Two U.S. Forest Service employees from Utah were evacuated by helicopter from the Sawtooth Wilderness in late September after encountering a pack of howling wolves about five miles east of Graham in the Johnson Creek drainage.
Johnson Creek is the southwestern portion of the Sawtooths and in the North Fork of the Boise River drainage.
According to Ed Waldapfel, spokesman for the Sawtooth National Forest, the incident occurred Sept. 23 at about 10 a.m. when the employees observed wolves chasing a bull elk across a meadow.
"A little while later they started hearing wolves howling all around them," Waldapfel said. "They called on their radio or satellite phone and asked their supervisor if they could leave the area."
Waldapfel said the employees, whose names he did not know, were from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Ogden and were conducting forest inventory work in the Sawtooths, began hiking back to their camp a couple miles away. But they claimed the howls persisted, Waldapfel said.
"No matter which way they went they said they could hear the wolves," he added. "They climbed onto a rock outcropping and continued to communicate with their supervisor.
"They admitted they were very scared and wanted to get out of the area."
Shortly thereafter, Waldapfel said the employees' supervisor contacted the Sawtooth National Forest and "asked for a helicopter to come in and retrieve them."
Waldapfel said the wolves never made any aggressive or threatening moves toward the pair.
"It was the sound of the howls that scared them," Waldapfel said, "and the fact (the employees) were from another part of the country. They're not part of our regular workforce and so they hadn't had training for this kind of wildlife encounter."
Steve Nadeau, the state's wolf program supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, was shocked that wolf howls would elicit a helicopter evacuation in a wilderness area.
"Holy moly—sounds to me like someone's read too many of Grimm's fairy tales," Nadeau said. "I'm flabbergasted that (the Forest Service) would go to that extent over wolves howling in the woods because wolves howl in the woods all the time. That's how they communicate.
"If they felt threatened I guess the Forest Service reacted appropriately. But I can't imagine why the feeling was any more than anyone else walking in the woods."
Lynne Stone, a Stanley resident who regularly observes wolf behavior in the backcountry, said when wolves howl "the echo can come from 360 degrees."
"Especially up in the mountains, where there's a lot of rock, there are great wolf-howl acoustics," she said. "They probably weren't surrounded by wolves."
Stone, who has observed wolves in the mountains around Stanley on 17 different occasions since the spring, said wolves are very focused during a hunt, and the Forest Service employees were not in any danger.
"When wolves are hunting they are on target. They will be oblivious to you," she said. "I'd be more afraid of running into a moose cow with calves, or a black bear with cubs, than encountering howling wolves.
"These guys were not at risk, and it's too bad they didn't take time to enjoy one of the greatest experiences you could ever have in terms of observing wildlife."
Waldapfel said seeing and hearing wolves in the backcountry in the Sawtooth and Boise national forests is not uncommon.
"But for someone from another state or another area where they don't have wolves, I could see where it could be a very frightening experience," he said.
While there are no documented cases of wolves attacking humans in Idaho, Waldapfel acknowledged "these employees probably were not aware of that fact."
Waldapfel said the Sawtooth National Forest will review its training procedures to better prepare out-of-area Forest Service personnel for what they may encounter while in the field.
"We'll spend some time this fall and winter reviewing our current procedures," he said.
The Utah employees were flown to Ketchum after boarding the helicopter. A Forest Service crew returned to the scene to break down their camp and retrieve their gear Sept. 25.