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Current News & Issues: Wolves

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The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express for the week of May 28 - June 3, 2003. View the original article online at
http://www.mtexpress.com/2003/03-05-28/03-05-28wolves1.htm
 

Wolves return to the Sawtooth Valley
SNRA, Clayton packs bring new hope, tensions
Features

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 Whitehawk Pack.

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 grounds.

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 stay."
 

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