1980, when I began, gray wolves were very, very, very uncommon, and I was seduced. I was seduced, Tim, by this notion of restoration. Taking something that was amiss and putting it back together again. That’s what kept me fixated, if you will, on carnivores and restoration.
Tim Ferriss: Why not become an attorney, or a math teacher, or an Instagram model? Why did you choose nature? Why did you choose ecology? Was there any formative experience or conversation, fork in the road, that led you into that world to begin with?
Mike Phillips: Yeah. Well, dude, I would be a lousy model, so that ain’t going to happen, buddy. Now, teaching is valuable and important. Serving as an attorney, we’re a country guided by laws. That’s important too. Those are wonderful ways to contribute. But I am at my core on outdoor guy. I knew when I was 12 years old, back in 1970, I saw on my parents’ little black and white TV, you know back in the day you got ABC, CBS, NBC, or PBS. That was it. I saw in 1970 on that little black and white TV, the National Geographic special on the pioneering grizzly bear research being done in Yellowstone Park by John and Frank Craighead.
I said to myself, at 12 years of age, “I want to do that.” I would have you believe, Tim, that I might have bested the Craigheads about 18 years later. I was in Yellowstone National Park. I was studying a large carnivore, but not one that was naturally occurring, but uncommon, like Craigheads and grizzly bears. I was actually working to restore a species that had been extirpated. This was a fire in my belly since I was 12 years of age.
Tim Ferriss: And we are going to talk about wolves, but I want to get there vis-a-vis a few other species, or at least one other species, and maybe some macro issues. You mentioned 12 years of age. You’ve obviously done a lot since age 12, and we won’t be able to cover all of the stories, and all of the studies. But I have some notes in front of me, and I have bullets for prompting certain things, and I actually don’t know any of these stories. So there’s one that clearly popped out and caught my eye because it sounds so odd.
I thought we’d start with one that caught my attention, and I quote, “I’m sure that the students in the dorm would be willing to donate used tampons to grizzly bear research.” What is the context on this?
Mike Phillips: Well, now Tim, we are talking about women in Alaska. Back in the day, back in the early 1980s, there was this sense that menstrual odor, menstruating women shouldn’t hike in grizzly bear country. Interestingly enough, there was some research that showed that menstrual fluid, actually the blood from menstrual fluid elicited as strong a response in polar bears as the odor of their primary prey, the ringed seal. As I was building out my graduate research, I thought, “Well, maybe I could somehow test this on grizzly bears.” I thought if I could get women to help me, they would donate used tampons.
I would then take the tampon and I would distill from that mostly blood but the menstrual fluid. Then I would take that fluid and I was going to create these little … The story gets more interesting as we go. I was going to take that, and with a small rock, I was going to take a small rock and I was going to affix to the rock a proper amount of sphagnum moss or cotton, something that I could dip in paraffin and create a small waxy ball that I could then take the menstrual fluid and inject into the small ball that was designed to be fired from a crossbow so that when it hit the ground near the grizzly bear, the paraffin would blow up and expose the menstrual fluid.
Of course, we would have had placebos. We would have shot water. There was a concern that toothpaste got grizzly bears all excited. It was an attempt to see just what kind of behavior could be elicited from grizzly bears, odors from non-food items. We were most intrigued about whether menstruating women should hike in grizzly bear country. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to get funding for this study. There was some concern that I wouldn’t be good enough with my crossbow.
Tim Ferriss: I love that that was the —
Mike Phillips: That was the concern.
Tim Ferriss: That was the concern.
Mike Phillips: The crossbow. The work would’ve been done in Denali Park. There was some concern that visitors would see me shooting crossbows at grizzly bears thinking I might be trying to hurt them when in fact I was — probably I would’ve done the work deep in the back country. Then there was some concern about safety because a crossbow is a pretty powerful weapon and could be a pretty good delivery tool. Still, I’d have to be relatively close. I’m purposely agitating to bear to see if I can elicit a bear — anyway, to make a long story short, the study never got funded.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. What is the, in your mind, the craziest study that you have gotten funded?
Mike Phillips: Oh, the craziest study. Oh, Tim, that’s easy, buddy. When we let red wolves go back in the mid 1980s, these were all captive born animals. I was intrigued by the notion, how would they transition to life in the wild? How would they transition from a life in captivity where they were fed, for example, to a life of self-sufficiency in the wild? I got up with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a friend of mine, and we developed these radioactive shards. It looked like a little piece of glass that we could implant subcutaneously between the shoulder blades of the red wolves. Just a small incision, tuck it under the skin, sew up the incision.
We were making the red wolves radioactive so that when they would shit on the road and I’d pick up their scats, I could identify a scat to an individual based on the radioactive signature. I could look at how individual wolves, males and females with a known history coming out of captivity, how they individually transitioned to life in the wild, to a life of self-sufficiency, how did they scent mark. We, we know gray wolves are so very social, they’ll advertise their presence through scent marks, either urine, or feces, scats, or shit. I purposefully made red wolves radioactive.
Tim Ferriss: I feel like in the study that didn’t get funded, you’re trying to be some type of ecological ninja with the crossbow. In this one you’re turning animals into X-Men.
Mike Phillips: Yes. I may be the only wildlife biologist, well one of the few wildlife biologists, that had radioactive material show up on my doorstep in this lead box with a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.
Mike Phillips: Yeah, it was a good study.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to test what might be an urban myth on you. Having spent some time in Alaska and so on, very common for people to pack a firearm of some type for defense with a grizzly. I had heard a story, could be made up, but that at some point they took rangers. I’m really struggling for vocab here. They took something like six or 10 of them, and they had a barrel that they affixed to a line in a shooting range, if this is making any sense, so they could have the barrel go from far away towards the person with, say, a 40-caliber handgun. It was something like nine out of 10 missed this barrel when it was sent straight at them. Then they replicated the experiment with a large canister of bear spray. Perhaps not surprisingly, everybody managed to hit this barrel that was careening towards them. What are the most effective deterrents or defensive tools with respect to grizzlies?
Mike Phillips: When I did my work with grizzlies in the far Arctic, it was back in the ‘80s. There was no bear spray back in the day. We wouldn’t carry handguns. We carried shotguns. On more than one occasion, I should have been killed by grizzly bears. I’m really fortunate to be here. I got lucky. I got lucky because I made some bad decisions and put myself in a compromised position. If the bear had beat me up, it would have been completely my fault. It was such a remote setting area that, shoot, man, I probably never would have been found.
But nonetheless, today here’s what we know. Here’s what we know about grizzly country. Bear spray works. You’ve got to keep it at the ready. You want it holstered on your belt. You want to practice with some placebo cans because when the shit goes down and you’ve got to act, you don’t want to be acting for the first time. Novelty can kill. You want to hike with an awareness. You want to pay attention to where you are. You want to pay attention to your surroundings. You want to be cautious when you go into an area where the view shed is limited. There’s great value in hiking in a group. I don’t know of any cases where a group of hikers that’s four strong or more has been confronted with a physical encounter with grizzly bears.
Mindful, most of these encounters, nearly all of them, it’s not the grizzly bear’s fault. They’re startled, they’re scared, they’re frightened. They just react. You should be mindful that you’re probably at fault. Use your bear spray. If there’s going to be physical contact, you do not want to fight back in a case like that. You want to protect soft parts, and you want to lay still as hard as you can. You don’t want to move. You don’t want to fight back. Almost all the time, Tim, the bear will beat you up a bit, and they’ll leave you alone, and they’ll leave.
The exception to that is if the bear comes into your tent. If the bear’s coming into your tent, that’s different behavior. That could be considered predatory behavior. You want to fight as hard as you can fight in that situation because that bear has a different motive.
The fact is, folks, grizzly bears are no reason not to go and enjoy your great, big, wild country. They’re a magnificent part of the world. You give them half a chance, they’re going to avoid you. They don’t want anything to do with you. You don’t represent anything but trouble. For Heaven’s sakes, hike smart, hike in groups, be prepared with bear spray. But for Heaven’s sakes, above all else, go hike!
Tim Ferriss: If you’re hiking, just to clarify, and you startle, say, a female grizzly with a cub and you get charged, is the move to just drop and go to the fetal position? Is that the most appropriate response?
Mike Phillips: Well, if it were me and I —
Tim Ferriss: If you don’t have bear spray.
Mike Phillips: If you don’t have bear spray and she’s coming?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Mike Phillips: Get down. Now, bears will false charge. I’ve been party to that. They’ll false charge. They’ll stop. They’ll start stumping on their front legs. They’re clearly agitated. They’ll start woofing at you and chomping their gums. When they do that, they’re really upset, they’re really frustrated. Lots of times these false charges, Tim, while serious, don’t result in physical contact. But what you just described, you want to get down. You want to accept whatever is coming, protect your soft spots to the best of your ability. If the data mean anything, she’ll give up, and she’ll leave you alone. You can wait and she’ll leave, and you can get up and go get help.
Mike Phillips: Just one more thing, Tim. If people are hiking in grizzly country, another thing that is always a good idea, if you stay on established trails, the grizzly bears know where those trails are. They know where the people are, they know that you don’t represent anything but a bunch of trouble. And so if you’re where you’re supposed to be and they know it, that’s another way to hedge your bets. My Lord, my family and I have camped along Yellowstone Lake in the park and we’ll wake up in the morning and move out of camp to the main trail 30 yards away and there’s fresh grizzly bear tracks right on the trail and the bear knew we were in camp and knew that there was nothing there. People have, for a long time now, kept clean camps.
The bears know there’s nothing but trouble. And so stay in predictable spots too. And if you do go off of the established trails, if you’re excited by bushwhacking, I know I am. Then I’m especially careful to keep an eye out. I listen, I look, if I’m in a restricted view shed, I go slow. I sometimes sing. I got a Jerry Jeff Walker tune that I sing in grizzly bear country that would scare anything away. That’s some more good advice, I think, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Very good advice. And I’ve been taking notes because I do spend time in bear country, but I think I’ve taken enough notes for now on bears, specifically. Now I’d like to segue back to large predators and ecosystems in general.
I’ll mention also to people listening just a little bit of context. I wanted to be a marine biologist for 15 years or so and grew up on Long Island where at the time the rod and reel record for great white sharks had been set. In fact, the crazy shark hunter in Jaws was based on a guy named Frank Mundus who lived out on the east end in Montauk. I had this fascination with sharks specifically, and spent a lot of my time looking at sharks.
Which later, much after I had decided to take a different career path, re-emerged with introduction to scientists operating mostly off of different Caribbean islands who were doing shark tagging and looking at the top down effects of apex predators on various ecosystems. Could you talk to us just a little bit about the effects, and some of these get exaggerated by some folks on the sort of conservation front. Nonetheless, could you describe what role large predators or predators have in an ecosystem? Where do they fit? What happens if you extirpate, as you said, if you wipe out any apex predator in an ecosystem?
Mike Phillips: Well, the system becomes seriously compromised, and here’s why. We don’t have to make reference to complicated science. We can just make it simple. Common sense really matters. Let’s start with the premise that life is the most important force in the universe. It seems like a reasonable thing to assume. We know life is powerful. We know that. We know it has this great drive to find its way forward. Well, if that’s the case, then death has to be almost as equally powerful. If you are a species, you’re an organism, you’re an individual that survives by delivering death, you have to count. There’s just no way it works otherwise.
Now that said, for some of these ecological effects to be manifest, the carnivore in question, whether it’s a great white shark or a gray wolf, for them to serve as ecological engineers, for them to perform this mighty important role of delivering death, they have to be common enough for a long enough period of time to matter. Just quite simply, Tim, one gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park for one day does not make a wit of ecological difference. Now imagine, oh, about a hundred gray wolves in the park over the course of 20 plus years. That begins to create this change that leads to a system that’s healthier, more resilient, more diverse, more capable of perpetuating itself going forward. If life matters, then so too does death. If you are a deliverer of death, you have to matter.
Tim Ferriss: What is a trophic cascade? Then I’d like to go from that to a discussion of the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Perhaps you could just give us a basic overview of what that is.
Mike Phillips: That’s a great question, Tim. Thank you. It’s easy. Trophic is just a word that refers, you can imagine the food pyramid. A trophic cascade is when a species at the top of the pyramid, relatively uncommon animals like gray wolves, begin to have such a profound effect on the next section, next layer of the food pyramid, that those consequences cascade down through the rest of the pyramid. For example, if there’s enough gray wolves in place killing enough elk in Yellowstone Park and causing elk to change their behavior, the reduction in elk numbers and the change in behavior can bring about cascading effects through that food pyramid by changing the vegetative structure of the system.
You can see more willows in parts of Yellowstone Park. You can see more aspen in parts of Yellowstone Park. Those woody species have had a chance to experience a release, a liberation if you will, because there aren’t quite so many elk keeping them at two or three inches above the ground through heavy browsing. Rather, those aspen and willows can grow up. As they grow up, there’s other wide effects in the system. Pasture and birds become more common, little dickey birds that migrate from the neotropics to the northern Rockies and back again. All of that woody structure of an aspen forest, for example, provides great habitat for those pasture and birds.
The increase in willow can provide forage for beavers that can now make a grove when they couldn’t before. Because the gray wolf, uncommon, is impacting a relatively more common prey species in a manner that causes other parts of the system to change; that’s where you get this cascading effect through the trophic system, through the food chain, through the food pyramid. That’s all it speaks to. There’s a rhythm to nature, and if you remove one piece, the rhythm can be interrupted.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you very much. The reason that I wanted to bring that up, well the reason, I suppose this is actually a collection of reasons. The first is that I think I, like many people, have assumed in the past that if you are interested in supporting or restoring ecosystems, that you start from the ground up, right? So you would go from sort of smallest to largest, if that makes sense. What I’m hearing, and I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m going to work through a lot of stuff that I don’t yet understand of course.
While there may be many valid approaches for say restoring soil and so on and working from the ground up, that you can also and must also pay attention to the top-down effects that include carnivores. Like you said, the browsing patterns of the feeding patterns of these herbivores like elk, which otherwise might be concentrated in certain areas, isn’t as concentrated when you reintroduce the previously natively occurring predators. Is that accurate?
Mike Phillips: Yeah, of course it is. I mean, you’ve got it. It’s pretty logical. One of the reasons that you start with something like a gray wolf, they’re absent. Gray wolves used to be very common in the country back in the day. They were the most common large mammal in the United States. You could find gray wolves from coast to coast, east to west and north to south. You could find them on the grasslands. You could find them in the forest. You could find them in the swamps. You could find them in the deserts. They were widely distributed. We launched a war on the gray wolf that lasted, oh gee whiz, Tim, 300 years.
Tim Ferriss: Why was the war launched?
Mike Phillips: Yeah. I think that the early settlers of this country, the European settlers had sort of this zealot’s embrace of a manifest destiny to tame the wilderness. We had to make the land predictable so it could deliver for us. One way to promote predictability is to remove those pieces that operate against their own set of sensibilities. You can remove wild and self-willed nature from any landscape, and it becomes more predictable. Far less interesting, far less diverse, in the long run far less capable of supporting humanity. But nonetheless, in the short run you might think, “Oh, this is better. This is a better country now that we don’t have gray wolves. It’s better country now that we don’t have bison, and better country that we don’t have Indians anymore. We’re going to tame this landscape. We’re going to make it work for us.”
That is fundamentally the essence of the manifest destiny that settled this country. We simply were zealots determined to wring the wildness out of this country. My gosh, Tim, if you can find a better symbol of wildness than gray wolves, I’d like to know what it is. They got rid of gray wolves on purpose. They got rid of gray wolves on purpose, because it didn’t fit their sense of what this landscape, this great country should be.
Tim Ferriss: How did that, I mean the numbers, I don’t know what the numbers are, but they must be staggering. I mean the number of wolves that were killed. How does one implement that type of mass extermination? It’s not done by folks with .22 rifles in their backyard picking off one or two at a time. I mean, was there some systematic approach to it?
Mike Phillips: Yeah, there certainly was. Now, first and foremost, the approach was applied with great determination. The approach was durable. It extended across centuries. For a long time, the approach was supported and actively implemented by the federal government. There were a lot of gray wolves shot. Hundreds of thousands, probably well into millions of gray wolves were shot. They were trapped. Dens were located, puppies were dragged out of dens and clubbed to death. There were lots of murderous means applied to whip the wolf. What really pushed the war to conclusion and pushed the gray wolf to the brink of extinction in the continental United States was broadcast use of poison.
Gray wolves can get pretty smart, and they can avoid traps, and they can avoid getting shot, and they can den in tough to find places. But boy, you start spreading poison across the landscape and lace carcasses, and my gosh, the gray wolves just don’t have a response to that. You know, Tim, by the late 1950s, you’d taken this most common carnivore that’s really quite easy to coexist with, we had taken this most common carnivore and by the late 1950s you could only find a few hundred left in the far northeastern corner of Minnesota, in the Superior National Forest in the Boundary Waters Canoe area. When I began my work with gray wolves in 1980, it wasn’t long after they had first been listed under the Endangered Species Act in the mid 1970s.
It was nearly a low point when I began the work, my work, I worked in Minnesota, my first opportunity. There might have been maybe a thousand gray wolves on the ground, but they were nowhere else. Since that low point in the mid ‘70s, many of us have been working tirelessly over the last many decades to restore the gray wolf to suitable habitat, so it’s no longer threatened or endangered with extinction.
Tim Ferriss: We will definitely have time to talk about that. As you mentioned, it certainly appears to be maybe not the only missing piece, but one of the last missing pieces. So we are going to circle back to why that’s important, and why it’s time sensitive. I certainly feel strongly about that. I have the luxury of waiting for fat pitches, as Warren Buffett would put it, in the sense that I don’t take a lot of shots. I remember a friend of mine who actually long ago worked for a governor of a large state, he said to me when we were having pizza and wine one time, as I was feeling torn among many different causes and opportunities and obligations and invitations and so on.
He said, “You should just imagine that you have a six shooter on your hip that has six bullets. You get to shoot six bullets per year. Meaning you get to spend that ammo on things that are worthwhile.” I suppose it could be pun intended in this case, but I’ve decided that what you’re talking about is how I want to spend at least one of those rounds. So we’re going to come back to it. What I want to do first, if it’s okay with you, is to rewind the clock just a little bit. The video that in some ways led to us talking has been criticized as being overly simplistic and so on, which is How Wolves Change Rivers, which people can find on YouTube.
It’s been viewed more than 40 million times, maybe 50 at this point. Nonetheless, it shows visually what you were describing in terms of a trophic cascade. You are someone who had boots on the ground, in the sense that in ‘86 you started serving as the first leader of the red wolf restoration program, which we could certainly get to. Then in 1994, the first leader of the Yellowstone gray wolf restoration program. How did you end up doing that, and what happened in Yellowstone?
Mike Phillips: Well, it’s a long story as to how I got to lead the red wolf program in the southeast. Which was, for folks listening, they should note, it was the first attempt in the history of mankind to restore a carnivore species that had been declared extinct in the wild. It is a fascinating story. Because I had done good work, and I had established relationships with people that came to know they could count on me. I’d have you believe, Tim, the best way forward in life is to not let people down, so they know they can count on you. Well, when the Yellowstone project popped, I had friends in high places.
They knew they could count on me, and so I was able to lead the Yellowstone project. Hell, I didn’t even apply for the job. It was simply an inter-agency transfer. The Fish and Wildlife Service just shuffled me from the red wolf program off to the National Park Service for the Yellowstone program, both agencies operating under the Department of Interior, which helped. We did go forward. In 1995, we began building that reintroduction program. Animals were released in 1995. I can tell you what, Tim, when we began the work, there were parts of Yellowstone that were, oh my heavens, they should have just been an elk farm.
There were so many elk in the system, 19,000 animals to be specific on a stretch of the northern quarter of the park that’s known as the Northern Range, entirely too many elk. I couldn’t take a step on the Northern Range without stepping on elk tracks or elk shit. My Lord, there were elk everywhere, too many for the system. By the time we began releasing gray wolves in 1995, and then when the years passed, the system began to change because elk became less common. They started behaving differently. I was in the park just yesterday visiting one of the old acclimation pens where the ecological consequences of predation are most manifest.
Tim Ferriss: What is an acclimation pen? I apologize.
Mike Phillips: In Yellowstone Park, we would bring the wolves from Canada. In Yellowstone, we’d put them in pens so they could grow acclimated to the release site. It took about 80 or 90 days before we thought that they were ready for release.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Mike Phillips: So yesterday I went back to one of these acclimation sites. My Lord, Tim, it could not be more different over the last 20 years than if it tried. It now supports this rich, robust aspen forest. It supports a rich, robust willow community that lines this active beaver stream. None of that was in place 20 years ago. Of course, that video has been watched 40 million times, because nature can be pretty dramatic and that’s a beautiful portrayal that largely gets it right.
Predators matter. Predators matter. Now in Yellowstone, to be fair, gray wolves made a big contribution, but so do grizzly bears and so do black bears and so do cougars and so do coyotes. Predators matter, and they matter because they help ensure that there’s a depth, there’s a breadth to any particular system. You can go back. One of the greatest ecologists of all time, a gentleman named Aldo Leopold and he wrote this essay entitled Thinking Like a Mountain, and he was the first to poetically observe that only the mountain has lived long enough to understand the howl of the wolf.
Only the mountain knows that too many elk is a big problem. And the only way to address too many elk is to make sure you’ve got good predators in place doing their job. If life matters, so too does death. It’s fascinating. It’s fascinating the way nature is stitched together. It is redundant and it is hard to understand, but sometimes it reaches up and smacks us upside the head and says, “Holy mackerel. Holy mackerel. Wolves can change rivers!”
Tim Ferriss: So you were in a leadership position with this reintroduction. When did you leave the project, or when did you leave the work in Yellowstone National Park?
Mike Phillips: Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you, because it was a very difficult period in my life. I left the park in the early summer of 1997. And you might think, “Well, you tell me you wanted to work there since you were 12 years old. You land in the park in the fall of ‘94, and by early summer of ‘97 you’re gone. That’s not much of a shift. Well here’s what happened. I had grown fascinated about the role of private land and private assets to advance the recovery of endangered species because two wolves, two wolves showed me private land matters. One was a little wolf in the southeastern United States known as 351, the first red wolf born in the wild in decades. And by the time we finally got around to studying 351, we realized she spent most of her time not on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, but rather on private land.
And then fast forward to my time in Yellowstone, another young wolf known as number three, right after release from the great assemblage of public lands that is Yellowstone and the national forests that surround the park, number three went to private land. And I began to think holy mackerel, even in the big western public landscapes of Montana and Wyoming and Idaho, private land can matter. And in 1995, I had the good fortune of meeting Ted Turner. Ted is a hero of mine and he is a great big slice of Americana, bigger than life with a great big heart and an even bigger imagination.
And Ted and I, over the course of about 18 months, found a way forward that together we could illustrate beyond doubt the power of private land and private assets employed in collaboration with state and federal governments to advance the restoration of imperiled species as a bonafide redress for the extinction crisis. Which is a crisis, and we need to speak to that today, Tim, because it’s the ultimate backdrop for all of this work. But I left the park in ‘97 to co-found with Ted Turner, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, and Turner Biodiversity Divisions. They have from day one stood as the most significant private effort in the world to use re-introductions to restore imperiled plants, birds, fishes, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, on and on. I’m so proud to be a member of team Turner.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about the extinction crisis, because this is a backdrop, as you said. And one of the things that I strive very hard to do is understand multiple perspectives and positions as related to any issue. And when it comes to, say, predators, for a whole host of reasons that we’ll probably get into, the conversations can become very heated and very divisive very quickly. So very early on, one of the questions that I sent to scientists, and that would include you, is, well, I’ll just read it. I’ll just read a couple of the questions, but then we’ll focus on one. So I asked as related to a couple of things, what decisions are time sensitive in the next handful of months that really matter, if any? Next question, what are worthwhile and measurable goals to have in the sort of what gets measured, gets managed camp of thinking that I had talked about points of greatest leverage impact long term effects?
I also asked, this is the one I wanted to highlight, what do well intentioned people on the conservation reintroduction side get wrong or say that makes them look ridiculous or uninformed? And the reason I’m using that as a segue is that as a non-biologist, non-scientist myself, I’ve heard people say, “Well, species go extinct all the time.” Which is certainly true, right? So what makes what you see in the field from the data and so on different from the normal ebb and flow of species just not hacking it in the broader sweep of evolution and natural selection?
Mike Phillips: It’s the pace of change, Tim. Of course extinction is simply the death of a species. That’s happened since the dawn of time. But it’s the rate of change and the scale of change. So let’s think about that for, but I want to go back. You asked one question, what do conservationists get wrong? And we speak about the extinction crisis. Here’s the one thing that everybody gets wrong, that humans could go extinct. Humans aren’t going to go extinct. Humans and cockroaches and coyotes are going to inherit the earth. Now, it may not be an earth worth living on. And there could be masses of people that lead lives of outrageous desperation. Not a life that you or I or anyone else would choose to live, but they’re still living.
They’re still alive. They’re still a sentient, carbon-based organism out there trying to make ends meet. I think what we’re doing is so deeply fouling our nest that we’ve got a serious problem. So that’s the one thing that we get wrong. But back to your question, the real startling fact now is the pace of change and the scale of change. So across 500 million years, this planet has supported multicellular life. And across those 500 million years, there have been five previous great extinction crises. The first occurred about 435 million years ago during the Ordovician era. The most recent one occurred about 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous era when an asteroid slammed into the planet off the coast of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula measuring something like six miles across and traveling at something like 45,000 miles an hour. And in a geological instant, Tim, that asteroid ended the reign of the dinosaurs.
Well, now the sixth great extinction crisis began during the Anthropocene era, the era of man. And the Anthropocene began in the late 18th century, if not centuries earlier, that the current extinction crisis is worldwide, species are disappearing at probably a thousand times faster than the background rate that you would assume if things were more settled. And in this case, it’s not a speeding asteroid that’s causing the problem, but rather it’s us with this relentless pursuit of dominating the planet for one end: to advance the cause and the prospects of humanity. So I would say to you and all your listeners, no matter who you are, the extinction crisis should matter.
Let’s assume for a moment that you’re a person of faith. How can you love the creator and not love the creation? And how can you stand by and watch something you love be destroyed needlessly without rising up in defense? Or let’s assume for a moment that you’re a secular humanist and you believe rather than faith, It’s facts and data and logic and empiricism that matter. Well, Tim, the best science tells us that the fate of humanity has always been and will always be decided by the health of local landscapes the world over. The extinction crisis makes clear, those landscapes are not the least bit healthy. We continue down this path at our great peril.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. And I have to ask you, do you ever have days when you are just overwhelmed by the magnitude and seeming acceleration and growth of behaviors by humans that just seem unstoppable? I mean I am certainly trying to be a force for good in whatever small way I can be in the world, but I sometimes feel like I’m sort of the girl in the apocryphal story of walking down the beach with thousands of starfish laying on the beach, more and more getting washed up, and she’s throwing in one at one at a time every few minutes, and somebody walks by and says, “What, do you think you can save them all? It doesn’t matter.” And she says, “It matters to this one,” and throws the next one in. But there are times when, and I know that some of my friends feel this way as well, it just seems like a foregone conclusion that we are going to, as you put it, just foul the nest and destroy our environments to the point that it’s irrecoverable. And if people continue to have sex, continue to buy lots of plastic, continue to behave in the ways that they’re behaving, which are fairly understandable in some respects because everyone is self interested in response to incentives, mostly short term. How do you digest that type of feeling or overcome it? Because it is something that comes up for me, I’m not going to lie.
Mike Phillips: Well, a couple of things, it’s a great question. I know from my own work over now, going on 40 years, that restoration is an alternative to extinction. I know that. I know that we can choose to be different. I know that we often act as misguided gods, but I also know that we can choose to act otherwise. And when I was a little kid, I was six and seven and eight and nine, when I was becoming me, my family really only did one thing. Man, I’ll tell you what, Tim, we played baseball. My dad played pro ball before I was born and my brothers and I played baseball. I played baseball until I was 20 years old. I was going to play professional baseball. That was what was going to move me forward. And when you looked at how I played the game, I was always the kind of kid to help manufacture runs.
My brothers were deeply gifted athletes. They just showed up and they were rock stars. The only thing the good Lord gave me was the capacity to practice. I could practice the shit out of that game. I’d be out there early and I’d stay late, and I just learned through my own youth that manufacturing runs, just working with great determination, is a way forward that I found deeply satisfying. You combine that with my awareness that restoration is an alternative to extinction, and my deep belief that the world is run by those who show up, I wake up every morning ready to go.
Tim Ferriss: So you have hope, then. I mean, you’re not —
Mike Phillips: I have determination. I think that’s more important than hope!
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I agree with that.
Mike Phillips: But I have some hope, too, because I’ve recognized that if you believe in a god, if you believe in a god, and I know a lot of your listeners are probably people of faith, I think that if there is a god, that what she gave us was this great right to choose. We can choose to be different. We can choose to celebrate the importance of wild and self-willed nature. We don’t have to continue with the way we’ve been. We can choose to be different, and that’s what motivates me. That’s what gives me hope. I know that choice is a reality.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, determination is more important than hope. I remember, it was probably 2009 or so, I want to say 2009, 2010, when I received as a gift, a staff shirt, from the production of the movie Avatar. And Jim Cameron is, he’s a very smart guy. He’s very intense. He’s very determined, and known for having grueling productions, in part because they’re so ambitious. And as he put it, he’s been on the podcast before, that he knew it was going to be the most difficult movie production in history, most likely. And so he gave all of the staff shirts which had a quote on the chest, and the very first line was: “Hope is not a strategy.”
Mike Phillips: There you go. There you go.
Tim Ferriss: And so speaking of strategy, the way that this conversation came together, the way we met is pretty wild just given all the factors at play. But let’s talk about Colorado for a minute, and we’re going to zoom in and out. So we’re not going to do just Colorado, but I don’t live in Colorado. I live in Texas, and I’ve certainly spent time in the great state of Colorado and I love it. You guys have wonderful wildlife, fantastic skiing. I should also point out that I’ve gone to Colorado to hunt.
I do not oppose certain types of hunting, which is also why I was in the Brooks Range. It’s a beautiful state. And all of that as backdrop, I was not aware of the significance of Colorado when it comes to this keystone species, if I’m using it correctly, that we call the gray wolf. Could you describe why Colorado is in some ways the last missing piece? Because I certainly did not know any of this, and then it caught my imagination for a lot of reasons.
Mike Phillips: Why, I certainly can, and one reason that you didn’t know about it is this story that is the motherlode of opportunity for wolves in western Colorado has not been told well. Western Colorado possesses certain characteristics that are just superbly suited for the gray wolf. Principally among those attributes, there’s over 17 million acres of federal public lands in western Colorado. So Tim, it doesn’t matter that you live in Texas, doesn’t matter that your listeners live all across the country, listeners all across the world, or at least for folks in this country. What matters is those are your national forests. The White River National Forest is just as much your national forest, whether you live in Denver or Austin, it doesn’t matter.
That’s the whole point of federal public lands. Western Colorado was graced with over 17 million acres of federal public lands, and across those federal public lands, they support 700,000, an estimated 700,000 deer and elk. After the recreational hunter has removed about 80,000 deer and elk, there remain on the ground about 700,000. When you look at what makes wolf recovery successful, you need a big patch of federal public lands. That’s the 17 plus million acres, and you need a big prey population. That’s the 700,000 deer and elk. It is a biological motherlode. On top of that, Coloradans have a sensibility that’s different than many states. Coloradans celebrate their wildness. Coloradans have indicated over decades that they would willingly welcome the wolf home.
And then finally, I would have you believe from an ecological and symbolic standpoint, restoring the gray wolf to the great state of Colorado does a good job at helping to restore that state’s natural balance, and it would serve as the archstone, the final piece, Tim, the final piece of the restoration puzzle that connects gray wolves from the high arctic all the way to the Mexican border, there’s no other place in the world, and you can imagine restoration of a much maligned, misunderstood, persecuted, large carnivore over such a continental and sweeping scale. That is restoration magic of the finest kind. Both WolfActionFund.com and the RockyMountainWolfProject.org are trying to move that idea forward to ensure that the gray wolf finds its way back to its ancestral homelands in western Colorado.
Tim Ferriss: And we’ll talk also about the organizations, and I’ll link to those in the show notes for everybody. But let me paraphrase what I heard in that last portion of what you said, because it’s part of what drew my attention to all of this that we’re discussing, is it’s — actually, I’ll ask it as a question. Is it fair to say that nowhere else in the world exists an opportunity to reestablish a major carnivore at a continental scale as does this opportunity in Colorado? Is that an accurate statement?
Mike Phillips: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so —
Mike Phillips: And isn’t that exciting? Isn’t that exciting? My Lord.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it is exciting, and I’ll tell you part of what makes it so appealing to me. So we talked about trophic cascade. We talked about the importance of this type of top-down impact already, and how necessary that is. We also talked about how, as you put it, you’ve been drawn to the rarity of carnivores. And the reason that rare draws my attention is not only because there may be a, in many instances, certainly with the gray wolf, a lack of sufficient numbers, but also that you don’t need to reintroduce millions of wolves to have a tremendous, tremendous impact on, positive impact on natural ecosystems. You don’t need tens of thousands, as you put it. If you look at this pyramid, at the very top, you have much smaller numbers than at the bottom. So if we’re looking at the opportunity to reestablish a major carnivore at a continental scale, how many wolves need to be reintroduced over what period of time for that to stand a very good chance of being realized?
Mike Phillips: Oh, not many, Tim. You’re absolutely right, buddy. It would be over the course of maybe two years, maybe three. If you were to translocate, oh, gee whiz, 15, 20 wolves a year over the course of a couple of years, from say Montana to Colorado, you let them go. They take care of the rest in rather short order. Let’s say within a decade, those 20, 30, 40 wolves that you translocated from Montana, released in Colorado, they’d give rise to a population that would be approaching a hundred strong. We could assume for this discussion that a viable population, that would be something 250 wolves. You would see that probably within the first 15 years or so, maybe 20 years after release, and it would get there with a great deal of certainty. We’ve done this work before. It’s exactly what we did in the northern Rocky Mountains. We know how to do this cost effectively. We know how to do it certainly, and most importantly, we know how to do it humanely.
Tim Ferriss: What do you hope the ripple effects would be of this if it’s done? Because for a lot of people listening, they might say, if they don’t have some great affinity for the wolf for some reason, which a lot of people don’t. What are the beneficial larger scale effects that are plausible, outside of the repopulating of wolves themselves by doing that? If such an initiative were successful, what would you hope some of the ripple effects to be?
Mike Phillips: Well, Tim, thank you, because ultimately that’s why I wake up, as I said, every day excited, determined to try to do a little more than my fair share. I believe that restoring gray wolves to western Colorado has tremendous power as an accomplishment. It would make clear that wolf restoration provides a new way of relating to nature, a new way for us to go forward to help end the senseless destruction of the natural world through thoughtful, purposeful, well-designed reintroduction projects.
As a conservation scientist, Tim, who is keenly aware of the growing magnitude of the extinction crisis, and we just spoke to that moments ago, I know that restoration efforts that inspire people are essential to humanity’s well-being, lest we continue to grow increasingly disconnected from our evolutionary past and divorce from a relationship with the natural world that promises peace, prosperity, and justice for not only human life, but non-human life. And I want to emphasize to your listeners, there’s no equivocation here. They should make no doubt that the stakes are high and growing ever more so. So we spoke about the sixth great extinction crisis. It’s tightening its grip on the planet, compromising all that is really important. But restoration reminds us that we can choose to be something other than misguided gods. It illustrates how we can change. It makes clear that restoration is an alternative to extinction.
Tim Ferriss: Why is this controversial? And I’m asking mostly for people listening because I’ve looked into this a lot, but I’d love for you to speak to why wolf recovery is so divisive. I mean in this day and age, I would hope people to be past the Little Red Riding Hood image of kind of fairy tale, all-powerful, evil wolf archetypes. But it’s a carnivore. I get it. I would not want to be eaten by wolves, wouldn’t want all my livestock to be eaten by wolves. I mean there are a lot of concerns, but why is it so charged and so divisive? And could you speak to real versus, justified versus unjustified concerns?
Mike Phillips: Yeah, well, it’s a problem. Wolf restoration’s a problem. Wolf restoration is controversial. It’s divisive because people embrace the mythical wolf. Far too many people believe that the wolf has an almost supernatural ability to exercise its predatory will on a whim. And consequently, wolves create this wake of death and desolation and destruction wherever they go. And yet, Tim, the real wolf? The real wolf is not even a shadow of its mythical self. Unfortunately, the myth is as strong and is as wrong for the real wolf. Oh, my Lord. Life is a daily struggle to survive. For the real wolf, starvation is a common cause of death for the real wolf. They’re not even built well for the job at hand. Tim, they’re not well-suited to their predatory lifestyle. Their body’s not well-built for the job. They always kill things.
They live on things bigger than themselves. Even a small white-tailed deer tends to be bigger than a gray wolf. Even a gray wolf’s weight on average, 100 or 90 pounds, a small white-tailed deer weighs more than that. Their nose? Their nose is not well-built for the task at hand. That long nose ensures that the biting power at the tips of the canines is much reduced compared to say, a shorter nose of a cougar. Their teeth? Ah, gee whiz, their teeth wear down and break. A beaver’s teeth, you may not know this and the listeners may not know, but a beaver’s teeth are ever growing. If you’re a gnawing rodent, having teeth that grow your entire life, that’s a good thing. That’s not the case for a gray wolf. Their legs? Their legs are great for traveling.
There’s an old Russian proverb that says a wolf is kept fed by its feet. Well, that’s good. Gray wolves can travel at great distances, but after that, when you look at their legs, their forelimbs are not heavily muscled in contrast to a cougar or a black bear or a grizzly bear. And the reason being is that gray wolves’ front legs don’t supinate. They can’t reach around and grab you. In contrast, a cougar or a grizzly bear can reach around and grab you. That’s why their forelimbs are so heavily muscled. When you look at a wolf’s feet, their claws are decidedly uninteresting.
Mike Phillips: They’re always exposed. They wear down. Oh, gee whiz. A grizzly bear, a black bear, they’ve got great big claws. A cougar, he’s taken the notion of claws to an extreme by keeping his retracted so that anytime they’re needed, boy, they’re ready to go. They’re ready to go.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let me pause you for just one sec. So I understand all of that, but I don’t want to make wolves sound like they’re complete evolutionary misfires. They’re pretty well built —
Mike Phillips: I was getting there.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right. I was just going to say, unlike domesticated dogs, their less muscular chests allow their forelegs to be more closely underneath their center of gravity. So there are benefits, but it’s not like they just —
Mike Phillips: They’re not misfits.
Tim Ferriss: Well, they’re also not super villains. So out of how many hunts would a reasonably healthy but not supernaturally powered wolf pack succeed in a kill? Are there any data on that?
Mike Phillips: There’s great data on all of these aspects about wolf ecology. The gray wolf is one of the most studied large mammals in the world. We know a great deal about gray wolves and we know they fail. Every time they go hunting, Tim, they come up empty-pawed about seven or eight times out of 10. Hunting is dangerous. I did a study of wolf skulls in Alaska. I looked at 225 skulls from animals that had been shot by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to minimize predation pressure on the local caribou population and the local moose herd. So these were animals that had been shot.
I was looking at their skulls for evidence of blunt force trauma. How often have they been kicked in the head by a moose, for example? Tim, fully a quarter of the skulls showed a broken nose, broken jaw, broken skull. A good friend of mine, Rolf Peterson, has studied wolves and moose in Isle Royale since 1972, Rolf has never done a necropsy, which is just an autopsy of an animal, never done a necropsy on a wolf that hasn’t shown evidence of blunt force trauma: broken rib, broken leg, broken nose.
Here’s the point: their life is tough. It’s difficult to make a living in the woods with your teeth. They got two things going for them. Two things going for them that make them wonderfully adapted and successful. I said moments ago they were everywhere back in the day, coast to coast, east to west, north to south. Despite all of their liabilities, they have two assets that put them in the green. Here are the two assets. They are doggedly determined. They wake up every day and they go to work, and for a gray wolf going to work, that means she’s got to put seven to 10 pounds of food in her belly a day. Now they’ll go many, many, many days with no food at all. Theirs is a feast or famine existence, but on average they’ve got to put the equivalent of seven to 10 pounds of food in their belly every day they go to work. They’re doggedly determined.
The second asset: they are supremely social. There’s that Rudyard Kipling poem Law of the Jungle and there’s two lines in that poem that read “The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” They are doggedly determined. They are supremely social. They are successful because of those two assets, despite all their liabilities. But it’s crazy for people to think that wolves exercise their predatory will on a whim, they don’t. But because people embrace that mythical wolf, it’s that embrace that gets in the way of wolf recovery. That’s why it’s so controversial. They’re not willing to acknowledge the real wolf, which the best available science, much of which I’ve helped collect, says that coexisting with the gray wolf is a rather straightforward affair that requires only a modicum of accommodation.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk about the people who are not — actually, not the people, but the concerns of the people who are opposed to wolf reintroduction. And I spent a lot of time reading up on this, watching videos because I wanted to understand their perspective and I should also say that, as a bit of context for people listening and I don’t think that you knew this either, that I have family in farming. I have supported American Farmland Trust among other nonprofits related to farm land and so on since 2011 or 2012 when The 4-Hour Chef came out and, as I mentioned earlier, I also hunt. So it’s not as though I have stones to cast at hunters or farmers and ranchers, but there is opposition from hunters, outdoors men and women who are concerned that wolves will wipe out big game or decimate local big game populations. You also have ranchers who are very concerned that wolves will kill their livestock and really devastate them economically. How do you respond, or how would you respond to those people?
Mike Phillips: Well, here’s what I say, and I’ve been saying this for a long time, and these statements are backed up by decades of reliable research, including many papers published in very good journals. So this is really very reliable science. First and foremost, we know that gray wolves are not a threat to human safety. They just aren’t. I never dismiss anybody’s fear. If they truly are concerned about their safety because of gray wolves, their fear is their fear and they’re entitled to it. I simply say, “Well, I appreciate your fear. It’s unfounded. There’s nothing that we know that tells us that that’s a justified concern.” And then I can tell them countless stories, and I can tell you stories, too, today, that make clear, at least in my life, gray wolves have never, ever been a threat. So that’s the human safety issue.
Wolves and livestock, it is true. It is just true. Again, framed by decades of reliable research, it’s the atypical wolf that kills livestock. Most gray wolves don’t. Wolf depredations on livestock do not represent a threat to the livestock industry. The depredation events are just too uncommon. For example, in Montana with 800 or 900 gray wolves on the ground in Montana, there’s about 50 head of cattle killed a year. 50 head of cattle out of over 2,000,000 is not a threat to the industry. Now, if they’re your 50 head of cattle, you’ve got a problem. I acknowledge that. Fortunately, I know that we have very good tools at the ready for resolving conflicts when they arise and very good tools at the ready for ever preventing conflicts from occurring in the first place.
And then as it relates to wolves and big game and wolves and big game hunting, I’ve been a big game hunter. I understand that recreational pursuit, I get that, but here’s what we know. In Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, lots of big game hunters there and Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, lots of big game hunters there. There’s been no interruption with thousands of wolves on the ground in the Great Lakes states and thousands of wolves on the ground in the Northern Rocky Mountains, there’s been no interruption of big game hunting in those states. For years, Tim, I served as the Ranking Minority Member of the Montana House Fish and Game Committee. And then I was the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Fish and Game Committee. I saw this not only as a biologist, this issue of wolves and big game, I saw it as a biologist, but also I saw the issue as a state representative and a state senator.
And most of the time, people were coming to our committees to express concern about too many elk. Most of the elk management units in the State of Montana are either at management objective, as decided by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, or over objective. For Heaven’s sakes, Tim, there’s areas in Montana where you can hunt elk six months out of the year because the state is trying to affect a population reduction. And some of those areas with that very liberal elk hunting season is in wolf country. There are simply no data that would support the claim that gray wolves are going to kill enough elk or deer to cause the big game applecart to fall over. It’s just not true.
And I’d finally say to hunters, “Can’t you just celebrate the opportunity to hunt big game in country where you have a kindred spirit doing the same thing? Don’t you find some kindred connection with another great predator, that being the gray wolf, that in contrast to your prospects, if you fail to kill that deer or that elk, you’re probably not going to go home and go hungry? In contrast, if that gray wolf comes up empty-pawed, she’s going home and going hungry.”
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about a few of the tools that might help with reintroduction. Tools which could be physical, could be just incentive structures. Let’s say wolves get reintroduced. Reintroduced wolves have been killed in the past by ranchers through trapping. Wolves have been released and then they’ve been killed. It doesn’t always happen, but it does happen. How can you minimize the conflict between wolves and humans? What are some of the practical, tactical tools that you can use to either keep wolves away from livestock, to incentivize people to not kill wolves or at least be compensated if their livestock is killed? What are some of the approaches that you think would be most helpful?
Mike Phillips: Well, and nobody will be surprised by this, but we know that shepherds matter. They were called shepherds back in the day. Now they’re called range riders. But having a presence in and amongst your livestock makes a world of difference. You can affect changes in wolf movement patterns across short periods of time by just being there. You can get the wolf to leave your mob of cattle, your mob of sheep. Just ride your horse at them, they’re going to run away. So range riders make a world of difference. You can employ different husbandry practices. You can specifically begin to manage your cattle, for example, in a fashion that promotes a greater degree of herding amongst the livestock so they stay in bigger groups. That creates defensive opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. You can modify where you’re having calving take place.
That would help to minimize the exposure of young cattle to gray wolves. Those are some, and certainly a compensation program can take the bite out of a problem, so to speak. If you suffer a loss of a valuable calf because of a gray wolf, you could fairly claim the right to be paid. You had your private property taken from you by a public asset, in this case it was a gray wolf, and so we know that compensation programs help, too.
You know, you can even modify gray wolves’ movement patterns and their behavior by hanging strips of flagging. You might find this hard to believe, but it does work. Hanging strips of flagging from a fence. It’s called fladry. Lo and behold, fladry, these strips of flagging hanging from a fence flapping in the wind creates confusion for a gray wolf and they tend not to go through the fladry. So you can encompass a calving area with fladry to buy yourself some security as well because the gray wolves are bothered by that flapping flagging. There’s lots of techniques that can be employed to find a way forward. I’ll say this, and maybe I over-simplify. We can put an astronaut on the moon and bring her home back again. We can take your heart out of your chest and put it back better than before. I promise you, we can figure out how to coexist with gray wolves.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask, just to dig into that a little bit more. Playing the role of rancher, let’s say, I think humans, all humans including me, are prone to look for the path of least resistance or the least amount of work that can do the most, whatever the objective might be. So if I’m a rancher, and you mentioned a few examples of changing herding behavior, calving locations, and so on; that sounds like a decent amount of work. And certainly if the herds are really large, I can imagine if the operations get larger, that’s certainly going to be the case. And maybe it’s even more of an onus for the smaller rancher without as many hands to help.
But how do you incentivize that behavior? Because if I’m a rancher and I’m not going to be penalized for shooting a wolf, and I do have that fear of a wolf killing my livestock, a gun and a bullet are a lot cheaper and a lot faster, a lot easier. I don’t have to think about it as much. How do you incentivize the behavior that you want in this case? How would you suggest we approach it, even if it’s just forming a group to figure out how to approach it? But I always try to look at sort of behavioral modification failure points, and I have not done this with ecosystems, but I’ve certainly done it with tens of thousands of people trying to follow diets or stop smoking or fill in the blank. How do you incentivize the behavior you want if it requires extra work?
Mike Phillips: Well, that’s a great question, Tim. Thank you. Well, first I would point out, and I admit my bias as a state senator, I hold laws in high regard. I recognize that we’re a law-abiding country. We’re a country founded on laws. Laws don’t always allow for the path of least resistance to be followed.
So, for example, you just can’t go shoot stuff. You can’t just go shoot wildlife. We have laws in this country that say wildlife are a public trust asset managed by state and federal agencies for the public’s benefit. You don’t own the elk. I don’t own the elk. You just can’t go shoot an elk any time you want. You can’t shoot a gray wolf, necessarily, anytime you want. That might be the path of least resistance. It happens to be illegal. Oh, if you don’t like that, okay, okay. You could try to change the law, but I don’t think anybody would argue that we just abandon laws and begin to ignore them willy-nilly.
But, nonetheless, I appreciate the path of least resistance. I know I tend to follow that path when I can. I have made the point over and over again that I would be more than willing to incentivize coexistence with gray wolves by advocating for very liberal management on private land. It’s your ranch, it’s your problem. You take care of it. We want to make sure that your response to taking care of it is backed by laws so you’re not a law breaker, but we can do that. Shoot the wolf on private land, if the laws would allow for that. That’s liberal management. I promise you a dead wolf’s not going to get in your chicken coop anymore. They wouldn’t do that much anyway, but you get the point. But in contrast, Tim, if you could embrace the notion of liberal management on private land, the flip side, the flip side of that is very conservative management on public land.
Now this is land that’s owned by you and me and everyone else. Those 17-plus million acres that I made reference to earlier in Western Colorado, the White River National Forest, for example, we own that land. That land is not owned by any one rancher, and we have subsidized that rancher extensively to use that resource. We’re sharing it with that rancher by charging that rancher a fraction of what that grass is actually worth.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Just to clarify, what you’re saying is that private ranchers can use public land for grazing at low cost, and that’s where you would want to see stronger rules as related to management.
Mike Phillips: Yes. Yes. It’s not any one person’s land. It’s the public’s land. I could make a case that there’s nothing a gray wolf can do on public land that’s wrong except threaten human life. Okay. But if you’re there subsidized by the American public to be there, you choose to there, it’s a willing choice. Nobody put a gun to your head and said, “Your business model has to rely on using the public’s grass and the national forest.” Okay, okay. We’re already helping by charging a fraction of what it’s worth. The cost of that money. You know, Tim, there’s no free lunch, buddy. I’ve never found a free lunch in my life. The cost of that money, the cost of that subsidy, is recognizing that you have less opportunity to follow that path of least resistance. So I’m all in on finding a way forward with the ranchers. I find their concerns to be valid, even though, and I can share data that make clear that it’s the atypical wolf that kills livestock. Something like 99.95 percent of cattle in the Northern Rockies are never bothered by gray wolves.
It’s a very, very small .01 percent, .05 percent number of cattle. But if you’re the one that just lost two calves last night, you’ve got a problem. And we’ve got good tools for resolving that conflict. And sometimes I think we can let people follow the path of least resistance on private land. That makes sense to me, but I’m not sure that makes sense on public land.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned something earlier that I want to revisit for a second, which is saying that you can’t just shoot, say, gray wolves or other species willy-nilly, and that’s certainly true in a lot of cases. We’ve been talking about Colorado. Could you talk a little bit about what is happening right now on a national level and tell us what ESA stands for, and in this case, not Emotional Support Animal, but something else.
Mike Phillips: Yeah. The ESA in the context of our discussion today would stand for the Endangered Species Act. It is the bedrock foundation for the recovery of imperiled species, like the gray wolf. Absent the Endangered Species Act, there would be no gray wolves in this country. There would be no grizzly bears in this country. They also need those big tracts of federal public lands so that the national voice matters in terms of deciding their future, not just a local or a private voice, but we’ve talked about that. What the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has recently done is move an idea forward, a proposal, I think it’s misguided, a proposal that would say, “Because of the good work that we’ve done with gray wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the work that we’ve done in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, principally, we don’t need to do anything else anywhere else.”
Well, I think that’s an odd, misguided interpretation of their mandated duties under the Endangered Species Act. I don’t think the proposal will be finalized. If it is, I don’t think the final version will stand up to judicial scrutiny. I think the gray wolf will continue to be protected under federal law in places like Colorado. As I said earlier, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund both aim to move the notion forward of recovering the gray wolf to this great big patch of opportunity that is in Western Colorado.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask just a quick pause and question. How much of its historical range does the gray wolf currently inhabit?
Mike Phillips: In the continental United States?
Tim Ferriss: In the continental United States.
Mike Phillips: Yeah, in the continental United States, Tim, despite decades of hard work and I’ve been honored to be a big part of that, as I’ve mentioned earlier, my work started in 1980, decades of hard work by deeply determined scientists and conservationists, the gray wolf now still only claims occupation of about 15 percent of its historical range. The flip side, it continues to be extirpated, extinct from 85 percent of its range.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you a question that I’d love to hear you take a stab at; I’m sure you have an answer for it, which is: why are different animals proposed for delisting at different points in their rehabitation of their historical range? In other words, if you had something like the bald eagle, I’m pretty sure that, of course, perhaps it’s an exception because it’s the symbol of our nation, but that’s not going to be taken off the ESA after it’s occupying 15 percent of its historical range, and there’s probably a lot between the bald eagle and the gray wolf, but why is such a range permissible?
Mike Phillips: Yeah, some species are simply exhausting. I think with the gray wolf, for example, the United States Fish and Wildlife Services are just exhausted by it. They’ve had enough of it. They want to be done with it.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that?
Mike Phillips: They’re tired.
Tim Ferriss: It’s just because it’s such a hot topic?
Mike Phillips: Right. It’s exhausting. It sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It commands a big budget. They’ve got other issues to address. Their job is a big job and they find themselves spending a lot of time with gray wolves and not so much time with other species that are equally deserving. I would have the Service believe the solution is not to delist prematurely; the solution is for the United States Congress to properly fund the Endangered Species Act, which it’s never done. But interestingly enough, and I’ve pointed this out to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and I hold that agency, Tim, in high regard. I was proud when I worked for the Department of Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service. I was proud to wear that brown uniform. But the fact is the Endangered Species Act doesn’t say, “Do this recovery work until it gets hard, then you can quit.”
That’s not in the law. What the law says is, “Go do this hard work.” And for a species like the gray wolf, that was very common, very controversial for a lot of unjustified reasons. It’s hard to achieve recovery. I’ve even published in good journals, the simple good science journals, peer reviewed papers, the simple observation, maybe the way the law is written, maybe the way the endangered species act is written, maybe the way it defines recovery, it’s too much. Maybe it’s too much for this country. Maybe we have to dial it back a bit. Okay, that’s a fair consideration. But until the law changes, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has to apply a common sense interpretation of the words of the law as it goes forward. That’s what you do in a law-abiding country. It doesn’t always mean you get to follow the path of least resistance.
Tim Ferriss: So, Mike, I’d love to talk about strategy, solutions, timelines, all of that, because I, as I mentioned at the, perhaps, midpoint of this conversation, asked a number of questions to many different scientists, including yourself. And one of them was, “What decisions are time-sensitive in the next, in the next handful of months?” I said one to three months, but time-sensitive in the next handful of months, that matter, if any. Worthwhile and measurable goals was another one. And then I also asked where could $25,000 to $50,000 be applied for the greatest leverage impact or long-term effects. And I had a whole host of other questions, but those were a few of them.
What can people do? What is happening right now? What are the deadlines, and how can people help? And then, I’ll speak to my own involvement, as well. But, perhaps, you could just just fill people in as to what can be done, and what the time sensitivity is with the opportunity. And just to restate the opportunity, the opportunity is to capitalize on an opportunity that exists nowhere else in the world other than in that fair state of Colorado to reestablish a major carnivore at a continental scale. I mean, that’s really remarkable, but I’ll let you take it from here.
Mike Phillips: Yeah, Tim. Thank you. It is remarkable that you could put the archstone in place and connect gray wolves from the high Arctic to the Mexican border by restoring a viable population to Western Colorado. So the listeners understand it, just a little bit of history. A few years ago an educational effort rose up. It’s known as the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. I’m honored to serve on the science advisory team with other scientists of repute. E.O. Wilson’s a member of the science team, for example. And the project sits there, and it says —
Tim Ferriss: Could you just — as a pause, because many people might not know, who is E.O. Wilson?
Mike Phillips: Oh. Well, as I said, E.O. Wilson is also on the science team. I would have you believe Ed is one of the greatest biologists who’s ever lived. His work is Darwin-esque in scope. He was a professor emeritus at Harvard, and is arguably the world’s greatest naturalist. He’s written several powerful books.
Tim Ferriss: Two Pulitzer Prizes.
Mike Phillips: Yeah, Pulitzer Prize winner. He has received, I think it’s, the ecological award equivalency of the Nobel Peace Prize. Ed is a rock star, and a great hero of mine. And Ed’s on the science team, but there’s other really good scientists, too.
So here’s the point of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. It just set out with this simple aim to say, “If we can tell the truth about gray wolves, the truth as defined by decades of reliable research, we believe Coloradans will conclude that coexisting with the gray wolf was a straightforward affair, that only requires a modicum of accommodation.” That conclusion advances restoration.
And off the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project went. It tried to move the federal government in the position of action. It had some opportunity to move other conservation visionaries to action. And the project had some good success over the last few years. Putting out really good information, and telling the truth.
Well, not long ago, early 2019, another group sprang up. It’s considered a sibling organization, if you’d like, that wants to bring forth change with a great deal of certainty. That group is known as the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, and it’s a group of conservation visionaries that recognized the suitability of gray wolves being restored to Colorado as an important part of restoring the state’s natural balance. The Action Fund aims to put wolf restoration on the 2020 ballot, and let Coloradans decide whether the wolf has a future in this state or not. The Action Fund intends to use direct democracy to bring forth the decision.
I think the Action Fund would be excited and celebrate an affirmative decision, “Yes, gray wolves should be part of the future.” They’ve got great polling data over the course of decades that show Coloradans are keenly supportive of this idea. So if you asked me, “What can be done?” Folks can be mindful of both of those efforts. There is a —
Tim Ferriss: Well, let me, if I may, interrupt, I apologize. But just since I know a lot of my listeners are like me, in the sense that they like numbers, how many signatures or dollars do you need, by when, to give the re-introduction effort the greatest chance possible of success? And in this case it relates to the ballot. But, how many signatures by what date? How much money? What is actually needed?
Mike Phillips: Yeah. What I have seen the Action Fund put forward recently is that there’s a $600,000 need by the 15th of September to ensure that a sufficient number of signatures are gathered to properly firm the wolf restoration initiative so that it appears on the 2020 ballot.
Now that is admittedly a lot of money. But there are people all over this country that might want to rise up and say, “I want to do my part to restore the ecological integrity of my National Forests.” So, as your listeners think about this, the landscape of relevance to this idea is a landscape that we all own. That there are National Forests, and restoring the balance of our National Forests is an exciting, inspiring endeavor. And I believe that if enough people rose up, $5 here, and $25 there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.
Tim Ferriss: So $600,000 by September 15th. What happens to that $600,000? What does it get used for?
Mike Phillips: Well, as I understand it, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund will use that money to offset the remaining cost to ensure that 200,000 signatures are collected by the end of the month.
Tim Ferriss: Which month is that?
Mike Phillips: The end of September.
Tim Ferriss: I see. Got It.
Mike Phillips: We have until September 30 to collect 200,000 signatures supporting the wolf restoration initiative. While the official deadline for signature gathering is December 12, the self-imposed deadline of September 30 was a requisite for ensuring cost-effectiveness and building essential momentum for the eventual statewide campaign to pass the initiative.
Mike Phillips: 200,000 signatures would be more than enough for the Secretary of State for Colorado to say, “All right, all right. Well, Coloradans clearly want this to be on the 2020 ballot. The signatures more than exceed the minimum threshold, and therefore this wolf restoration initiative will be on the 2020 ballot.” And then Coloradans will have a chance to vote.
Now, folks all over the country, followers of yours in Texas might say, “Well, Mike. I don’t get to vote.” And I say, “Well, that’s true. But you can still influence the future of your National Forests by choosing to support the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, or the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund. It’s a really clear opportunity to illustrate the power of direct democracy, the power of the people to rise up and say, ‘We think this is an appropriate future for our great public lands in Western Colorado.’”
Tim Ferriss: And I want to also just mention a few things related to this. Number one, I’ll reiterate that the goal is $600,000 in additional funds to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, wolfactionfund.com. So $600,000 by September 15th, in order to help gather 200,000 signatures from Colorado residents by the end of September. So that’s the goal.
And as you put it just at the tail end of what you were saying, my interest in this is as a Texas resident, as someone who is interested in sort of ecological restoration, which, by the way, we are all part of, and sustained by, ultimately, is of interest because of the last piece of the puzzle, characteristics which define this, which we’ve already talked about, in terms of the continental connection for a carnivore of this time.
And so that is reason enough to support this. And you don’t know this, Mike, but I’ll tell you now, what I’m going to do is I am going to offer $100,000 matching grant. And what that means is, if my audience can provide $100,000 before September 15th, and, actually, we should make it even tighter than that, within a week of this podcast coming out, I will match that, and provide another $100,000. So you have that commitment right off the bat.
Mike Phillips: Yeah, Tim, I don’t know what to say, buddy. I had never imagined that. But thank you. I can promise you this, the money will be put to very good use, and you’re standing on high ground.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I appreciate that. And I’m not bullshitting people listening. Mike had no idea. I’ve been doing a lot of additional reading. This has been something that’s consumed a lot of my time over the last few months, but especially in the last handful of weeks. And when I’ve bet on startups in the past, when I’ve made good investments, and I’ve had that sort of gut feeling of importance, there’s very rarely been a lot of doubt. There have been some shared characteristics, though. There’s been an ambitious plan, or an end, or a very achievable, manageable objective with gigantic long-term possible consequences, if that makes sense.
Because saving the world is not a good goal, stated as such. But, in this case, you have predators introduced in small numbers, 15 to 20 wolves per year, very, very manageable, very concrete, which can then connect a species, continentally, which can affect ecosystems nationally, and beyond nationally. I mean, that’s really incredible. But that doesn’t make it fully actionable until you have a team on board who can execute with a proven track record of doing so.
And that’s where you, Mike, former manufacturing, engineering runs baseball player, and other people involved with this, come in. So I really feel like this is an Archimedes’ lever, where a relatively small amount of money can have an enormously disproportionate output of impact, if that makes sense. So suffice to say, I’ll just reiterate, if people listening to this podcast donate at least a $100,000 within a week of this podcast coming out, Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, wolfactionfund.com, I will match that with a $100,000 of my own.
And what I’ll also do, and I’ll mention this again at the end, is I’ll put together a short link on my site. So if you go to tim.blog/wolf, then it will take you to a page that has links to all this stuff. So it’ll be easy to find.
What can people do who don’t have — two questions. If people want to support in a bigger way, right? So if they want to give thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially, should they still go to wolfactionfund.com, or is there a better avenue?
Mike Phillips: Well, first, Tim, I got to go back, folks. I had really no idea. I’m almost speechless. I didn’t expect this. And as people think, as I listened to Tim’s very generous offering challenge, I was reminded, and I’m an old field biologist, I don’t want folks to think otherwise, but I have always been enamored by poetry, and I was reminded of an important stretch of a poem that, if you don’t mind, Tim, it feels appropriate to me. And before I answer, what could folks do otherwise, wolfactionfund.com’s a good place to go. But I want to share these lines, because you’ve so inspired me.
It’s these lines from Horatius at the Bridge. Horatius was a Roman soldier who was trying to protect Rome from an advancing army. This was a poem written in 1842 by Thomas Babington Macaulay. It’s a long poem. I’m not going to read much of it. I actually am not reading, I memorized these lines. But they say simply, “Haul down the bridge, Sir Counsel, with all the speed ye may; I, with two beside me, will hold the foe and play. In yon straight path a thousand may well be held by three. Now who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?”
Tim Ferriss: I love it.
Mike Phillips: Tim, thank you brother.
Anyway, wolfactionfund.com is a powerful way to get involved. There’s links there. You can talk to the people that run the program. I’m honored to be a member of the science team for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. That’s just rockymountainwolfproject.org. And those are good ways to engage, and if folks want to really dive into the deep end of the pool, they will find willing partners standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep that bridge, to make sure that we stop the degradation of the planet, and use restoration as a great inspiration to remind folks that we can choose to live better with the world. This is the only world we’re going to get, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. And for people who want to help, but who don’t have the funds currently to donate, whether they’re Colorado residents, or otherwise, how can they help with this? It’s time-sensitive. Are there other ways for people to help?
Mike Phillips: Well, for your Colorado listeners, certainly, there are ways that you could volunteer as a Coloradan to become a signature gatherer yourself. I understand the website has instructions on how to become a petitioner. What a great way to engage in direct democracy. I know, as an elected official, that what we need in this country is a more engaged electorate. Signature gathering is a great way to engage. And if you can’t volunteer to gather signatures, then, of course, you can make doggone sure to sign the petition, so that you’re saying to your Secretary of State, “I want this on the 2020 ballot. I want to be able to cast a vote for the future of the gray wolf in the great public wildlands of western Colorado.”
Tim Ferriss: And I will also just answer a question that, no doubt, many people have in their head, because I did, which is, “Can we do this digitally?” The answer is, “No.” Unfortunately, there are very strict rules for what can be accepted in terms of signatures and petitions, and it needs to be done in-person.
So what I’ll do is also work with Mike and people running the wolfactionfund.com website, to ensure that there are instructions, whether it’s there, or on their social media at @RockyMtnWolf, spelled, @-R-O-C-K-Y, M-T-N, wolf, which point people to where they can sign, or where they can volunteer for gathering signatures, because it is time-sensitive.
So that’s part of the reason for jumping on this. And, Mike, if there were one or two books, or documentaries, about wolves that really influenced you, or that you recommend most to people, do any come to mind?
Mike Phillips: Yes, immediately. One, especially, Tim, is so very important. And it’s not about wolves specifically, although there is an essay in the book that speaks about wolves. I spoke about the essay earlier, it’s entitled Thinking Like a Mountain. But the book is A Sand County Almanac, by —
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell that? Can you say that one more time, please?
Mike Phillips: A Sand County Almanac, by —
Tim Ferriss: A, separate word, Sand, S-A-N-D, Almanac.
Mike Phillips: No, Sand County —
Tim Ferriss: County.
Mike Phillips: Almanac. Yep. A Sand —
Tim Ferriss: Sorry. I was close.
Mike Phillips: — County Almanac —
Tim Ferriss: All right.
Mike Phillips: By Aldo Leopold is a fantastic book that everyone should read. It speaks to the need for a land ethic. It speaks to the need for us to recognize we’re just as much a part of this planet as the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us. That’s what I would recommend folks read, A Sand County Almanac.
Tim Ferriss: Great. And I’ll link to that. I just found it. Oxford University press, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, subtitle, 1949 nonfiction book by American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist, Aldo Leopold.
Mike Phillips: And he’s a great poet. It’s a beautiful read. You will not be disappointed.
Tim Ferriss: Wonderful. Well, let’s see. Mike, I think this is a sensible closing spot. I want people, while the iron is hot, to consider, if they’re so inclined, helping with this. I don’t take a whole lot of shots, and I pick very, very, very carefully. I don’t take the spray-and-pray approach to causes, or engaging with feel-good exercises. I like to feel good, don’t get me wrong. But what I really like are small, targeted shots, with relatively small amounts of money that can have gigantic impacts over, not just months but, years, decades, and, in this case, possibly, centuries. I mean, it is really a rare, rare, rare opportunity.
So the websites that people can check out, and I will put all of these under tim.blog/wolf, just to make it easy to remember. But you can also visit the Rocky Mountain both Action Fund, that’s the most relevant for raising $600,000 by September 15th, that’s 2019, which would then be used to help gather 200,000 signatures from Colorado residents by the end of September. The other website, Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which is just rockymountainwolfproject.org, and we’ll add many others. The social, as I mentioned earlier on Twitter and elsewhere, is @Rocky, M-T-N, wolf.
And the challenge grant stands. It is $100,000 from my pockets to this cause if listeners can donate at least a $100,000 within a week of this podcast going live. So that is that. And, Mike, do you have any other closing words, recommendations, thoughts you’d like to impart to the audience before we close this conversation?
Mike Phillips: Well, Tim, pal, let me say again, Thank you so very much. It’s been my high honor. And I would say in closing, there’s just no doubt that the great public wildlands of Western Colorado need to have their wilderness soul restored in the form of the gray wolf. The lands need us, the gray wolf needs us. Tim has sketched out a way forward. Everyone can contribute. And I’ll leave the listeners with one final thought. E.O. Wilson, we spoke about Ed earlier, is a great man, and a kind man, and a poet, and one of my heroes. And Ed wrote many years ago, and maybe this will inspire your listeners, Tim, to rise up to your challenge. And Dr. Wilson simply wrote, “There can be no purpose more inspiriting than to begin the age of restoration. Reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.” I hope folks will help us do that, Tim. Thank you, pal.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my pleasure. And this is very important. And it did not start as an emotional impulse for me. It really began as a sort of consideration of the facts, and how much could actually be done on an continental scale with relatively so little. And it is a very small window of opportunity with a clear deadline, which I like. I actually enjoy those types of table stakes. But it does mean that we need to get moving.
And I should also say that, I think, in a lot of ways, the gray wolf is supremely important, also symbolically. And I think a lot about symbols and metaphor, because humans are really evolved to use story, and metaphor, and symbol to piece together reality. And this isn’t going to get too abstract, don’t worry. But for, I think a — well, I don’t think, for centuries wolves were, gray wolves in this case, the canary in the coal mine. I mean, really foreshadowing some awful things that have happened over time to ecosystems, certainly in the United States, and abroad.
And I think that it could really be powerful for, conversely, the gray wolf to become, not the canary in the coal mine, but, in this case, a beacon of hope, and an example of strategy that actually worked for reversing a lot of these trends that are dramatically negatively impacting the world in which we live.
So it’s a very clear shot. There’s a clear strategy. There’s a clear objective. There’s a good team assembled. It’s very concrete. So I really hope that people listening will join in. I’ll be right there on the front line, and on the bridge, so to speak, with everybody else.
Mike Phillips: Yes, yes. I’m right there with you, buddy, on the bridge. Yes, sir.
Tim Ferriss: So thanks. Thanks very much, Mike, for taking the time.
Mike Phillips: Truly my pleasure. Thank you, pal.
Tim Ferriss: And for everybody listening, as always, we’ll have links to everything in the show notes, at tim.blog/podcast, and links for this episode, specifically, at tim.blog/wolf. Thank you for listening.
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2 Replies to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Mike Phillips — How to Save a Species (#383)”
Awesome episode. I just made a donation to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and hope others will too. Lets do our part and Tim will match with $100K of his own. Donate what you can. Every bit helps.
saw a mention of trophic cascades again in today’s newsletter (7/10/2020) – and thought i’d point you to this amazing book by Merlin Sheldrake: Entangled Lives. Bottoms up trophic cascades are talked about without giving it that name (as I recall) – it’s absolutely fascinating, especially how it reminds of the oneness and the interconnectedness of everything. Given your interest in fungi you may very well have already read this or mentioned the book.