In March 2009, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game dispatched conservation officers to haze the Phantom Hill wolf pack to discourage the predators from hanging around residential neighborhoods in the Wood River Valley.
This winter, however, has been a different story, without the numerous sightings that occurred last year in Elkhorn, East Fork, Greenhorn Gulch and Deer Creek.
Regan Berkley, Fish and Game's Magic Valley regional wildlife biologist, said that while wolves have been spotted this winter in Sun Valley and areas to the north, the frequency is only a fraction of what it was last winter when the pack was seen walking down paved roads.
A main factor for the change, Berkley said, is the state's first wolf hunt. Ten wolves—the full quota—were killed in the Southern Mountains zone, which includes the Wood River Valley and extends east across the Pioneer, White Knob, Lost River, Lemhi and Beaverhead mountain ranges to the Montana border.
Of those wolves, Berkley said, two were likely members of the Phantom Hill pack, whose home range stretches from around Trail Creek north to Alturas Lake. A third pack member, the alpha male, was killed by a car last summer.
Last year, the pack was estimated to have about 10 members, and while a current count has yet to be made, Berkley said she estimates that there are six to eight members remaining.
"Over the winter we've had sporadic reports, but we haven't seen the instances where the wolves showed up and stayed to be seen by everyone," Berkley said.
One reason for the uncertainty is that only one member of the pack is fitted with a radio collar that transmits its location. That wolf, a young male, has left the Wood River Valley, Berkley said, and is now in one of the six hunting zones still open.
"The wolves can range a long way," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the hunt has had an impact on their distribution. It's probably the biggest factor."
Also playing a role in the wolves' whereabouts is the activity of their food source. Berkley said the mild winter has not caused elk to concentrate into tight areas as they would when there is a lot of snow on the ground.
"They have to follow their food base," she said. "But we're hearing from our counterparts across the state that they're also seeing changes in the wolves' behavior."
Without knowing exactly where the pack is, Berkley said, she isn't sure about pup survival or whether the pack has grown over the past year.
Jon Duval: firstname.lastname@example.org