Professor Spotlight: Dr. Mark Hebblewhite

Ungulates in snow

In this episode, we’re in the flow with Dr. Mark Hebblewhite, Professor of Ungulate Habitat Ecology, who reads a passage from Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” to open the show. The conversation then flows through Tolstoy's Russian landscapes, human ambivalence about wolves, the complex ecologies of the mountain west, and Mark's involvement in the Convention on Migratory Species.  

Episode Extras

Convention on Migratory Species 
Ungulate Ecology Lab

Story Transcript

JEAN POLFUS: Mark is very enthusiastic and very passionate about the work that he does. The reason we're doing this is because we care about conservation, about wildlife and Mark displayed that every day, 

ERIC PALM: Mark is like a powerhouse of a human. Intellectually brilliant, but also really socially and emotionally savvy. 

WIBKE PETERS: He really has that ability to captivate people. When I first met him, he was playing van Halen on the air guitar. And I just can't get rid of that image. 

POLFUS: He made up a game where we would play hockey and the whole lab got to take shots over a net in the hallway on the person who won was defending their thesis. 

PALM: If you're ready to work a lot and learn a ton, I don't think you can get much better of an advisor. 

TEMPA: Not only he's a great scientist, but he's a very good human being. 

ASHBY KINCH: This is Confluence where great ideas flow together, a podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. On Confluence, we travel down the tributaries of wisdom and beauty that enrich the soil of knowledge on our beautiful mountain campus. You just heard the voices of Eric Palm, Wibke Peters, Jean Polfus, and Tshering Tempa. They're talking about Dr. Mark Hebblewhite, professor of ungulate habitat ecology, in the Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. I'm your host Ashby Kinch associate dean of the graduate school. I'm delighted to share my conversation with Mark, who's been a professor in the wildlife biology program since 2006. His unbridled enthusiasm for the natural world has made him a magnet for talented graduate students from all over the globe. But as you'll hear, Mark learns as much from his students, as they learn from him. His research accomplishments are impressive, but Mark values most the impact he and his students have on public perceptions of wildlife and the influence their work has on public policy. Every episode on Confluence, our guests read a passage from literature about rivers. To start this episode, Mark reads an excerpt from Percy Shelley's Mont Blanc, a famous rumination on the natural sublime. Shelley's link between a flowing river and a flowing mind prompts a discussion of the shaping influence of time spent in the mountains. The conversation then flows through Tolstoy's Russian landscapes, human ambivalence about wolves, the complex ecologies of the mountain west, and Mark's involvement in the Convention on Migratory Species. Welcome to Confluence where we cherish the secret springs of human thought. Enjoy the float. 

MARK HEBBLEWHITE: This is an excerpt from Percy Shelley's Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni. 

HEBBLEWHITE: The everlasting universe of things 
Flows through the mind and rolls its rapid waves, 
Now dark -- now glittering -- now reflecting gloom -- 
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs 
The source of human thought its tribute brings 
Of waters -- with a sound but half its own, 
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume, 
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, 
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, 
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river 
Over its rocks, ceaselessly bursts, and raves. 
Thus thou -- dark, deep ravine. 
When I gaze on thee, 
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange 
To muse on my own separate fantasy, 
My own, my human mind, which passively 
Now renders and receives fast influencings, 
Holding an unremitting interchange 
With the clear universe of things around; 

KINCH: Thank you for joining Confluence, Mark. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me, Ashby. It's great to be here. 

KINCH: Yeah. We've we've been trying to make this happen for a bit and it's finally good to have time to sit down and talk. You're one of the prominent research professors on campus. So, we're delighted to have you, and I had you read that quote because, uh, you shared with me this fantastic quote from the George Schaller book, Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya. And it says, "Mountains are symbols of the unknown. Of the mysterious force that beckons us to discern what lies beyond that tests our will and strength against the sublime indifference of the natural world.” And that was the phrase that made me think of the Shelley poem. It's, it's kind of considered to be the origin of the romantic notion of the sublime, these grand landscapes that make humans feel small. And it's this counter enlightenment movement where the enlightenment is, uh, for people like Shelley is kind of narrowing the understanding of, of the human into scientific reason and he wants to sort of reawaken the soul. Um, but then, you know, you're a scientist and I, and I, I kinda thought it would be a nice point to start about what drives science sometimes is a passion for the natural world that kind of is prior to the scientific interest, right? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, no, absolutely Ashby. And I think that, you know, most people wouldn't recognize George Schaller, but they'd recognize the other book written by the companion of George during a three-month trek in the Himalaya for his Ph.D. So, George studied mountain sheep in the Himalayas and for three months was accompanied by Peter Matthison. His colleague and friend who wrote The Snow Leopard. Exactly. And so, and it was that sort of fusion of art, Peter, the writer and broad thinker and, and the young George, you know, in his Ph.D. who admits in another part of the book that really to pretend that the only reason he was studying, you know, mountain sheep in the Himalaya was for scientific reductionist reasons would be to lie. It was really because he enjoyed adventuring and exploring new places. And for someone like George and myself, uh, mountains really are those, right. And I feel like, you know, in all my research in mountains, you know, here in Montana and around the world, I feel like on any given day when I'm in the field, I really feel that sort of, you know, joy and that sort of, you know, ability to, to reflect on, on the power and wonder of nature and that, you know, something approaching being sublime. I would, I would probably be a lie to say, I felt sublime every day in the field, but. 

KINCH: Right, right. There's some drudgery involved. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, but even the drudgery itself approaches a subliminal state at a certain point when you've been hiking for 10 hours and you're cold and wet, you know, it's sort of fun. So, yeah, no, I liked the, the contrast of Shelley's and Schaller's quotes. So thanks, Ashby, yeah. 

KINCH: Well, and it's part of what elevate on Confluence is that this idea that, you know, we're trying to elevate what, what our great research thinker like you, you know, some of the ideas that might animate your work, won't be limited to just to science, a lot of it will come from these other sources and, um, in our back and forth, you talked about Tolstoy, for example, being one of your great loves and that if, uh, in one of the most influential courses you took as an undergrad was Russian literature. Could you talk a little bit more about that? What's, what's Tolstoy give you, uh, as a human or as a research scientist? Either one. 

HEBBLEWHITE: You know, it's a good question. I feel like, you know, one of the most vivid sections of Tolstoy's books for me is in War and Peace there's a wolf hunting scene where him and the nobles or not him, but you know, the protagonist and the other nobles go out wolf hunting. And it was really a window into Russian culture, really, and a window into another, another culture's view of, of nature and its relationship with nature. And the vivid detail of it, you know, was in some ways almost scientific in the detail, which Tolstoy would describe a samovar bubbling or, you know, the, the hooves clopping over the, of the grasslands as they chased the wolves. So, and I feel like that Russian literature, um, class I took had one of the things that struck me was the professor's ability to relate the environment and geography of Russia to the writings of Russia. And I feel like that inextricable link between landscape land is really part of Tolstoy, especially his short stories. Right? Like, How Much Land Does a Man Need? And other books like that short stories were really about Tol-, especially towards the end of his life, Tolstoy's really close relationship between the land and geography and people of Russia and, and his literature. 

KINCH: Tolstoy fits in really well with your work in a kind of weird indirect way. Uh, you shared this quote with me, "Our idea is that the wolves should be fed and the sheep kept safe." 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah. So, I mean, that was from War and Peace, so I think he was referring to what we would call to today is hawks and doves in sort of military jingoism. But, you know, it was also referring to the concept in, uh, in Russian culture that really recognizes, I think the nature of the wolf is, it's just to be, you know, there's another proverb that, you know, a wolf is fed by its feet. And so, there's nothing bad about the nature of wolf, Russians weren't particularly, you know, set out to sort of kill all the wolves just cause they hated them. And they just recognize that if you wanted to keep your livestock safe, one way to do it is just to make sure wolves are fed and then they won't bother your livestock. And so, it sort of, to me reflects a very, it reflected at the time when I read it a very different way of thinking about living with carnivores that, um, you know, in some ways was, was brought to you by, you know, Tolstoy's, Russian perspectives. And so if we jump forward into the 21st century, here we are with all kinds of culture wars, about large carnival recovery and conservation in our part of the world, between, you know, state governments, um, that quote comes back to mind cause there's been a, you know, humans have been living with walls for hundreds, thousands of years, and Tolstoy seemed to have figured it out with that quote, that we all are stuck in the opposite and thinking that we need just to control nature and control all the wolves and that'll solve all our problems. But. 

KINCH: Yeah. And, and you had said, you've said that, that the wolf conflict itself is one that you've waded into you've, you've, and you've received a lot of hate mail, uh, about that. Like, I, I was shocked by that actually, the numbers were shocking that you had, uh, written a report that receives in the thousands of responses, including death threats over some of the research you've done. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, well, I mean, I have a joke that if you take a sane person and you add a wolf to them, you'll get in essence, an insane person. And there's just something about wolves and other large carnivores and other parts of the world. But really around here, it's wolves, where it seems that there's very, a very narrow space for rational thought about whether wolves are good or bad and people fall into one of two camps, right? The sort of, and they tend to be you know described by rural, urban gradients, whether you live in a city and never have to deal with a wolf, which can be a kind of, you know, a pain to live with. Or whether you live in rural areas and do have the risk, however small of having livestock, you know, harried by wolves or harassed by them. And so, you know, and, and that, that result that sort of conflict, you know, bubbles up with, you know, popular media, you know, we've had Pamela Anderson and Taylor Swift sort of join, you know, both conservation and preservation campaigns that sort of have criticized our work. And at the same time we've had, you know, some of my work and my students' work used to sort of promote the idea that, oh, if we just kill all the wolves, we'll get more ungulates for us to hunt, right. Neither of which are entirely true. So, so we'll somehow bring out, you know, the best I would say and worst of humanity. And again, I think where do we find the roots of, of how to interpret that? We find that in other types of art and literature and other types of ways of knowing, I mean, we've known about the challenges of living with large carnivores for as long as it, as long as we've been human. 

KINCH: Yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm thinking too that, you know, that, that, uh, before I moved to Montana, I had not had a lot of exposure to Indigenous worldviews on a deep level. And since I've been here, I've, I've realized, you know, that, that's written into Western views of the wolf in a very negative, defensive way, but in Native worldviews, actually there's a much more, um, sympathetic is not quite the right word, but a deeper understanding of the reciprocity between a large charismatic mammal like that and us, large charismatic mammals ourselves and Medieval studies, um, you know, it's just a weird little side anecdote, but there's a very vivid passage in, uh, Parisian, um, uh, just a citizen of Paris writing a diary, diary entry about this awful year, where it was so cold, the Siene froze and wolves came into the city on the ice and were predating around the city of Paris or, I mean, literally right in downtown Paris, which for us is like almost impossible to imagine, but there it is. And it wasn't even that long ago, that was 500 years ago, right. Um, so, but in the West we kind of tend to see that as, uh, a raw competition, like this is a competitor in our niche that we have to control or extirpate. Whereas, have you encountered any ideas and sort of Native worldviews that kind of is a little bit more, you know, sensitive to that reciprocity? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, no, absolutely. And I feel like even, even Tolstoy's view of, of Russians was not to vilify wolf, but, but sort of just understanding that that's what they did, you know, a wolf was a wolf and it wasn't really to hate them or not. It was a contest of strength, the more the wolf hunting, but, but certainly with the First Nations people I've worked with in Canada, um, you know, there's a lot of variation there, but they have it a little bit more of a, I would say an ecologically based understanding of the role of wolves, both in terms of, you know, yes, they do hunt and kill things like moose and caribou and wolves and elk, but they're also very similar to humans, right? So, there's, you know, cultural stories and legends, and in fact, the evidence that humans learned to hunt bison by watching wolves chase bison off buffalo jumps. Right. And so, all the way down to, you know, sort of even clan names and some of the coastal, uh, Taku River Tlingit people I've worked with. I mean, there's wolf clans, bear clans, they figure heavily and prominently because I feel like, you know, traditional societies in North America see a lot of similarities between, well, we have our family groups and clans and so do wolves. And, and so I feel like there's a little less division and less, uh, cultural history of subjugation there. 

KINCH: So, you're, you're describing, this is a good segue you're, uh, described, uh, on your webpage and in your official title as a professor of ungulate habitat ecology, which I thought that tickled me pink when I saw that, because normally it's professor of biology, or professor of wildlife biology with a specialty in X, Y, or Z. So, what's the story behind that title and how does it fit your work? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, that, yeah, ungulate habitat ecologist. So, it's sort of, there's a couple of funny ways to answer this. Number one, I mean, I feel very lucky that I got this job because every time you add a term and like an adjective in front of a professor job, it cuts the search pool in half. So, really there were probably only about 20 people that applied for the job. But historically at the time, you know, we had in the program in the wildlife biology program, we had, you know, lots of professors, 20 or so professors, but there originally really wasn't one, one professor studying large ungulates. And my predecessor, Les Markham, who did, was retiring. And so, they really had a conscious sort of thought process that whoever we hire, we want to hire somebody who studies ungulates. I mean, come on, we're in Montana. And when people think of wildlife, they think of things like elk and bighorn, sheep, and deer. And so that was the sort of laser focus of that search. And I, and I mean it, I joke that, you know, it's probably why I got the job because there were so many adjectives in front of it. Um, but you know, now that I got the job, well what is ungulate habitat ecology? And when I think of, you know, ungulates are just deer, you know, member of the deer family, we think of species like deer or antelope in Africa. And when we think about their habitat, right, one way to think about it as, oh, well they eat grasses and forbes and shrubs, and that's what ungulate habitat is. But, you know, I, I guess I, I came at it and I actually consider myself more of a carnivore ecologist by training. I had sort of in my undergraduate studied wolves with one of Canada's most famous wolf biologists. Um, and very quickly when you study wolves, just like Tolstoy's quote, you realize that they're fed by their feet. And really the most important thing to a wolf, really, is its prey: ungulates. And around the world, wolves and deer are depicted in cave paintings, thousands of years old, 20,000 years old. And there's a long history. Ghengis Kahn the la-, you know, the history of Ghengis Kahn is that he was a descendant of a mother who was a blue wolf and a, and a father who was a deer, right. And so, you know, you very quickly realize that, you know, deer are where wolves are and vice versa. And so, if you want to understand ungulates, you have to understand their food, but you also have to understand their predators, both, you know, species like wolves and other carnivores, like mountain lions, grizzly bears. But also us, right. And of course, you know, we here in Montana, hunting is a big part of Montana's culture and its heritage and its economy. And, and, you know, we have a big influence on, on, ungulates. So that was my job pitch, you know, whatever it was 15 years ago. And I think, it worked. 

KINCH: It did work. It worked very well, but, and then you've continued to work on caribou, obviously, you've done some big research projects there. Um, and in fact, I think you think of one of your caribou projects in Canada as being one of your great successes. Talk a little bit about that. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, yeah, and again, I, you know, my motivation to, um, you know, come into this field, you know, I say it, I'll say it later probably, but I never really wanted, or imagined, myself to be a professor. You know? Uh, none of my, I'm a first generation university graduate. I wasn't really part of my, you know, childhood, so to speak or thinking about that, but it was, uh, but it was really animals. I was really just interested in animals and conservation. And then in my undergraduate, I got turned on to species like wolves and, and so, you know, years later, we find out that, you know, in Canada, at least, one of the sort of biggest conservation problems facing wildlife in Canada is the decline endangerment and, and decline of caribou across the country. And there's a whole bunch of different types of caribou. It's confusing, but there's broadly boreal caribou and mountain caribou that don't migrate in huge herds up in the Arctic. And it's those caribou that in the southern parts of the range that used to occur here in Montana, actually, I have a photo in my office of caribou from about 50 years ago, um, just near Libby, and even in the 1930s, there were mountain caribou dwelling just by Lolo Pass, right. And the decline of those caribou... 

KINCH: I did not know that. They came that far south and further south still at some point? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, that was about. There's, um, there's historical records from as far south as Stanley actually through the central Idaho wilderness, but even in modern history, like 1930s is... 

KINCH: That's close. Yeah. That's really recently. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Ecologically, that's an, that's a blink of an eye. And the, one of the main reasons for, you know, endangerment of all these types of caribou, boreal and mountain, is, you know, human-induced land change, land use change through logging and fire and agriculture, things like that. But, but also a big shift in the predator-prey community, right. And so that's where it comes back to, you know, understanding ungulates as part of a predator-prey community. I mean, I think 30, 40 years ago in ecology, we would study this species, right. We'd study what deer does and just focus on deer. But, but now we realize, you know, through, through interactions like predation and competition and, and then other types of species, you know, in, in Montana we have, you know, dozens of species of large mammals interacting. And if you want to understand one like elk, you need to understand all of them. And the story of, of wolves and caribou is one of those. So, throughout Montana, and you know, most of the boreal forest of Canada, you know, human land use has increased a lot of the logging. We built roads. We've made the forest younger. And we burned them all. All of those benefits species that we call early seral species like deer and moose. Well, they grow, they increase and like the Leo Tolstoy quote, they feed wolves. Now mountain caribou and boreal caribou aren't like the barren ground cousins that migrate in huge herds of hundreds of thousands. And by migrating and moving over thousands of square kilometers, they kind of get away from the wolves, right. But boreal and mountain caribou don't. They lived up in Lolo Pass and in really remote places of Canada to basically avoid predation, they almost never saw predation or predators like wolves. But as we, as, as modern human land use have sort of flooded the landscape with white tail deer and moose. That's also increased wolf numbers and wolves have caused sort of indirectly, we call it apparent competition, it's a type of ecological interaction where it looks like moose are increasing and caribou are declining. So, you might say, Oh, well, moose are competing with caribou, but moose and caribou eat completely different foods. 

KINCH: Yeah. They're not competing with each other. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Not at all. They're not competing at all, but they're competing via a shared predator: wolves. And so, it was, really my work over the last 20 years has done a lot of the ecology of this to understand exactly how humans affect wolves. Exactly how human roads do and forestry and oil and gas and all this kind of stuff, but really from a conservation viewpoint, you know, the question really isn't in caribou to do more research anymore. We know the story pretty well. And, and the really the, the, the main problem is how to implement conservation actions that reverse these declines. And so, you know, in about 2000 -- for about five years, starting in 2008 -- um, I was part of a 20-member task force across Canada designated by the federal Canadian government. And our job was to define critical habitat. So, the habitat required to prevent further declines of caribou and to reverse those that have already declined, right. Just similar to the, very similar to the Endangered Species Act, but under Canada's Species At Risk Act, which we call SARA. And so, under SARA, our job was to identify critical habitat and map it in essence, across the country -- a million square kilometers -- for boreal, woodland caribou habitat so that governments would then be able to identify those habitats and protect them. And so, you know, as part of this five-year process with 20 research biologist and work for my grad students here at University of Montana, we were, and we in a huge report that, you know, never actually really led to a scientific publication, but, you know, in terms of bodies of scientific work, I would say it's some of our most, most important here with myself and my grad students that took science, that the kinds of things we do in research and universities, but implemented it, right. And so then, you know, 10 years later after that report was finalized in 2012, you know, it's still the guiding document for boreal, woodland caribou recovery across the entire country of Canada in a million square kilometers. So, so that's... 

KINCH: That's a big impact. And it seems to me that, that you kind of see one of the bigger, next levels that we need to take is that we need to do something at the ecological level. That's the equivalent of what we at least are trying to do with global climate change. We're seeing species diversity and biodiversity as that important. Um, what, how do we get there? How do we elevate to that next level of a kind of truly international sense that biodiversity is an essential survival, long-term health of the planet, uh, issue. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, no, very good. And I just picked up actually that last issue of Science and there's an example in it. So, and it was a paper we published a couple of weeks ago and, you know, if you think about migratory ungulates, like we were just talking about barren ground caribou, or here in Montana, migratory elk or migratory pronghorn. You know, conservation of those species is important for human hunting, for human recreation and livelihoods, but also for all the species that depends on them, right? Pronghorn migrate all the way from, you know, central Alberta and Saskatchewan every summer. Right now they're migrating up north into Canada and then every winter they comeback to central Montana. And if, and if we lose those, then we lose the species that depend also on pronghorn in central Montana. We, we lose the golden eagles that prey on them in the winter, we lose the effects of pronghorn have on prairie grasses and forbes and help disperse and all that kind of stuff. And, and yet, right now there's no mechanism to sort of promote, you know, international collaboration to preserve and conserve migratory ungulates. And so, you know, but we think we found a way to do this. And so, the Bonn Convention was signed by the UN, you know, 50 years ago, um, and initiated the Convention for Migratory Species. And so, the CMS, the office of the CMS, you know, we think of it in, we think of it mainly with birds, right? So, there's a, an existing policy framework there that preserves bird migrations in north America. Right? So, all the wildlife refuges we see here in Montana at Nine Pipes, and we go down to the Bitterroot and we see Lee Metcalf, well, those refuges were coordinated by -- in some respects -- the Convention for Migratory Species that directed then the U.S. federal government to establish a series of migratory reserves that would help promote migratory bird conservation. Well, that doesn't work for migratory ungulate, right. They don't fly between Nine Pipes and Lee Metcalf. And so... 

KINCH: But they also don't carry passports when they hit the border. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Right. Exactly. Yeah. No. And, but neither do pronghorn, right? Neither do elk, neither to caribou. We have caribou that migrate from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. back to the Gwich'in Old Crow community in Northwestern Yukon. That depends a hundred percent on caribou for subsistence. And so, our group, along with, you know, some former students here and about, you know, 90 other researchers around the world published this policy piece in science saying, you know, why don't we have a sort of global and international policy for the conservation of migratory ungulates as well. And we see white-eared kob going from South Sudan, Sudan, and into Ethiopia. We see loss of migration, even in the world's, you know, sort of iconic migration. You know, central, central the Serengeti, right? 

KINCH: Yeah, which crosses how many countries? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, there's, you know, there's two main ones involved -- Kenya and Tanzania -- but there's been a decline of like 90% in the, in the, in the migration of, uh, wildebeest in the Kenyan part of Maasai Mara, and there's threats from roads going cross, um, the Serengeti, et cetera. But we look around the world, Kazakhstan and Eastern Mongolia. There're threats to all these migratory ungulates that, you know, approach numbers in the millions and really, sys-, if you're interested in wolf conservation or grizzly bear conservation. That's what drives wolf numbers, prey numbers, and that's what drives all kinds of other biodiversity. And so, I did my postdoc with Tony Sinclair at University of British Columbia. And, uh, he's kind of like Mr. Serengeti. He worked in Serengeti for 50 years and he always said the most amazing migration in the Serengeti isn't the wildebeest. It's the dung beetles that come after the wildebeest. 

KINCH: Yeah. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Billions of them. And they're there. Scurrying like within minutes of the wildebeest, right? So, so this initiative is, I think one example of taking the work we kind of do here in Montana on migratory elk or migratory pronghorn. But then showing, just like we did in my Canadian example, and this is something that I think I'm increasingly interested in, in my own research is how do you scale the policy implications of some science you do in some place? How do you scale and connect that to, you know, state, national, and even international policy, and I think in this case, we've, we've, we're on something because the Convention for Migratory Species in the UN has taken it up, they're keen on it and they're kind of running with it. So, so that's, I think one way to sort of, you know, think of translating research to global conservation implications. 

KINCH: Well, and that's a great segue because you yourself are a migratory species. 


KINCH: You crossed the border from Canada to the United States. And I, and I think you brought with you a kind of really interesting model and idea about what graduate education is supposed to do, and it came from your experience. And so, you know, in Confluence this part of what we talk about is the whole journey that a research professor like you, you know, all of it starts with paths way early on, where you made certain decisions and followed, you know, certain passions. And so, talk a little bit about your sort of experience with Montana, first of all, cause it's fascinating, your first stint as a graduate student here and then your return journey, but then also how that informs and enframes how you, uh, you know, mentor your own graduate students and what you look for in your students. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Early on I was working in Banff National Park and, in Can-, and met, uh, a graduate student from here, from the University of Montana, her name was Diane Boyd. So, Diane was following the recovery of wolves in northwestern Montana by Glacier National Park. Well, it was our wolves quote-unquote in Banff National Park that we radio collared. That were some of the first wolves to recolonize northwestern Montana. So, in some ways I just followed the path of wolves and it was like, wow, this is interesting. A wolf, literally the sister of a wolf I radio collared just outside of Banff National Park was one of the first wolves to come into this part of the world. And so, I kind of followed down, and in those years, there was these, um, North Fork meetings in the North Fork of the Flathead between all the sort of wild, you know wildlife research technicians. Um, in this part of the world and it was with uh, it was hosted by Chuck Jonkel. Ah, sort of retired, well at that point, he had retired as a professor from our program. Um, and I came down to this sort of big meeting and sort of hard to call it anything, but a party really amongst, you know, 20-year-old research technicians in the North Fork in the summer, camping in a big meadow. And I met Dan Pletcher and Dan at the time was the director of the wildlife biology program here. Uh, and he was giving a public talk to, you know, the community of Polebridge, the, about carnivores like wolves and grizzly bears. And to say people in Polebridge were happy about grizzly bears and wolves recolonizing their part of the world wasn't quite true. And they were. They were very hostile in some ways, but I saw. 

KINCH: But, Dan, Dan's also, I mean, you know, legendary for his politesse. I mean, he's, he knows he's friendly with everyone. He's a hunter. He's one of those people that he's perfect in that kind of environment, in fact, right? He's... 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, yeah. And I think 

KINCH: His skill set is so perfectly matched. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Right. And that was, that was what struck me, both about him, but also all of the students is their, um, you know, ability to relate to people. And so, I had been exposed to, you know, some more ivory tower type, you know, university mentors in my own undergraduate, not all, but a few that kind of turned me off of higher ed. And I was like, well, this is a bit, what are these people know about what it's like to live with a wolf? But, exactly. I mean, Dan had that room in the palm of his hand and then after was flipping burgers for all the locals in Polebridge. And I remember just, you know, worming my way up to him and worked the barbecue with him, flipping burgers for people at the Polebridge Community Association. And I thought I want to go to grad school with this guy because I felt like he, he could relate to any, people from any type of walk of life. And I feel like if you want your research to translate the conservation implications and translate to real world changes you, it can't be a technocratic approach where we, the holders of knowledge in the university are the smart people who know all the answers and you just have to do what we say and I feel like history tells us that fails. And, it's also just not my style. I feel like maybe that reflects my own background and upbringing too, but I was just struck by Dan. And so, I basically didn't take no for an answer and started with Dan in 1997 as a master's student. And so that introduced me to Montana and I kind of fell in love with it. And I had found a mountain town with a mountain university with really high-end academic researchers, but who also played hard, who also fished or hunted or mountain biked and ran. And I didn't see this sort of, the cost of going into higher education in a university career that I saw amongst some of my colleagues in big cities in Canada, right. Then I went on did my Ph.D. and, uh, and then came back when, uh, this ungulate habitat ecologist job opened up and had all the adjectives in front of it. And, um, and so, yeah, since then, I've been trying to, you know, trying to, you know, like many of us, emulate Dan's philosophies and approaches with, um, his, his ability to work with graduate students to help them, you know, find out how they on an individual basis can be the best researchers and best scientists that they can, that they can be. Yeah. 

KINCH: Yeah, and I think so much, I mean, so conservation biology is a deep strength obviously of this program. And so much of it is, as you said earlier, recognizing where the science is important, but also where it, the transition has to be made and we have to get out and do applied work. And so many of your students kind of go off and do that. I was really struck by that, that you do launch academic careers, of course, because you publish like a fiend and your students publish like a fiend, but you also launch a lot of careers in conservation biology. So, talk a little bit about some of the outcomes that your students kind of pursue when they finish up with you. 

HEBBLEWHITE: I think, you know, when you start off as an assistant professor and, and you're at the end of your Ph.D., you know, you get a bit confused that it's actually about the scientific publications. And they're very important. They're very important because they, and they're very important for graduate students because they're demonstrable pieces of evidence that you can start and finish something. And so, early on in an academic... 

KINCH: You can do the work. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah. I mean, they're, they're the building blocks and science has always worked with building blocks, but I feel like, um, you know, it wasn't really, until my first students started graduating, my first graduate students, and I got to see what they were doing that I really started realize in my own mind that, wait a minute, you know, these publications are kind of like our Bitcoin that gets us to the table, but the real, the real contributions are people. And, you know, I saw students, like I mentioned my, um, two students, Jean Polfus and Robin Steenweg, and we talked about caribou. Well, they went on after their graduate degrees and they're now leading the efforts for the federal Canadian government under, in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada for caribou recovery in all of western Canada. So, you know, me in my little office here in Montana, I could never have the lifetime of impact that they're going to have. And, you know, they themselves were accomplished strong, independent researchers when I met them. But I think we helped shape them a little bit, but all of us collectively here at the university into the kinds of scientists and conservationists they are today. Gene's expertise is working with First Nations people. And Robin's a really, um, really impressive spacial modeling type person, both of which are the work I did that we described in the woodland caribou critical habitat report. They're improving. They're making it better, right. And so, you know, those are just two examples. Another one, um, co-advised with Scott Mills is now the leading tiger biologist for Bhutan. Tshering Tampa, who grew up in a village without access to education, who just decided one day I want to walk to the closest school, which was actually like seven kilometers that way. And his parents didn't know where he was. And so, now... 

KINCH: We could talk about first-generation all we want, but then you hear stories like this, where people are putting so much effort just to get their basic education and the passion and hunger that comes from that. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah. And, and Tempa's leading the entire country of Bhutan's tiger conservation. So, I feel like, when I started to see those students -- and undergraduate students as well, right? When I started to see the impact they're having, you know, that's when you really realize that, you know, at least from my motivation, a lot of my motivation with my science is to improve wildlife conservation and, and I, and you're limited. All of us are limited. We're only one person and, you know, I'm approaching mid-point in my career and I've got young kids and I'm busy, but you know, in some ways seeing those graduate students go off and they're going to be the ones that change the world more than me and seeing how many I can help shape and, and sort of influence over my career has been pretty inspiring. 

KINCH: Yeah. It's really a great story too, about how the different stages of a professor's career, you know, that it's, it's about expanding your understanding of the field obviously, and getting better at the science obviously, but it's also this multiplier effect that you realize you are taking a role that's closer to a parent in terms of, you know, you have, you might have, I have two children, you know, you don't choose which one's the best child, right. You, you, you mentor them according to who they are and what their best abilities are, and it's our best graduate mentors, I think, have that approach that their students are, it's about finding what those capacities are and amplifying whatever that, that strength is, right. And then filling around the edges of, of course, you know, we have our students, so we say, hey, you know, you need a little bit of work over here, but, but you're trying to find that capacity. And maximize it. And nine times out of 10, our best students are the ones that have the capacity different than ours. It's, it's something that we don't have. And we're so excited to work with a student who can kind of take the work further. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Right. I mean, I think like, I feel like I, at the end of the day, I feel like I've almost learned more from my students than I've taught them. And Jean is an example. She taught me more about, you know, working with Indigenous cultures than I had any idea about when I first met her. But I feel like, you know, when I meet and, and, uh, accept grad students and, and I do this, you know, infrequently enough now, but, but, you know, it is really, I mean, it feels to them like they're applying for a job, but it feels more like to me, like, I joke that it's almost a little bit like a marriage, right. That it is a partnership. And you know, I need to know what you want out of it. Now, of course, the challenge is that what a student, like, I never wanted to be a professor, wants out of it, sometimes changes over their own career. And so that is our job as well to sort of, we'll see. What is the potential that this student can achieve. Um, but how do the, how best to get each student individually? There's some need carrots, some need sticks, some need, you know, encourage, all need encouragement and support, I think. And I feel like, um, you know, that's I say this all the time, that the best part of my job and the most demanding, but the most rewarding is working with graduate students, because I feel like that's where you really have that one-on-one mentorship and you get to know each other and you get to know, um, you know, what motivates them and what helps, you know, what they get inspired and passionate about. And there's no point doing a PhD if you're not inspired and passionate about it, right. 

KINCH: Yeah. It's too much work otherwise. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah. And it's certainly not getting rich, you know, you can make more money doing many other things. So, yeah. 

KINCH: So, uh, you know, Confluence part of our, you know, uh, main goal on this podcast is to elevate graduate education, but also to sort of introduce graduate students who are, people are contemplating graduate school. Maybe an undergraduate who's very talented. Maybe someone who's working and thinking about going back, but to demystify the whole experience, including the professor's life. And, uh, we like to ask professors about challenges that they face, things that, that they've struggled with because it's part of, I think our role as, as mentors is to tell people it doesn't always, it's not always a straight path, right. And, uh, you know, it's funny, I thought at one point you said you might've wanted to be a ski bum and that you actually never wanted to be a professor, and yet here you are, right. Um, and so, you know, I, and I think a lot of professors actually have stories that are not unlike that, you know, that, that, you know, they flirted with different, um, life outcomes, professors' jobs, you know, kind of a challenging, but it's kind of beautiful and it all works out too. So, what are some of the things that you've struggled the most with? The, the, in the, in the broader public discourse it's called the CV of failures. What are the things that you've, you've hit and you've thought, ah, that did not go well. And what have you learned from it? 

HEBBLEWHITE: I guess two broad messages or thoughts here. One is what I call the shooting the messenger phenomenon. If you're a good scientist and you're doing good science and you're doing good, good science on the, on something controversial at the cutting edge of your field, whether it be within, just within the sciences, but especially in applied work, right. If you're doing applied work that matters, then your science may move public understanding and public discourse and policy in some direction away from where it has been. And no one likes changes to the status quo. And so, what has surprised me early, and it happened in my graduate career myself. And so, you know, I work with some of my graduate students who have had it, I call it the shooting the messenger phenomenon, right. So, I've just had, uh, graduate student who was the bearer of bad news to in an applied conservation issue and, and then experienced being criticized, being attacked, right. And so, you know, that's always been the case with science. You think of Rachel Carson and the big smear campaigns against her on the, ultimately she was right, right. And that's why we banned DDT. And that's why peregrine falcons recovered. But she was vilified, attacked, ridiculed. I mean, there was a nasty element of gender, uh, you know, basically harassment there. Um, and you know, I wouldn't prescribe to, or wouldn't say I was ever in that same category, but. But, you know, years ago we published a paper showing that, well, if you're gonna, you know, if caribou are declining and wolves are really causing it, then here's the effect of -- and I worked with Alberta Fish and Wildlife to sort of summarize what their seven years of aerial control of wolves, shooting wolves from helicopters, did to caribou population growth rate -- And, and we said, yes, if you kill 700 and something wolves, caribou population growth rate will increase, but it didn't increase to be positive and it just bought time. And people who loved wolves -- earlier we talked about wolves -- well, there's people who love wolves who are crazy and people hate wolves are crazy. And the people who love wolves, um, you know, really came after me. And that was an example of shooting the messenger. And that cost me, I think a lot of personal grief because of the conflation as scientists, between our own values and our own ethical views and that of what our work represents. Obviously, we choose to study something, right. We choose in a way to study some question or some field that's actually a type of bias, in some ways. And so, when people... 

KINCH: The bias is kind of built into the methodologies and the systems that you work in. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, it's kind of built into what I'm not asking other questions, you know? And so, and so as a young scientist experiencing that attack on my personal identity, or it felt like that, was really challenging. And so, I, and yet I've had a number of my own students who also go through that same phase of what I call shooting the messenger, where they put some science out there and get criticized. And it feels personal because we have so much invested in our science. And in that respect, it's like, uh, you know, my wife's a science illustrator and artist and. It's, it, it feels very similar to, you know, your art being criticized, but there's differences because, you know, in some ways we are supposed to be separate from our scientific results. And yet early on in a scientific career, that's a tough thread to, to balance. And I feel like one of my, one of my roles I try and play with my own grad students is to help them when they've they experienced that shooting the messenger, uh, phenomenon. 

KINCH: Yeah. And, and the balance to includes the fact that, um, if you're not, like you said earlier, if you're not invested in your work, you're not doing it. I mean, you know, you know, so, so how can you have both? Right. And so that's, I mean, that, that delicate sort of, um, I mean, as, as a graduate mentor, I've, I've had that experience of having to strike that balance between getting the passion to move the student in the right direction, but recognizing they are part of a profession and a discipline and that their work is not them, you know, that they need to have that separation. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Right, and that leads like the second part of that is peer review, right? So, peer review is the cornerstone of the scientific method. And yet it's that same process of sort of exposing yourself to criticism from the outside world. Now, it's usually nicer. You don't get death threats when you submit a paper. 

KINCH: But there's always reader number two. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, there's always the reviewer number two, right? So, so, you know, part of that is just, you know, training students to, and working with them, to develop their own ideas to the point where they're good enough to put out there in the world, right. Whether it be for applied purposes, and then you get, you know, the, the shooting the messenger syndrome, or whether you put them out there in the scientific world and get criticized, right. And so, you know, I think a lot of what we do is train ourselves, but also train our students to withstand that criticism. You know, that's really, um. And, and to learn from it, right. Peer review reveals problems. Being attacked because somebody doesn't like what your science means. That's separate, but both are dealing with criticism of your ideas and your science and learning to separate that from criticisms of you as a person. And that that's been my, some of my own biggest challenges, but I see it playing out with students time and time again. 

KINCH: So, we end every episode with quick hitters. You ready for them? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yep, I'll try. 

KINCH: These are either-or's, but you can add a third choice if you need to. Morning or night person? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Morning, although my wife would laugh at that. 

KINCH: Western or eastern Montana? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, I gave you a long-winded answer there, but I'm a mountain person, so I, I'd have to say western. 

KINCH: Well, it's okay to love, show some love for the eastern... 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yes, no, I do. And the landscapes and vistas and sunrises and sunsets, and I love hunting out there. 

KINCH: Was gonna say Dan was always a big, uh, pheasant hunter out there. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah. I love antelope. So, there you go. 

KINCH: Bitterroot or Clark Fork or any other? 

HEBBLEWHITE: I said Blackfoot. 

KINCH: All right. Bitterroots or Pintlars? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Bitterroots. 

KINCH: Missions or swans? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, the Swans, just look to me like a little itty-bitty version of Canada. So, I have to say the Swans. It always reminds me of home. 

KINCH: Yellowstone or Glacier? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yellowstone. I've, I've had the privilege of working with the Yellowstone Wolf Project for about 10 years, and there's just very few places on the planet like Yellowstone. 

KINCH: Winter or summer? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, you know, being Canadian, uh, naturally I would say winter, but the older I get, the more opposed I am to snow in May. So, I feel like, and I'm just about to take a sabbatical in Costa Rica and that may push me into summer. 

KINCH: Into the summer. Yeah. Although you may be craving winter by the time you're done. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, maybe. I do like the powder in my face when skiing. 

KINCH: Yeah. Sunrise or sunset? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Sunrise the whole day is in front of you. 

KINCH: The one piece of music you'd want to listen to over and over and over for the rest of your life. 

HEBBLEWHITE: I pretty much already do, and that's Bob Dylan. 

KINCH: One song, one Dylan song. If you had to choose? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Series of Dreams. 

KINCH: Series of dreams. If I was forced to pick a Dylan, it'd be Tangled Up in Blue, for me. 

HEBBLEWHITE: I went out as a, one of my favorite Halloween costumes was Tangled Up in Blue and nobody got it. So. 

KINCH: Best Zoom backdrop you've seen during the COVID pandemic. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Well, it wasn't mine, but, uh, one of our students had a saber tooth tiger, like eating their head. So that was a good one. 

KINCH: And the last voice in your head when you go to sleep? 

HEBBLEWHITE: Boy, that's a good one. Um, yeah, I would say probably what I was talking about with my wife usually. 

KINCH: Thank you for joining us on Confluence, Mark. 

HEBBLEWHITE: Yeah, thanks for having me, Ashby. This has been great. 

KINCH: If you like what you've heard, you've got Charles Bolte to thank. He's a graduate of UM's program in environmental science and natural resource journalism. Confluence is brought to you by the graduate school of the University of Montana. Innovation, imagination, and intellect to serve the state, the region, and the world. We'd like to thank UM's School of Journalism and College of Business for their support. If you enjoyed this episode of Confluence, subscribe to our podcast feed at Apple, Google, Spotify, or Stitcher. Give us a like on SoundCloud and stop by the University of Montana grad school website at for more episodes and videos highlighting our amazing graduate students. Make sure to rate and review to support our enterprise of bringing you the voices of graduate education at the University of Montana. See you on the next float.