The Roundup: A Conversation With Dan Thompson, Large Carnivore Biologist

This week, Wendy Corr talks to Wyoming Large Carnivore Biologist Dan Thompson about grizzlies, the predator attack team, and working with gigantic and dangerous animals.

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Wendy Corr

February 10, 202425 min read

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A Conversation With Dan Thompson, Large Carnivore Biologist

Wendy Corr

Well, hey there, folks, welcome to The Roundup! We’re a Cowboy State Daily podcast, featuring voices, opinions, issues and topics that are important to those of us here in the Cowboy State. I'm your host, Wendy Corr.

I get the privilege today of asking questions and having a conversation with Dan Thompson. Dan is the supervisor of the large carnivores section for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which means that when it comes to grizzly bears and wolves and mountain lions and all those big animals with teeth that we love to talk about, and that we love to read about, Dan is the guy who knows what's going on there. 

Good morning, Dan. I'm so glad to have you on our podcast today! Welcome.

Dan Thompson

Good morning. Thanks for having me. Thanks for adaptability.

Wendy Corr

We had kind of an issue getting everybody put together for this podcast today. But that's part of the fun, I think, just getting to know the people behind all of these things that we read about in the news, to me, is so much part of the fun. And Dan, that's why I'm glad that we've got you on the call today, and on the podcast today. 

Dan, first off, let's talk about your favorite subject... not. Not your favorite subject. Dan said he does not like to talk about himself. But one of the things that is so cool about Cowboy State Daily, and about the podcast itself, is that we want to find out who the people are that are making the news. So Dan, tell us about how you became a large carnivore biologist. Tell us about your journey. What is it that said, ‘You know what, I think that's what I want to do for a living.’

Dan Thompson

How far back do you want to go? (Laughs)

Wendy Corr

Well, you tell me.

Dan Thompson

Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it starts with your roots and where you grew up. I grew up in the Midwest, I grew up on a farm, and spent as much time as I could, outside. And I was one of those geeks that early on wanted to know about wildlife and actually wanted to be a biologist. I either wanted to be a finished carpenter or biologist. 

Wendy Corr

That's a tossup.

Dan Thompson

We didn't have a family farm, that was sold when I was a kid. So that really wasn't an option. But I was always very interested in wildlife in general. And I grew up in Iowa, so there was a lot less species, I guess, than there are here. And I spent a lot of time outdoors - hunting, fishing, trapping and things like that, but also reading a lot. 

And I ended up going to school at South Dakota State University and majored in wildlife and fisheries, and then bounced around quite a bit after that, working. And mainly, my first job was actually around songbirds and small mammals and habitat, and then I did actually a lot of work on wild turkeys.

And then I was fortunate enough to get into a study on mountain lions in the Black Hills, which is kind of probably the driver which got me here. You know, I was always fascinated with predators growing up. And I was very fortunate in that project to be in the right place at the right time. We have this population that decades ago didn't even exist, and the mountain lions recolonized that area and really rebounded, and grew exponentially. And I was there at a time when we were really learning about that new population. 

And as I was finishing there, a position came up with Wyoming Game and Fish here in Lander and it was - it's funny, it's a small world, Chuck Anderson, who's now in Colorado, he was my predecessor, but I knew him before and got that position. And yeah, I've been in Lander for 16 years - later this week, actually, I guess.

Wendy Corr

So Happy Anniversary!

Dan Thompson

Yeah. 

Wendy Corr

Dan, what is it about these large carnivores that draws you? What is it about them that makes you want to know more, and that makes you want to study more? What is it that gets you up and out of bed every morning when it comes to these animals?

Dan Thompson

Well, I mean, I think you used the term ‘love’ earlier, and I thought, I kind of laughed because there's a lot of hate and love, I guess, for these species. They're very - they evoke a lot of interest, and also a lot of controversy. But at the end of the day, I just really enjoy working with these particular animals. But I mean, it's not specifically these animals, that's just kind of the niche I've carved out, I guess. 

But, you know, predator-prey dynamics are fascinating to most people, myself included, and the fact that we have the same large carnivores here now, that were here a thousand years ago, is unique. And we're very fortunate to have that in Wyoming, and to be able to continually learn about that.

But more importantly, to apply the knowledge on the ground, and overall conservation and management of these animals with people, the dynamics there - you know, there's so many intricacies that occur when you're talking about these animals. It's a lot more than just the research or the contempt or love for these animals. There's all these different dynamics that work together. 

And I'm really fortunate to work with an amazing team of people that make my job a lot easier, obviously, having the men and women in our section that devote their lives to these animals. You know, that's what is exciting - to get up and be part of that team every day.

Wendy Corr

Tell us about the team, tell us about the people that you work with that help you to find out more, to research, to extrapolate that data, and then to make it accessible to those of us in the general population. 

Dan Thompson

Sure, you know, our section has grown through the years. It's kind of unique to the Game and Fish in that we're a statewide section. And we have personnel stationed at four different regional offices - Cody, Lander, Pinedale, and Jackson - but we work across the state. 

Now, the primary impetus for having the separate group work unit was - especially grizzly bears, grizzly bears obviously, require a great deal of effort in making sure we have people available 24/7 to deal with conflicts, but also people that are monitoring the population. 

You know, we're trying to celebrate the successful recovery of grizzly bears and move forward. And to be the people that are on the ground collecting that data, that are also conveying what you can do to keep yourself safe to the public, is very important. And it's also enough work, that we have people that are outside the standard model of where we see Game and Fish people in a region. And so we're able to actually focus on some of these things, that were taking away work efforts of other people. 

But we have individuals that are so extremely dedicated and knowledgeable about these animals, and working in these areas that are very rugged, it requires kind of the mind of a naturalist and a tracker. But you also have to be well versed with the public. And you have to have a tough skin and get yelled at and called names and things like that, but at the end of the day, you get to work in some of the most amazing country in the world and feel like you're making a difference. And I think that's what drives the people in our section.

Wendy Corr

Tell me the animals, specifically, as a large carnivore biologist and a part of the large carnivores section, what animals specifically does your section oversee? 

Dan Thompson

So, we don't oversee them, I guess, but we're responsible, primarily. The four species that we deal with on a daily basis, are black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves. And of course, we work closely with everyone else - Game and Fish and the public and private industries - to better understand these animals. And so it's very much a team within a team, if you will. And so those are the species we're responsible for monitoring and managing.

Wendy Corr

Grizzly bears, obviously - we're doing a grizzly story at Cowboy State Daily two or three times a week. 

Dan Thompson

That's true. 

Wendy Corr

Mark Heinz is calling you frequently to ask you questions about grizzly bears. What is your biggest challenge with monitoring that grizzly bear population?

Dan Thompson

I don't know that there's challenges with monitoring, I think the challenge is that we deal with the polarity of opinion when it comes to these animals. And also, there's so much outside interference from those that are strongly opinionated. And I get it, they're passionate about the animal, I think that's great. But it's much different than if you're the person on the ground dealing with it or living with it, recreating in those areas. And so just trying to battle misinformation, and trying to make sure we're doing what's right for the bears, and for the people that are in those areas. I mean, those are some of the challenges.

Obviously, when you have a species that's extremely iconic, such as a grizzly bear, but also does have the capacity to kill a human being, that makes things a little tricky. But, you know, the day to day job in the winter is obviously a lot different - they're sleeping. But you know, our people are really busy making sure that we're understanding, and making sure we're available to deal with conflict situations and things like that. 

Wendy Corr

You said day to day, what is a day in your life, Dan? 

Dan Thompson

Not nearly as exciting as it used to be.

Wendy Corr

Tell us about this.

Dan Thompson

People in our section are in the field a strong majority of the time, and I used to be that guy that was in the field 300 days a year. But it's more the opposite of that. 

But again, the day to day is very dynamic, we really don't know. Our phones are ringing quite a bit. And so there's always an excitement to what could happen every day. Sometimes we would relish a boring day here and there. But there's always the anticipation of, anything could happen. 

And so I honestly don't get out in the field as much as I used to, but I still make sure I do as much as possible. Because, I mean, that's what fuels the soul, and maintaining the ability to take part in long boring meetings and things like that. 

But you know, one thing that we're very proud of in our sections, we maintain that close tie to the field and our finger on the pulse. And I think it's very important that if we're talking to the public, or the media, that we're also out there getting dirty, getting our hands dirty, you know, getting bucked off horses, things like that. You know that we're out there, making sure that we can convey the actual context of everything that's going on. There's a lot of opinion without context, and that is less realistic of what's going on.

Wendy Corr

I'm sure have to deal with the challenges of that public interaction and that public interface - what are some of the things that are most challenging when it comes to trying to convey that information to the public? Is it that shift between the people who are here on the ground and who live with this every day, and then the people who are far away who have opinions? 

Dan Thompson

Well, I think it's just combating misinformation. There's a lot of that. We spend a lot of our time trying to rectify things that get promoted or told by people that are false. And I think that's a challenge, trying to stay abreast of all that out there. I guess at the end of the day, we're doing the same things we do every day. And I think that's where honesty and ethics and transparency and consistency are why we succeed on the ground with the people that we do. 

But again, it's very difficult. There's an urban-rural divide across the country and I don't know how to quantify it. It's more in the realm of sociology, psychology, that there's - so many people have this bond with large carnivores, and I don't know if it's some vestige of not being connected to that world anymore, that you feel like taking these animals on as something that you're excited about, makes up for that. I don't know. But, there's so much passion when it comes to these animals, that realizing that, I guess that's how you get through it. It’s dealing with the passion and just listening to people. 

I’m really circling around your question, I realize, but you know, the ability to listen to people and let them get some ideas off their chest.

You know, some of the more challenging things we've dealt with from a public information standpoint has been when misinformation has been pushed out. We had one scenario with a bear we dealt with several years ago, where there was this information out there that there was this injured bear, and we didn't do anything about it. And when these email blasts went out, I spent about a month on the phone. But at the end of the day, what these people didn't know, they just got an email, like Game and Fish is terrible, and call them and voice how you hate what they're doing, or whatever.

And having the opportunity to talk to these people, I mean, it took a lot of time, but you know, for them to get to know the truth of what we're doing, and behind the story was beneficial in the end. Now, we can't do that for the entire world, obviously, talk to everybody one on one. But, you know, getting the idea of the notions of why we're out there, and why we do what we do, versus being called thugs and things like that, that we are good.

Wendy Corr

You know, that's something that you hear in Wyoming, I think most of us have experienced. There's a perception that government is big and bad and is disconnected. And yet, when we have an opportunity to talk with and get to know our local Game and Fish wardens, our local game wardens, our local representatives right here who are doing the work, it's like - there's a disconnect, the people are great, but the organization is not so much. And that's something that you just kind of touched on, the idea that you can, when you talk to people about what your bigger and greater mission is, you seem to make more headway.

Dan Thompson

Right? I mean, it's easy to stereotype and hate an entity versus a human being. And so I think that happens a lot. On a larger scale, across the board, I get frustrated with the Fish and Wildlife Service, definitely personally. But again, the people I work with, for the most part, we get along really well and work as a team.

It's easy to let feelings of stereotypes and things like that rule the day, and I mean, I understand frustrations with how things work. There's bureaucracy, there's things that are involved - but none of us got into this field because we hate wildlife, right? And especially with our people, you know, there's headlines about bears dying, and you know, that we’re ‘murderers’ and things like that, but none of us signed up to do these positions because we like killing the animals.  

I mean, we do interact with the public a lot. And they're not always fun interactions, but they're honest. And we try to let people speak their mind and listen. And I think that that goes a long way. And especially in a future conversation that might hold that might occur - you know, we have to go out and verify depredation and things like that, and there's not always agreement with that. But telling people what they want to hear doesn't work in the end, right? You’ve got to be honest with them, and maybe take a lump that day, but at the end of the day, if people know that you're not going to tell them what they want to hear, but rather what the truth is, that's important.

Wendy Corr

You talk about depredation, and wolf depredation is obviously something that is becoming more and more of an issue as the wolf numbers grow, and as that divide between the wild animals and the domestic animals seems to shrink. Tell us a little bit about how much more difficult your job has become, now that we've got - is there more of a wolf problem than there used to be?

Dan Thompson

Honestly, the wolves are very interesting. And as far as the species we deal with, there's the most polarity when it comes to wolves  - from like, complete idolatry to complete hatred. A lot of things that have changed is, we've had to go through several years of moving beyond the endangered and threatened status to us managing the population, and there's a great deal of work that goes into monitoring the population, which is more than than for many species in the state. But at the end of the day, it's beneficial to have that level of data to convey what's going on on the ground. And honestly, we've seen more normalization when it comes to wolves, and a decrease in depredation and conflict removals in the last several years. 

Wendy Corr

That's fantastic to know. 

Dan Thompson

Yeah, I mean, it still happens. And those localized impacts are very real for the people that are experiencing them. But in the northwest part of the state, where we manage wolves, I feel like there's been a lot of good work and cooperation. And with everyone that's interested in wolves, whether from a good or bad standpoint, you know that there's people that are gonna respond to conflicts, and we have a compensation program for verified depredation. And we are managing the population to a level where it's very viable for the population, it's maintaining social structure, but it's also reduced the level of depredation and the level of animals we've had to kill for depredation. 

There's some notion out there that there should be zero mortality, and it's not realistic. And that's grown through the years from certain groups, especially with grizzly bears and wolves, this zero mortality type of mindset. And I think our goal is to reduce the potential for these types of conflicts that result in mortality. And the public's done a good job of looking at different ways to do that. It's a combination of all these factors, right? And so the wolf issues, what you hear about is more to the south of us now.

Wendy Corr

That's right. 

Dan Thompson

I mean, it's always there. But I think, believe it or not, through time, we've been able to normalize it and take some of that off the pedestal with data, and being able to honestly talk about what's going on with the population. I mean, there's some people that want zero, but there's some people that want double what we have. And so again, the polarity, we're trying to go somewhere in the middle and not everybody's happy. But our job isn't to make everybody happy either, is to do what's right for wildlife and for people.

Wendy Corr

One of the ways that wildlife and people interact is obviously Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park, people coming in and getting so close to the wildlife. And Bear 399 is a really great example of that. The world watches 399, and it's become maybe one of the most important celebrities ever to come out of Wyoming. And bears like her, how does that make your job more difficult? Does it make your job more difficult, to have that much scrutiny on one particular bear?

Dan Thompson

Do we have to talk about this? (Laughs) Oh, my, the 399 dynamic is very interesting. And you brought up this notion of celebrity bears, celebrity wildlife, celebrity humans, you know, that I think they create a false image of the rest of the population, potentially. I think it's amazing that people have had that opportunity to follow that particular bear, or other particular bears, and other wildlife species, but that one individual is not necessarily emblematic of all of those bears. And I'm not trying to take anything - I've actually met some very interesting people over the years that I wouldn't have without that particular bear. 

And it’s unfortunate, but I do think that it takes away from the larger story, that particular bear, or particular bears - when we assign celebrity status to any animal, it might take away from the larger story. And the reality of that bear, 399 in particular, you know, developed a situation of habituated people that worked for her. 

And it has, I mean, she is 28 years old now, I assume, but it doesn't convey to the rest of the population. I mean, following that particular bear for 28 years doesn't make you an expert on all the bears in the GYE. And so, yeah, those celebrity scenarios, I guess, if you want to call them, do make things somewhat challenging. 

Again, I we appreciate the interest in the species, the population as a whole. But sometimes, invoking different status of individuals makes it more difficult for us to look at all of it, And we realize that there's individualization within populations. But viewing a habituated animal in a park setting is not realistic of how these animals necessarily act outside of a controlled park setting.

Wendy Corr

On the opposite end of that, you've got other ways that these animals become, really, in the public eye. I recently did an interview with CJ box, the author who's who's already written a book, and it's going to be released here soon, that's about a killer grizzly. And he did extensive research with you, and what he called the predator attack team. Tell me about the research that he did, and the team that you are working on, with what I'm assuming, is negative grizzly human interactions. 

Dan Thompson

So yeah, I mean, every state, or most states have some level of this. There’s a Wildlife-Human Attack Response Team, or WHART, and ours is the Predator Attack Team. And it's basically making sure you have trained people that are able to respond, and on call, to deal with potentially attack scenarios from any of these species. And like, there's trainings that’s going on across North America and it's not limited to the Western Hemisphere, obviously. And there's a lot of issues with tigers and leopards and other species in the other side of the world. 

But this group of individuals - there's a lot of things that occur, obviously, in a human injury, or worse, fatality. And we have annual training that Brian DeBolt leads, who's our carnivore conflict coordinator, he kind of leads that up. And we have people stationed throughout each region, and it includes regional personnel, and then large carnivore section personnel. And it basically goes through a step-wise approach of what happens if there is an attack or fatality, and all the different things in place that need to occur during the investigation - the human safety component, dealing with the media, all these different things that have to occur to make sure we're dealing with everything appropriately, swiftly. And because there's also usually family involved and things like that. I mean, when something like that happens, it changes your perspectives on everything. And making sure that we have people that are trained to deal with it, and making sure keeping up on that training is very important.

Wendy Corr

And the number of wildlife attacks, whether it's grizzly, usually grizzly bears, it kind of waxes and wanes. There are some years that we have a number of grizzly attacks, and then there's others where you don't hear about it at all.

Dan Thompson

Yes. Those are good years. 

Wendy Corr

Where are we at right now, with the last couple of years?

Dan Thompson

We've actually been pretty fortunate in Wyoming - last year, we had one individual that was injured by a grizzly bear. We've had years with multiple people injured, and so you know, obviously our goal is zero every year - but with a high density of these animals, and higher density of people using the same areas, and especially, you know - COVID brought a lot of people to Wyoming. They called it Free America. And I was running into people in the woods, places I didn't even know where I was at, and I was running into people - and so with that, it's great that we have people coming to see the splendor that Wyoming has, but there's an increased potential for conflicts and for all kinds of things that happen. You know, search and rescue’s been busier over the years, just people going to the wrong places. 

But you know, we try to get as much information and education out there, again, to reduce that potential for these negative scenarios, but realistically we know that it's likely to happen. And so we've been fortunate the last couple of years, we've had low instances of injuries, and it's been several years since a fatality. But we always have to be on our toes to deal with that, no matter what. 

Wendy Corr

Absolutely. And we are glad that you and your team, and those of you who are working with the Game and Fish, and who are inside the Game and Fish, are trained to be able to deal with those things, and that we know that you're there as a resource for us. 

Dan, we're running out of time here, but I wanted to ask you one more question. And I think you, and others who are in your team as well, could probably answer the same way. What do you love most about your job, working with the Game and Fish as the large carnivore biologist? What do you love about your job most?

Dan Thompson

Wow, that's a tough question. There's no singular thing. And, you know, it's changed through the years. Like I've said, I'm so fortunate to work with such a cool team of individuals. That's something that's important. You know, we're kind of a family, outside of our nuclear family. We're our own family band of misfits, that is dysfunctional at times as well, because we're all very high energy individuals. And so that's something that I greatly enjoy. 

But you know, the opportunity to work with these animals, and get your hands on them, and walk where they walk, and follow in their footsteps and learn about them, is just something that I feel is very unique. And I’m fortunate to be able to say I can do that, and have done that. Again, I'm not in the woods as much as I used to be. But I also am able to choose to do that, I can cherry pick the days.

Also, I mean, the day you don't feel like you're doing what's right, or making a difference for wildlife is the day you have to question if you're doing the right thing. And I have never had that. I still feel like we're doing good things for wildlife. And there's always going to be inherent controversy and conflict with these species and people, but we've got the right team in place to make sure we're responding in that, and on the front lines dealing with those things. 

And I guess that applying the information we have on the ground is what is so nice. I mean, there's a lot of different career paths you can take to work with carnivores. And I’m biased, that working for the state agency gets you the most experience dealing with the realities of what it is to have these species here with high densities of people as well.

Wendy Corr

Well, Dan, this has been a really interesting conversation. And thank you so much for kind of shining a light into the behind the scenes of the things that we read about and that we see. So thank you for your time, and thank you and your team for what you're doing out there.

Dan Thompson

Thank you. I appreciate it.

Wendy Corr

You bet. And folks, thank you for tuning in to The Roundup. I've been your host, Wendy Corr. Tune in next week, we're going to chat with another fantastic Wyoming personality, people who are making a difference in Wyoming, who are affecting the news and the topics and the issues that we all want to know more about. So thank you for tuning in today. Thank you, Dan. Tune in next week. Have a great week.

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Wendy Corr

Features Reporter