Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative
Around midnight on August 7, 2013 a lightning storm passed through the Wood River Valley in central Idaho igniting a fire that would become one of the area’s largest in the last century. Within the next few weeks, nearly 2,000 firefighters would be called to the scene and thousands of local residents evacuated from their homes. As the fire exploded across thousands of acres of forest and sage terrain spurred on by nearly 40 mph winds, our project was suspended while local ranchers rushed to move sheep bands away from the blaze.
Fires are a regular part of western landscapes and a vital part of a healthy ecosystem as they help regenerate new growth of native trees and create diverse landscapes for plants and animals—almost the equivalent of the wolf’s role of culling (removing weaker) elk and deer from herds which in turn benefits other wildlife and vegetation. This fire, however, was especially dangerous to people because it threatened to burn major towns in its path.
Today, the fire is fully contained and the thousands of firefighters have moved on to other national fires. There are still access restrictions to the forests and it may be weeks or longer before we learn the fate of our wildlife cameras in the burned areas. Most, if not all of those are most likely lost: a small price to pay for the important and sometimes surprising information we have been learning from these cameras all summer.
For example, in July our field crew documented a family of four wolverines, which are thankfully away from the burn zone. Wolverines are extremely rare even in Idaho, home to the largest forested contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. In fact, based on occupied wolverine habitat, it is estimated that the wolverine population in the contiguous United States numbers fewer than 300 wolverines. Only 35 wolverines in the Rocky Mountains are estimated to be successfully breeding each year, which is an exceptionally low number.
The other equally surprising find on our wildlife cameras was an old friend of the project. She was only a year old the first time we encountered “Judith,” a female wolf of the newly documented Phantom Hill pack. For those following the Wood River Wolf Project over the last six years, you may remember Judith. In 2007, the pack began killing sheep in central Idaho’s “sheep superhighway” of the Sawtooth National Forest during the summer grazing season. The entire pack was slated to be killed despite its popularity with local residents who had flocked to the area to observe the pack raise their pups. Some local residents described the wolf-watching opportunities as their own miniature Yellowstone and were outraged when talk turned to killing the wolves in response to the sheep losses.
During this time, Carter Niemeyer, who would later become our project mentor, trapped and radio collared Judith, an 80-lb. yearling female wolf and the elder sister and babysitter of the new pups. “She was a strikingly pretty wolf. Salt and pepper coloring with a black mane,” he said recently, reminiscing about the early days of the pack. He remembers being most concerned that her collar would lead government agents to the rest of the pack to kill them if our nonlethal strategies failed. These wolves are labeled “Judas” wolves since they are used to betray their packs, but Carter’s wife Jenny called her “Judith” instead and the name stuck.
We started the Wood River Wolf Project soon thereafter as a way to develop nonlethal control measures and give the Phantom Hill wolves another chance. Unfortunately, we lost the entire pack in 2008 when the alpha male was struck and killed by a car and the first ever hunting season on wolves opened in Idaho. The Phantom Hill pack disappeared that same fall though new packs emerged later in other parts of the county.
Judith hadn’t been seen in nearly five years, so we were thrilled when she turned up on our camera! She has her own pup with her in the pictures, which means yet another pack in our project area that we hope to help protect again next year. Perhaps they should be called the Phantom pack in honor of her origins and the years they have spent avoiding human detection.
The fire in our project area shortened our field season this year, but we were already well into another successful year. This summer there were no documented losses of either livestock or wolves in our defined project area. We’re not able to cover the whole county yet but only because there are some producers who still aren’t ready to adapt to nonlethal deterrents and strategies. We hope, in time, they too will see the greater community good is served when all sides work together.