The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express for the
week of May 28 - June 3, 2003. View the original article online at
Wolves return to the Sawtooth Valley
SNRA, Clayton packs bring new hope, tensions
By Gregory Foley, Express Staff Writer
"We’re very excited to have wolves
back in the SNRA. But we need to make sure they’re here to stay."
— Lynne Stone, executive
director, Boulder-White Clouds Council
On a clear, spring day this month
in the Sawtooth Valley north of Ketchum, Curt Mack, gray wolf project
leader for Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe, surveyed the foothills of the White
Cloud Mountains for signs of wolf activity.
"This is good wolf country," he
said. "They can den in the hills and then come down to hunt. There’s
plenty of territory and plenty of food along the edges."
He pulled off state Highway 75 and
into a lightly vegetated pasture, where he soon began to talk about the
19-or-so packs of wolves that inhabit Idaho lands, including one small
group that has settled amid the forested hills near Champion Creek.
"It’s an alpha female and an alpha
male," he noted. "They just had their first litter with five new pups."
Indeed, gray wolves have returned
to the Sawtooth Valley, filling a void left last year by two erstwhile
wolf packs. Members of the Wildhorse pack disbanded and left the region
after the alpha female died of natural causes, while the Whitehawk pack
was killed by federal officials in a so-called "control" measure, after
the wolves were implicated in repeated attacks on livestock.
The discovery this spring that a
new wolf pack had established itself in the Sawtooth National Recreation
Area has renewed an ongoing debate over how Idaho’s wolves—and the
public lands they inhabit—should be managed.
The pastures ranging across the
Sawtooth Valley floor by early June will be teeming with livestock
brought to summer in the alpine meadows, leaving some wolf proponents to
wonder if the still-unnamed pack will meet the same fate as the
However, after federal Judge B.
Lynn Winmill last month renewed an injunction that prohibits killing
wolves in the SNRA—even those that prey on livestock—the new pack
currently has an extra measure of protection over that provided by its
status as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act.
Carter Niemeyer, wolf recovery
coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency currently
charged with managing reintroduced wolf populations in Idaho, Wyoming
and Montana, said that the court order essentially bans the USFWS from
"managing" wolves that kill livestock.
"In the SNRA, I’ve been advised
that if there is depredation, we cannot do any lethal or non-lethal wolf
management," he said.
Yet, two other groups of wolves
outside the SNRA boundaries are not afforded the extra protection of
Judge Winmill’s order. One—the Buffalo Ridge pack located south of
Clayton—is in increasing danger of having to be eliminated. The second,
a mating pair that inhabits the East Fork of the Salmon River area, has
yet to be confirmed by management officials as a viable pack.
The Buffalo Ridge pack inhabits an
area surrounding the confluence of Squaw Creek and the Salmon River. The
pack started as a mating pair composed of a male from the former Moyer
pack and a female from the former Stanley pack. The pair had its first
litter of six pups in the spring of 2002.
"It appears that all six pups and
all the adults survived the year," Niemeyer said.
The alpha male and alpha female
had a second litter of pups last month. But, with more mouths to feed
the pack is highly active, feeding locally on deer, elk, and, federal
officials believe, young cattle.
Residents of the area have
reportedly seen the wolves taking down an adult deer in the middle of a
public road and feasting on young steelhead smolts taken from an
irrigation stream near the May Family Ranch Bed and Breakfast.
Niemeyer said the health of the
pack indicates that Clayton residents "are not poaching wolves," but
noted that the probability that the pack has taken calves in the area
has put them at risk of intervention by USFWS.
"This pack is on the ragged edge
of having to be controlled," Niemeyer said.
With the recent arrival of spring
in the area, ranchers are planning to soon install cows and their calves
on nearby pastures, only a short distance from the pack’s den above
Squaw Creek. Niemeyer said he has been actively negotiating with local
ranchers to delay the installation of cow-calf pairs on private pastures
in the area until July, when the wolves will likely follow elk to higher
Typically, Niemeyer noted, when
USFWS determines it needs to control a pack of wolves, agency officials
start by employing non-lethal control measures to discourage the animals
from taking livestock. If those measures fail, lethal measures are taken
against individuals in the pack, with entire packs sometimes destroyed
if livestock predation persists.
Niemeyer, who oversees the federal
government’s wolf recovery program in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, works
to oversee and manage an estimated 1,000 wolves in the tri-state region,
including approximately 300 in Idaho.
Idaho’s wolves are almost
exclusively descendants of 35 Canadian gray wolves released in the state
in 1995 and 1996.
Mack said such successful
recoveries of endangered species are rare. "Wolves have obviously done
really well in the state of Idaho," he said. "The reason is that we have
really good wolf habitat."
Employed by the Nez Perce tribe,
Mack coordinates wolf-management efforts in the state with Niemeyer. The
Nez Perce Tribe in 1995 essentially volunteered to assist the federal
government in wolf management in Idaho after the state declined to do
so. (The state’s official position on wolf recovery is that it does not
want wolves within its boundaries.)
Mack said the Wood River Valley
might also become home to a new wolf pack in the near future. "It won’t
be long until they’re back in there," he said. He noted that numerous
sightings in the area last year—particularly north and east of Sun
Valley—were likely wandering members of the disbanded Wildhorse pack.
Despite the success of wolves in
central Idaho, Mack said, populations that live outside of established
wilderness areas remain especially vulnerable to lethal-control
measures. "There’s less pressure now from livestock producers to kill
wolves," he said. "But the Fish and Wildlife Service is now more intent
on using lethal control because the wolves are now well established."
With the Buffalo Ridge pack
already facing control measures, environmental activists are alarmed
that some 4,470 sheep and 2,500 cattle will be allowed to graze in the
SNRA this summer—many in pastures immediately adjacent to the den of the
Champion Creek wolves.
"We’re very excited to have wolves
back in the SNRA," said Lynne Stone, executive director of the
Boulder-White Clouds Council. "But we need to make sure they’re here to