Home on the Range

 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.

Boise the lost wolf pup

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.

Pioneer pack gray and black pups

Gray and black pups of 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!

17 Responses to “Home on the Range”

  1. Tiffany

    This article is fabulous, thank you all for your tireless dedication!!.

  2. Christine Allard

    Thank you for your dedication & hard work! I’m originally from Southern Idaho and spent a lot of time in Sun Valley, having an uncle who lives in Bellevue. I have many friends & family who are adamantly pro-kill when it comes to wolf management so it’s great to see another alternative that can provide control without resorting to killing.

    • Jean-françois Tregan

      magnifique article ! quand on pense qu’en france ils ne sont que 250 individues !

  3. victoria mathew

    You guys are doing a great job!! Hope the wolf population continues to grow:)

  4. Jon

    It’s great news that your deterrents worked so well. Can you elaborate on exactly what the deterrents were and provide details on the specific reactions of the wolves to the various deterrent techniques? It’d be most helpful for disseminating which techniques are the most effective. Many thanks for all you do.

  5. Emily

    Point: If I had sheep, and some sheep dogs (Wolves eat them fairly easily.), how would I be able to afford equipment and a team of all-night guards, and make a profit?

    It sounds to me like this isn’t feasible unless it’s paid for by other than the sheep owners. Then there’s the question of ‘Is it worth the money to entities who are not making a profit?’ I doubt your team is permanently into this project.

    Idaho is full of wolves: No more elk are left. The herd that was two sets of 100 individuals is down to one set of five individuals, and two of them are very young. This is due to wolf predation, and Fish and Game is in deep trouble over it.

    • Wordwizard

      Shepherds to protect sheep–who would have thought of that? It has worked for as long as sheep have been domesticated. The cost of shepherds is folded into the cost of the meat you buy. This research into what works best is designed to make it more cost-effective. After the research is complete, a far smaller number of shepherds would be necessary.

    • john G

      Point well taken but is there some middle ground? There must be some way to keep sheep safe from wolves without decimating wolf population. Obviously the answer must be technological rather than 24/7 babysitting. This impasse, which has existed as long as wolves and sheep have occupied the same territory, has an answer that does not deplete either. Not being an ‘expert’ I don’t know the direction of research but someone does. With forums like this more people can know and respond.

    • steve

      And hunters haven’t taken any elk ?
      Fish and Game are the inmates running the asylum, they are hunters deep down and could care less about saving any wolves.

      The ranchers and hunters are the problem.

  6. andy

    Sheep Dogs (great Pyrenees and Irish Wolf hounds ) as shepherds are very effective wolf deterrent and are not “eaten ” regularly.
    These are large dogs Bred to guard and protect …to the death their flocks.

    These dogs are generally used in male / female pairs.
    Pyrs will even assist the ewes in lambing…and shown their range will keep the sheep (cattle etc.)there.

    I recommend neutering the dogs,if they are left alone for periods of time, so if a female comes into heat she is not mated with the wolves.

    This has been very effective for hundreds( thousands) of years ….and “modern” society has forgotten…
    this does require training of your dogs and effort on the part of the farmer but is well worth the return.

    Something to consider…an alternate to killing..
    I have a friend in Canada and they use Wolfhounds for their huge cattle ranch and it works…and they have many wolves in their area.
    They coexist well…

    • Marlene

      That’s good to know – I initially thought you were talking about English Sheepdogs. How about Kuvasz – would they be another breed to consider?

    • Tim

      Research our of Central Michigan University demonstrates the effectiveness of Great Pyrenees dogs raised and roaming with sheep as a VERY effective deterrent in Michigan’s upper peninsula.

  7. Judith S. Schainen

    It is heartening to lesrn that there are alternative solutions to managing coexistence between wolves and humans, other than shooting the wolves. If it can be done in one place it can be done in other places as well. My thanks to you for proving it can be done in a non-violent manner.

  8. Anna

    You guys are such wonderful people. It warms my heart :’). Thank you so much for your incredible efforts!

  9. TK

    Here in North Central Florida, we use Great Pyrs on our farm to protect our goats, chickens, and other livestock against coyotes, foxes, and wild dogs. So far, so good. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to deter gators, not even good fencing. Another breed used around here by area farmers is Anatolian Sheperds.

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