Senior Environmental Scientist Kent Laudon is a wolf specialist with CDFW’s Northern Region, based in Redding. As gray wolves recolonize northern California, he is working to conserve and manage them and to work collaboratively with many citizens representing diverse interests. Laudon monitors California’s small wolf population by conducting ground surveys, as well as trapping and collaring wolves. He works with livestock producers on the ground to help deter conflicts, communicates important information about wolves to the public and strives to develop relationships with people and communities that have an interest in wolves.
Laudon earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife, Biology and Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has worked as a field biologist for 28 years with several state, federal and tribal agencies throughout the western United States, including studying wolves specifically for the last 21 years in Idaho, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico. He started his current position with CDFW about a year ago.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
I was fortunate enough to grow up in Wisconsin in a conservation-minded family that camped, hiked, hunted and fished. Both of my parents were active in conservation organizations. Not surprisingly, I grew up running through the forests, meadows and creeks, for adventure and to learn. It was little wonder that I ended up pursuing a degree in Wildlife and Natural Resources, and while in college, I began to enjoy the more technical aspects of the field. Because of all that, somehow, someway, I have had an amazing career – one I could not have dreamt up in a million years!
What is a typical work day like for you?
While I have been extraordinarily lucky to spend most of my 28-year wildlife career in the field, my career evolution has gravitated more toward working with people in recent years. A lot of the effort and time goes towards building a new wolf management program for CDFW and implementing the Conservation Plan for Gray Wolves in California. Besides creating the administrative “infrastructure,” including processes and protocols for data, public relations, etc., it includes a ton of relationship building. Relationships really begin with reducing barriers and trying to find a place where I may fit within the various communities of wolf stakeholders around California. Because of the high profile and controversial nature of wolves, and especially when the subject is new to people, the work can be extraordinarily difficult. Therefore, I spend a lot of time learning “who’s who” in areas with or likely to have wolves and then meeting and developing relationships with those individuals. Ultimately, deep, long-lasting conservation happens best through people who live and work amongst wolves. That is the long answer for, “I talk to people a lot!”
What is the most interesting aspect of working with wolves?
While the people component is the most important aspect of making wolf conservation work, the wolves themselves are the more interesting aspect. A lot of biologists get into the field because we like the outdoors, and we want to pursue the wildlife adventure to both learn and feel free. Now for me, acquiring data that helps to understand the ecology of the species on a given landscape is what I find most interesting. In addition, there are also necessary steps to that process that are interesting in and of themselves – for example, population surveys in remote mountainous landscapes that includes finding pups to document reproduction, and trapping adults to attach radio collars. All of this takes a methodical process often over 200-mile (or more) areas, and each component of the effort is technically complex.
How do you address the concerns of members of the public who worry that wolves might attack their livestock or pets?
Presently, wolves are new to people in California. All that people really have to refer to is what they read in the newspapers. While newspapers can do a great job of reporting the basic facts of livestock depredation events, they generally do not place those events into a context that includes depredation rates, statistical chances of depredation, and other depredation risk levels under different scenarios. Therefore, I try to give some context to help people better understand the risk of their livestock being attacked by wolves. The other part of that equation is that members of the public teach me about their livestock and their own management practices that work for them. Through such conversations, I hope that together we come to creative solutions to help reduce risk. Pet dogs are a different matter. I just let people know how I manage my own dog in wolf country. My scenario is a little extreme as my dog has worked in the field with me for years in Montana and Idaho – that part can get tricky as I may occasionally have the need to get close to wolf pup-rearing areas and wolves are territorial towards other canids.
Now that wolves have returned to California, how are they interacting with another apex predator, the mountain lion?
It is too early to tell in California how one species may influence the population of the other. However, we know that the two predators at times interact directly by killing each other, and indirectly where, for instance, wolves (like bears) can take over mountain lion kills to scavenge them. One advantage for mountain lions is they are able to climb trees to get out of harm’s way, while wolves cannot.
What is most challenging aspect of your job?
I really see components of the position as a dichotomy: people and wolves. Both are challenging, but of course in very different ways. The sociopolitical aspect is complicated and much of it is about the nuance. On top of that, there really is no “one size fits all” as every community has its own mix of personalities and politics. On the wolf side of things, wolf biologists are typically working in incredibly large landscapes monitoring packs that hold territories covering hundreds of square miles. That means a lot of “needle in a haystack” kind of work. This can be physically challenging, but it is an incredibly interesting pursuit. Either way, whether it is developing relationships and friendships, or finding the wolf in the haystack (I mean needle), both are profoundly rewarding!
If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?
Easy. I would conduct research to better understand wolf/livestock conflicts and, ultimately, to better deter them. While there has been a good amount of effort directed toward this over the years, it falls far short compared to scientific efforts towards understanding wolf/native ungulate relationships. If we can figure out how to do a better job to reduce wolf damage to private property through the use of a series of deterrent tools and husbandry practices, a lot of us, despite our diversified interests, should be able to get behind both wolves and livestock and maybe finally behind each other. This includes research on various range-rider techniques (a method of riding the range to check on cattle for problems, and potentially moving or working with herds to achieve different objectives including reducing conflicts with wolves), livestock-stocking regimes, creative deterrent tools, and pasture and allotment management. Further, a study of the efficacy of the methods and their economic impacts is also important. I would like to keep everybody moving forward, creating, measuring, analyzing and evolving.
Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?
First off, people should understand that it is a challenge to successfully achieve a career in fish and wildlife because the competition is stiff. Secondly, while wolves may be an extreme case, often wildlife work is really a lot of people work. Talk to many professionals from a diverse array of positions to get their perspective to help guide your path. It will take a lot of work to get to where you wish to go. Along the way, I believe it imperative to remember that we work for the citizens as managers of the public trust of our remarkable and rich natural resources.
CDFW Photo. Top Photo: The breeding female of the Lassen Pack.