This post was written by Patrick Graham, a member of the Wood River Wolf Project field crew
Last month, the Wood River Wolf Project concluded its fifth and arguably most successful season — but it was a roller coaster from the very beginning.
As folks started to pour into the Wood River Valley seeking recreation, a couple of campers nearly drove over a wolf pup! They thought it would be a good idea to capture him and turn him over to the Sheriff, who then brought the pup down to the Sun Valley Animal Center. Field assistant Kyle Coshow happened to be working at the Center when the wolf arrived and knew we had to try to help. This kicked off a furious effort to locate the rendezvous site of the pup’s pack in order to return him to the wild with his family. Sadly, we were unable to locate his pack, so the pup was sent to Busch Gardens in Virginia to be raised with other pups his age.
Luckily, we didn’t have much time to mope around before things got really busy. At the end of June, our project team held a three-day training session and officially kicked off the grazing season when five different bands of sheep trailed onto the Sawtooth National Forest. Then we installed 15 motion-activated cameras along major grazing routes with suspected wolf activity and got pictures almost right away.
We captured our first photo of a wolf on June 24 near Lake Creek, which alerted us to the presence of wolves in the area. Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication, we weren’t able to stop these wolves from killing four sheep over a busy Fourth of July holiday. Our field crew responded right away, however, by establishing a human presence near the sheep band while they were in the general vicinity of the kill site. We spent three full weeks on night watch and were able to deter any further conflicts. Throughout this 21-day stretch, we pulled six more photos of wolves from different cameras around the area, and every one of our field assistants got to hear wolves while they were out!
Soon thereafter, the Ketchum Ranger District office received a report from a hiker who saw five wolf pups along a road near Sun Valley. We followed up on this report by placing a camera at a stream crossing where wolves would be likely to stop and take a drink. Not too long after this camera was up, we got two great photos of wolves, one black and one gray.
At that point, our crew hiked up a trail with veteran wolf trapper and project adviser Carter Niemeyer to see if we could find any evidence that wolves were still present. Sure enough, not more than half a mile into our hike we discovered a fresh elk carcass. Then, while we were investigating the kill, we heard howls off in the distance. We immediately pursued the noise of the wolves, had Carter give his best howl, and the whole pack responded! We had discovered the Pioneer Pack.
The Pioneer Pack would prove to occupy most of our energy for the rest of the season, since two sheep bands were using the same area. We accumulated nearly 400 photos from 10 different cameras over a four-week period and determined that six wolves were in this pack — two adults and four pups. The sheep that were grazing on this allotment were scheduled to travel directly through the wolves’ rendezvous site, giving us the perfect opportunity to prove how effective nonlethal deterrents really are. One of our crew members was with the sheep every single night for 24 days total. We hiked hundreds of miles, climbed thousands of vertical feet, and used every deterrent in the book, including a propane cannon provided to us by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. We endured rain, wind and show during our time out in the mountains, and heard wolves nearly every night. But at the end of the long month of October, no sheep were killed while in the Corral Creek Drainage, and only four sheep were taken during the previous four-week period.
Considering more than 27,000 sheep moved through the project area during the summer, I’d consider the season an incredible success. Our feet became sore, and our legs became strong. We saw a lot of progress both on the part of the field crew and the ranching community, and look forward to exploring the future of predator deterrents and livestock management. See you all in the spring!