The spectral howl of a gray wolf is one of the most distinctive sounds of the American West. And yet, there was a time in Greater Yellowstone’s not-so-distant past that the landscape was void of the iconic call. Wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the Lower 48 by the mid 1900s, and through thoughtful conservation and reintroduction, have largely recovered in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, where states now face the task of addressing species management.

Folks in the West often have a lot to say about wolves and their right to exist on the land. One area of research, however, is listening instead to what the predators are saying.

“Wolves [are] one of the most hated species in the world, and yet have the most iconic sound probably of any animal on the planet,” Dr. Jeff Reed told Mountain Outlaw.

Reed, a programmer and computational linguist based just beyond the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, is pioneering an effort to understand how wolves communicate. Reed’s findings have the potential to better guide a future where man and wolf can coexist.

Dr. Jeff Reed holds the GrizCam, attached to its battery component. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON
Spectrograms show a visualization of sounds from Yellowstone wolves. This image shows a full month of vocalizations. IMAGES COURTESY OF JEFF REED

The War on Wolves

Wolves have a nuanced history in the U.S. Once roaming North America from modern-day Mexico to Alaska, the largest predator in the dog family was driven out of much of its historic range as the American West was colonized by European settlers. Agriculture and livestock displaced natural prey, and wolves turned to domestic stock for food, according to Yellowstone National Park reports. Wolves became a symbol of the untamed nature of the West during a period of settling the wild, and were nearly eradicated as a result.

National predator control programs—including shooting, trapping and poisoning—rid most of the Lower 48 of wolves altogether by the early 1900s, with the last stronghold existing in northeastern Minnesota, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By the 1970s, extensive park research found no evidence of wolves established inside Yellowstone.

Threats to wolves’ long-term survival were officially recognized by the U.S. government in a March 11, 1967 Federal Register, which listed them as “threatened with extinction” under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. This was the country’s first federal legislation for endangered species and granted limited protection to threatened native species.

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act expanded these protections with the Rocky Mountain wolf, Canis lupus, being among the first species listed. The act identified the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a recovery zone. Congress later established reintroduction plans and between 1995 and 1997, 41 wolves from Canada and northwestern Montana were famously relocated into Yellowstone. Wolves have since gained a foothold across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, where they were delisted from the ESA in 2011. An estimated total of at least 2,700 wolves were distributed across the region in 2022, according to annual reports from state wildlife management agencies.

Reed analyzes a spectrogram of a wolf chorus howl recorded in Yellowstone National Park in January, 2024. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON
A spectrogram, the visualization of sound, shows the howl of Yellowstone Wolf 907F, a famous female from the Junction Butte Pack. IMAGE COURTESY OF JEFF REED

Talking with Wolves

Dr. Jeff Reed was born and raised in Montana, and is a self-identified “mountain outlaw.” He lives and works in Paradise Valley just north of Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance, where he shares his land with all sorts of wildlife, wolves included. Just beyond the threshold of his home office, expansive views of the Yellowstone River and Emigrant Peak lead into the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The views aren’t the only thing that make his office unique—the space is full of taxidermied game, tools, maps, collected stones, pieces of antler shed and, most notably, sound.

Stepping into Reed’s office feels more like stepping outside than in. The chirp of local songbirds, the dry rustle of grass and the rhythmic sloshing of the river hang softly in the air as recorders from across Reed’s property stream live audio right into his work space. Reed’s academic background is in linguistics, including a PhD in computational linguistics applied to ancient texts, although he turned to tech for much of his career, working on software for the likes of Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Now he applies his trained ear listening to wolves in and around Yellowstone, and his programming skills to decipher what he hears.

“When I moved back to Montana permanently over seven years ago, I really wanted to start looking at animal communication,” Reed said. “It began mainly as a hobby, because I grew up in the outdoors, hunting and fishing the Absaroka mountains … and I noticed that there weren’t a lot of biologists studying animal communications that were also linguists.”

Reed works in collaboration with biologists on the Cry Wolf Project, which is run by the Yellowstone Wolf Project, a park initiative that has helped to monitor wolves since their reintroduction. The Cry Wolf Project records 24-hour audio of wolves year- round from up to 60 recorders at a time. Reed is also part of Languages of Life, a group of Park County locals which records and publishes wildlife sounds from outside the park. The audio recordings are fed through an artificial intelligence program Reed developed to disentangle wolf sounds from other inputs, such as bird calls, coyote yips and airplane traffic.

Wolves make a variety of different types of noises, ranging in volume, pitch and duration, and the canids are likely able to pick out slight nuances to determine the meaning of the sounds they hear, according to Reed. For example, larger wolves often howl at a lower pitch than smaller members of the pack, and playful yips sound different than growls indicating a nearby threat.

The alpha male of the Canyon wolf pack howls in Yellowstone National Park’s Lower Geyser Basin. PHOTO BY JIM PEACO / NPS

The spaces that exist between words in written language aren’t reflected in verbal speech, as words often bleed together, Reed explained. Similarly, we can’t know exactly where one so-called wolf word stops and another starts by listening, but we can use tools called spectrograms to visualize these vocalizations.

These visual displays of sound are created through plotting its frequency, time and amplitude. Reed uses spectrograms to teach his AI what wolf sounds look like so it can disentangle them from other sounds through image recognition. Reed has looked at so many spectrograms that he’s often able to pick different types of wolf vocalizations out of a lineup. Automating this process makes wolf recognition more accessible, eliminating the need for humans to sift through hours of data.

“The predictions aren’t supposed to be 100 percent accurate, but we know we can get above 90 percent,” Reed said of the AI model. “We can have a much better chance of knowing if wolves are in the area permanently, and we can do that with a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time.”

The quest to decipher animal communication isn’t novel. For example, in the 1960s, scientists discovered that whales sing to each other, sparking a large-scale conservation movement for the animals and the 2020 creation of Project CETI, a well-funded nonprofit studying whale communication. The work Reed is involved in is smaller in scale and funding, but asks the same core question: What can we learn from understanding how other species communicate, and how can it shape our relationship to them?

Spectrograms show a visualization of sounds from Yellowstone wolves. This image acts almost like a dictionary, showing different types of vocalizations. IMAGES COURTESY OF JEFF REED

Innovation and Application

Applying bioacoustics, the cross-disciplinary study of biology and sound, can help identify wolf pack size and distribution, providing biologists with more accurate population estimates, according to Reed, a statistic that is used to make management decisions including hunting quotas.

Reed also posits that ranchers could use the recording devices and software to determine the presence of resident wolf packs on their land based on how often they vocalize. Reed notes that near Yellowstone, recorders typically capture a pack chorus howl about three out of every four days where wolves establish long-term residency. If recorders detect only a few chorus howls per month, it suggests the pack is transient. In cases of livestock loss, recorders could prove whether or not predation was the cause, which is important as states often partially reimburse ranchers for depredation losses.

“I know people who are spouting off about how many wolves they have [on their land],” Reed said of his neighbors in Paradise Valley. “Let’s get back to the science, let’s prove it. That’s my challenge.”

In areas with resident wolf packs, non-lethal deterrents such as fencing, livestock guardian dogs and range riders—a practice in which humans accompany livestock to detect and deter predators—can be employed. A hypothetical bioacoustics deterrent could protect stock by using AI to recreate the low-frequency howls wolves use to tell others to stay away. Reed called this a “moon shot,” but said it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

In order to capture 24-hour audio, Reed spearheaded the development of a new recorder with extended battery life and a compact design. A new innovation, GrizCam, developed by Reed’s private company Grizzly Systems Inc., utilizes technology akin to Tesla batteries to capture audio and video for more than a year on a single charge. While still in its early stages, the company aims to provide tools for “conservation-led research,” as Reed explains.

Spectrograms show a visualization of sounds from Yellowstone wolves. This image shows four different spectrograms from four different wolf packs. IMAGES COURTESY OF JEFF REED
Reed lives and works in Paradise Valley, Montana near the the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

The engineer behind the camera trap is Cody Goldhahn, a fifth-generation rancher from Cardwell, Montana. Goldhahn, a full-time engineer for the nonprofit arm of National Geographic on conservation-focused engineering, met Reed in Washington, D.C. before the pandemic. The two began working on the camera as a side project, and a few years later, GrizCam now pushes the boundaries of Reed’s studies.

“For me, it’s the best and coolest application I can think of using an engineering degree,” Goldhahn, a Montana State University graduate, told Mountain Outlaw. “As a science project, it gets more interesting the more data you have, especially in an AI driven world.”

Predators certainly pose a risk to livestock producers—the Montana Department of Livestock confirmed 151 depredation losses in 2023. Goldhahn said that landowners may use the GrizCam technology for predator detection, whether it be wolves, coyotes, grizzly bears or others. Ranching is about sustainability and maintaining
a healthy landscape for profitable agricultural production. Goldhahn believes conservation to be a key piece of this sustainability.

“When you shift your mindset from holding a bias against the predators and the prey populations that are sharing the landscape with your livelihood … you can think about your management practices in relation to keeping those things around,” Goldhahn said. “Is there something I can be doing as the steward of this particular spot on Earth that can make all those things work together? That’s really the shift.”

Indeed a 2023 survey conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in collaboration with the University of Montana reported a growing tolerance toward wolves on the landscape among residents, despite support for hunting and lethal control.

“It’s hard, once you start understanding animals, to not respect them more,” Reed said. “And in some cases, want to conserve them more.”

A wolf portrait taken in Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JACOB W FRANK, NPS

Montana, Wyoming and Idaho all currently sell wolf hunting tags, use hunting as population control and employ other management strategies such as lethal removal following conflict reports. State agencies and legislatures continue to grapple with management decisions, often inflamed by competing interests among ranchers, conservationists and other parties.

As of April 2024, a coalition of 10 conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to reinstate ESA protections for wolves in the Rocky Mountains, arguing that the states’ hunting policies threaten the recovered population. In Colorado, state agencies began the controversial task of reintroduction in December 2023 by releasing 10 gray wolves onto public lands.

Amid roiling controversy, curiosity and intent study could yield ubiquitous understanding and empathy for these symbols of the untamed West. The path forward is often sought through means of discussion, but perhaps instead we ought to start listening.

JULIA BARTON is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. The Montana native studied journalism at the University of Southern California and enjoys spending her free time romping around in the mountains and making art.