Wolf project off to dramatic start
Last minute reroute of sheep band helps avert ‘train wreck’
by Jason D.B. Kauffman, Idaho Mountain Express, July 2008
A more dramatic opening to a film about the conflicts between Western sheep ranchers and wild gray wolves could not have been scripted.
Staged on the lush green benches below the rugged Boulder Mountain front, a potential disaster that would have placed grazing sheep in the vicinity of a wolf pack is narrowly avoided through a combination of quick thinking, a series of well-timed telephone calls and a rancher willing to change plans at the last minute. Scene 2 unfolds on the large band of sheep bedding down safely for the night, while just several miles away, the all-black wolf pack continues hunting to feed their four several-month-old pups.
But this drama isn’t splashed across any silver screen. It unfolded in real life just last week.
“We kind of avoided a train wreck,” said Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization that’s devoting about $25,000 to fund a groundbreaking project this summer to keep wolves and sheep separate in the Boulder and Smoky mountains northwest of Ketchum.
The scenario occurred just hours before two northbound semi trucks were set to arrive on state Highway 75 to drop off their cargo of 2,500 ewes and lambs on the Sawtooth National Forest’s Owl Creek grazing allotment. Operating near the south end of the remote grazing area on the upper end of the 350,000-acre Ketchum Ranger District, a trio of field assistants hired by Defenders of Wildlife as the on-the-ground face for the summer’s innovative project made what turned out to be a very good call.
Putting two and two together, locals Cindi Hillemeyer, Justin Stevenson and Roger Olson quickly realized the spot where the sheep were going to be released was less than a mile from the Phantom Hill wolf pack’s new rendezvous site. Only in the previous few days had they discovered where the pack, the first confirmed to be denning in the Wood River Valley since reintroduction, had established the rendezvous site.
These hidden meeting spots are resting places where young wolf pups are left while the adult members of a pack go off to hunt.
Standing in a sun-drenched meadow early Monday—the same meadow where the sheep were to have been dropped off last week on Tuesday—Stevenson directed Stone’s attention to a patch of dead evergreen trees set against the vertical face of the Boulder Mountains less than a mile away. Using radio telemetry equipment supplied by Defenders of Wildlife, the field assistants have confirmed the hidden spot is the pack’s rendezvous site, Stevenson told Stone, Boise-based Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
“I bet he’s right there,” said Stevenson, pointing to where they last detected a signal from the Phantom Hill pack’s radio collared alpha male.
An experienced observer of wolf behavior, Stone gazed in the direction of the rendezvous site and nodded.
“That’s a good spot for him,” she said.
The rancher who owns the sheep that were bound for the sloping meadow next to the Phantom Hill pack’s rendezvous site early last week leases grazing land on the Ketchum Ranger District in the Warm Springs Creek drainage. But because much of that area burned during last summer’s Castle Rock Fire, forest officials are allowing him to graze the Owl Creek allotment this summer.
As darkness fell last Tuesday, most of the redirected band’s 2,500 ewes and lambs entered a several-acre night pen Hillemeyer and Olson were about finished setting up. Lagging behind the band, a straggler raced to enter the pen. The sheep’s hasty pace immediately put Hillemeyer and Olson on full alert.
“I said, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’” Hillemeyer recalled.
They quickly discovered the source of the sheep’s panic. Looking away from the safety of the single-wire electrified enclosure to the hills beyond, the field assistants spotted a single black wolf loping away in the opposite direction.
“That’s as close as it gets without a depredation,” Stone commented.
Hillemeyer, Stevenson and Olson believe that at the end of the day, the band’s safety came down to their presence and successful communication with Sawtooth National Forest officials. Those officials in turn immediately contacted the rancher and told him where he could safely drop off his sheep.
“Which was great,” Hillemeyer said. “They were already in trucks.”
She also credits the rancher for being open to adapting to the presence of the pack.
“They were more than willing to change their route.”
Having Sawtooth officials open to redirecting the band to the Owl Creek allotment—which was rested last summer—also contributed to the day’s peaceful outcome, Stone said.
“It gave us an opportunity to work things out,” she said.
Kurt Nelson, Ketchum District Ranger for the Sawtooth National Forest, also praised the collaboration.
“I think the level of cooperation is unprecedented,” he said.
Participants in the project hope to react positively and quickly to any challenges that come their way, Nelson said.
“It’s adaptive management,” he said.
For the remainder of the summer, at least one of the Defenders of Wildlife field assistants will be out in the field at night, the time when sheep are most vulnerable to depredation by wolves. And except in a few instances, the most they’ll have to keep an eye on inside the upper Wood River Valley project area will be two sheep bands.
In addition to setting up night pens each evening and monitoring for the whereabouts of the Phantom Hill pack—the project’s primary focus—the field assistants will also deploy loud air horns or 22-caliber starter pistols to scare off wolves that venture too close to wandering sheep bands.
For their part, herders working for Carey-based Lava Lake Land & Livestock, John Faulkner of Gooding and John Peavey of the Flat Top Sheep Ranch will also keep in close contact with the field assistants. And keeping watch over the sheep bands will be Great Pyrenees guard dogs.
It was only a few weeks ago when Stevenson, Hillemeyer and Olson, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer from Hailey, were trained on how to use radio telemetry to keep tabs on radio-collared wolves. In the eight-member Phantom Hill pack, the alpha male and a 2-year-old female are the only wolves with radio collars.
Since the spotters began training, they’ve learned quickly, Stevenson said. But he said it may take time before he’s really accomplished in the use of radio telemetry equipment, which experienced users can use to triangulate where a wolf is, to a very close degree.
“I still don’t have a grasp on how far they are, but at least I know what direction,” he said.
Olson said they’ve also become much quicker at setting up the electrified night pens for the sheep. He said it now only takes them about 1.5 hours to set up the three- to five-acre enclosures.
The ongoing project to save both the Phantom Hill wolves and grazing sheep in the upper Big Wood River drainage is the brainchild of a diverse group of people—including ranchers, U.S. Forest Service officials and conservationists—who aren’t normally seen working together so closely.
Like Stevenson and Olson, Hillemeyer realizes they may not always be so lucky. She said that while they’re excited by the success they’ve found so far, the fact that everyone is communicating so well is in itself remarkable.
“If that’s all we do, that’s great,” she said.