Tracking a Phantom
Biologists aren’t sure from what direction the pack of three black wolves arrived.They could have crossed near Galena Summit, a low saddle along a major ridge dividing the upper Big Wood River from the headwaters of the Salmon. Or they may have descended from out of the Smoky Mountains, a wildlife-rich expanse of remote summits and narrow timbered valleys west of Ketchum. It’s also possible they came from the east, cresting the rugged Boulder Mountains before dropping from 11,000-foot peaks into the aspen- and evergreen-dotted foothills.
It’s all likely looking wolf country.
Here’s what is known: In the first days of June 2007, biologists confirmed the presence of three adult wolves near Phantom Hill northwest of Ketchum. The ragtag trio consisted of an aging male with a graying muzzle, a female with a limp to her right front leg and a yearling female.
For the first time since the federal government’s controversial gray wolf reintroduction began in the Northern Rockies in 1995, and perhaps the first time in close to a century, a pair of adult wolves was confirmed to be denning inside the Wood River Valley. And within the pack’s den site were three tiny wolf pups.
Biologists named the newly discovered band of wolves the Phantom Hill wolf pack.
During the summer, the rolling foothills of the Boulder and Smoky mountains are grazed by thousands of sheep owned by several different ranchers. No matter where they migrated, the Phantom Hill wolves were never far from herds of the lightly guarded livestock, an enticing target for a small pack with three hungry mouths to feed.
It was no surprise when the pack gave in to temptation and, according to federal Wildlife Services, killed at least nine sheep in the summer of 2007. Following these incidents, federal authorities were prepared to destroy the Phantom Hill pack, but lacked the authority granted to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which opted for non-lethal tactics to keep the pack at bay. The situation was calmed for a time, but the fate of the local pack remains uncertain. State officials may yet choose a lethal course of action should sheep kills resume.
The politically powerful
ranching industry is at the center of the Northern Rockies’ wolf debate.
Its outcries prior to the return of the gray wolf are legendary. But to
paint all ranchers with the same broad brush is to overlook a growing
minority that is learning to live with wolves. After losing 41 sheep to
the predators over a span of several years, Carey-based Lava Lake Land &
Livestock realized it would have to modify its grazing practices. With
up to 6,000 sheep running on 730,000 acres of federal grazing allotments
each summer, ignoring the region’s growing wolf population was no longer
Working with wildlife officials and Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock, Lava Lake sought ways to keep its sheep safe. Sheepherders now carry radio telemetry equipment, basic hand-held receivers that pick up signals from individual radio-collared wolves. Last summer, herders detected wolves less than a quarter mile from sheep bands. Lava Lake has brought on additional Great Pyrenees guard dogs and has begun arming herders with single-barrel shotguns loaded with non-lethal "cracker shells" or rubber bullets to drive wolves away. At dusk, they herd their sheep into electrified night pens. The half-acre corrals borrow from a successful centuries-old Mongolian and Tibetan practice. And last summer, Lava Lake President Mike Stevens redirected a band bound toward Phantom Hill to less problematic areas. Economic realities limit Stevens’ ability to keep his herds constantly on the move, but so far, the efforts have worked. Lava Lake has not lost a single animal to wolves since 2005.
Ranchers Katie Breckenridge and Rob Struthers own the 1,800-acre B-Bar-B Ranch, whose irrigated pastures, crops and dry grazing lands lie south of U.S. Highway 20 next to the small agricultural town of Picabo. The couple has bred and trained American Quarter Horses for more than 30 years.
But when unknown groups of wolves crossed into their property twice last winter, the couple felt helpless to protect the 100 head of horses, organically raised Angus beef cattle and lambs that are their livelihood.
Although they declined to be interviewed for this story for fear of further polarizing the wolf issue, Katie and Rob were sufficiently stirred up by the incident to express their anxiety in regional newspapers. In letters to the editor, they said their trials began in February when three wolves were spotted 30 yards from their stallion pasture and gelding and mare pens. Seemingly more curious than deliberate, the wolves left without harassing their horses. Things didn’t turn out so smoothly a week later. In a hay field across from their outdoor horse arena, two wolves boldly ran a small herd of horses through deep snow in broad daylight. "The wolves show no fear of anything," they wrote. After running the horses into nearby fences, the wolves headed north.
Unlike many Western ranchers who graze public lands, Katie and Rob are strictly private-land ranchers. While Idaho law allows ranchers to kill aggressive wolves in defense of their livestock, they are concerned with the unknown toll these encounters have on their prized animals. Horses harassed by wolves may develop long-term psychological damage that future riders must deal with. The couple, whose animals may lose value with each incident, complain that wolf advocates don’t comprehend the impact on their livelihood.
Based on the report from B-Bar-B, Fish and Game officer Rob Morris was certain the couple was dealing with an unknown group of wolves. While no den has been confirmed in the area, wolves have been spotted in the Bellevue Triangle in recent years. In 2007, a Picabo rancher killed a 90-pound female wolf after it attacked his livestock.
Morris believes the wolves that harassed the B-Bar-B horses may have been drawn to the Picabo area by a herd of 100 elk that wintered near Queen’s Crown, a prominent grass-covered knoll east of town. "That is the first time I’ve seen elk there." Morris said the wolves would be better off if they followed their natural prey back into the high country as winter turned to spring. "I’m hoping those wolves are following the elk."
Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, works with Lava Lake and other ranchers throughout the Intermountain West and has witnessed the challenges they face. In private meetings with her, local ranchers have shown a willingness to explore new ways of living with wolves. Their words and actions reflect a realization that wolves are here to stay. "They’re becoming more tolerant of wolves," she said.
When gray wolves were reintroduced by the federal government in 1995, wolf alarmists were a dominant voice in the region. Stone thinks ranchers’ changing attitudes reflect the realization that wolves are not having as devastating an impact on their livelihoods as early warnings predicted. Like modern wolf biologists, today’s ranchers are learning as they go. None of the current generation has actually lived in a landscape heavily populated with wolves. Fears expressed were largely founded on folklore. "It’s the wolf teaching them more than anything that they can live with wolves," Stone said.
Wolves are restructuring centuries-old ways of doing business in the West. Simple animal husbandry practices, such as removing sheep carcasses from the range, help ensure wolves don’t get a taste for mutton. During the spring, when wolves are protecting their pups, they’re highly territorial, Stone said. Ranchers have learned that at this time of year, guard dogs can actually draw wolves out if they encroach too closely on a den site.
The tireless wolf advocate is optimistic that time is on the wolves’ side. One only has to look to Minnesota, which never lost its wolves and today has more than 3,000. There, wolves are treated like any other predator in the woods. She believes that as long as wolves are allowed to survive, it’s only a matter of time before people in the Northern Rockies view them in a similar way. The first generation is the most hostile, the most afraid. "The next generation has actually experienced living with wolves," she said.
Since last summer, talk of retiring high-conflict grazing allotments north of Ketchum has increased. While nothing has been committed to publicly, local wolf advocates claim at least one sheep rancher has expressed interest in receiving payment to retire his north valley grazing rights. The idea is not without merit. Similar buyouts have occurred in other high-conflict areas around the West. Since 2002, the National Wildlife Federation has worked with federal land managers and ranchers to permanently retire 23 active grazing allotments surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
While bowhunting elk west of Ketchum near Castle Rock several autumns ago, local resident Gary Tickner and a friend had a dramatic wolf encounter. An experienced elk caller, Tickner was hunkered down cow-calling when a herd of elk began pouring through a saddle on a nearby ridge. The duo soon discovered they weren’t the only hunters eyeing the elk. A chorus of wolf howls echoed from the nearby hills. "Pretty soon the wolves were howling all around us." Nostrils to the wind and ears perked, the herd sensed danger. Seconds later, they scattered. The hunters watched in awe as the herd ran away in unison. Tickner suspects the wolves were from an unknown pack.
Tickner doesn’t believe wolves are decimating Idaho’s elk herds, as many hunters claim. One possible explanation for Idaho’s so-called missing elk is that they’ve simply become more challenging to pursue. Statewide, Idaho’s elk numbered 107,600 in 2007, about 95 percent of Fish and Game’s objective. The agency’s own wolf management plan says that conflicts between wolves and elk and other ungulates in the region covering the Wood River Valley and the Lemhi and Lost River mountains are low.
In the past decade, Tickner has witnessed a profound change in the behavior of local elk. Not only do the large ungulates occupy different habitats, they’ve also become less vocal. He believes elk have wised up, realizing their calls attract wolves. More than once, a curious elk has snuck up on Tickner’s hiding spot while he’s calling. In the past, a bull elk responding to a hunter’s call would come crashing through the brush like a runaway freight train, all the while releasing a volley of high-pitched bugles. "Now you might hear a little twig snap. They want to see what they’re coming to."
Tickner welcomes these changes. He feels today’s elk are a wilder and more challenging quarry, and that’s good. He refuses to blame wolves for unsuccessful hunts, even though he spends more than 20 days afield with a traditional bow and arrow each year. "I always remember that it’s the journey, not the destination." The dyed-in-the-wool hunter born to a northern California logging family feels a responsibility to defend wolves and the wild places they occupy. "In a world of chaos and disconnection, I can only hope that I will still hear the howl of a pack of wolves when I go hunting."
Most hunters do not share Tickner’s passionate feelings toward wolves. Theirs is a passion of an entirely different sort. If the wolf delisting stands, hunters in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will head to the hills this fall with wolf tags in hand. Little more than a decade after wolves’ reintroduction, hunters will pursue them in our own backyard. How Idahoans respond remains to be seen.
Something curious happened after Wood River Valley residents learned wolves were living in their midst: Suddenly, it seemed everyone had a wolf story to tell. Many told of single black wolves roaming the hills north of Ketchum. Others told of a black wolf with a limp or a trio of wolves crossing the highway in the early morning hours. Some tales turned out to be false; some eyewitnesses had actually spotted the wolf’s smaller cousins the coyote or, even, the fox.
Local Fish and Game officer Lee Garwood was suspicious of alleged sightings in the past, but not anymore. The veteran conservation officer’s job has changed since the Phantom Hill wolves were discovered. "I doubt a week or 10 days goes by when I don’t get a wolf report." This summer, Garwood will investigate reports that suggest an unknown pack resides in the mountains southwest of Ketchum. Mostly roadless, the area’s extensive stands of timber, open sagebrush hillsides and clear streams are prime habitat for predators and prey alike.
At the far western end of Croy Canyon near Hailey, Jennifer and Kevin Swigert believe they live with the reality of this unknown pack.For several years now, the couple claims wolves have been a constant presence in their lives. Each night, Jennifer brings all 19 Swigert dogs indoors. According to Kevin, the only thing that’s stopped wolves from harming their dogs has been Jennifer’s vigilance and Happy, a habituated female coyote that hangs around the couple’s home. While their dogs go silent when wolves are near, Happy’s yipping alerts everyone. "Nothing goes on around here without her knowing about it," Kevin said.
Are the Swigerts’ concerns just the isolated fears of a solitary couple living in an area densely occupied by wolves? Bumper stickers on local roads that proclaim "Save 100 elk, kill a wolf" and "Wolves: government sponsored terrorists," suggest we haven’t come to terms with the creature’s presence. In a dog-eat-dog world, wolves consider their domesticated cousins a threat, whether it’s the neighbors’ Chihuahua or their Great Dane. And in a community that loves its pooches as much as the Wood River Valley does, Kevin believes the near certainty of dog-wolf conflicts in Idaho’s backcountry is a concern that cannot be discounted.
It may take years before valley residents know if they’ve learned to live side-by-side with wolves. A similar prospect faces state wildlife managers who are embarking on an experiment for which no amount of studying or speculation can fully prepare them. How will so hierarchical a species as the wolf react to the removal of its dominant alpha pair by hunters? Many wolf experts believe the loss of a dominant pair may send the remaining members of a splintered pack off to the four winds and into trouble. Idaho wildlife managers can look to Canada or Alaska for guidance, but in the end they will learn as they go.
Should authorities decide to eliminate the Phantom Hill pack, wolf advocates would undoubtedly protest. However, new wolves would almost certainly arrive to fill the void. In fact, other wolves may already be stealing about unseen through our woods. Being opportunists, these intelligent animals have a tendency to fill unused habitat soon after it becomes available. Shown the tolerance needed to make their homes and rear their pups, the gray wolves’ lonesome howl will remain a part of the valley’s landscape for years to come.
*Map based on information provided by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game; Nez Perce tribe; Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services; and the National Park Service
A Brief Wolf History
Early 20th Century
March 28, 2008