Ever since 35 gray wolves were transplanted from the Canadian Rockies to central Idaho’s wilderness between 1995 and 1996, the native canids have made a steady comeback in the state—bringing along new challenges for livestock producers near Salmon and Challis.
For sheep and cattle ranchers in Blaine County, however, chronic wolf depredations weren’t an issue until about 13 years ago, when gray wolves first began denning in the county after an absence of over half a century.
It didn’t take long for the wolves to prey on livestock after their initial appearance in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area north of Ketchum in 2007, says Wood River Wolf Project co-founder Suzanne Stone. Since 2006, the predators’ newfound presence in Blaine County had reignited age-old fears among livestock producers that wolves would leave the forests to dine on their sheep and cattle.
Those fears soon became a reality in the spring of 2007, when a newly formed wolf pack—dubbed the “Phantom Hill” pack by locals—began breeding just a few miles from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters.
Unaware of the wolves’ presence, a north-valley rancher released hundreds of sheep and livestock guardian dogs into the wolves’ denning area, Stone said. Carnage ensued.
“Within 24 hours, you had this big train wreck of dead sheep, dead guardian dogs and a pack of wolves pretty much on the chopping block,” she recalled.
At that point, Stone had already been testing out nonlethal wolf deterrents with Idaho Wildlife Services wolf specialist Rick Williamson and Mike Stevens, then-president of Lava Lake Land & Livestock. The trio, joined up by Lava Lake co-founder Brian Bean, went into overdrive to formulate an emergency plan to save the Phantom Hill pack from almost certain death.
With the odds stacked against them, the group partnered with the north-valley producer until the end of the grazing season. The main deterrent they used was fladry, a ranching tool from Poland and the Czech Republic that involves placing strips of cloth along corral fencing to ward off predators.
Remarkably, no sheep were lost.
“By putting the sheep behind fladry, rather than having them band up on the mountainside at night where they were vulnerable—and then moving the fladry to prevent wolves from becoming accustomed to it—we learned that we could prevent the loss of sheep to wolves,” Stone said. “It’s a very effective psychological deterrent.”
Even with a season of success under their belts, the group was told by ranchers and wolf scientists alike that wolves would never be able to coexist with domestic sheep on public lands. But no one had really tried nonlethal measures consistently, Stone said. So she, Williamson and Stevens set out to test an arsenal of aural and visual deterrents.
Thus, the Wood River Wolf Project was born. From its inception in 2008 until 2015, Stone said, only 30 sheep in Blaine County were killed by wolves—an average of about four per year. That put the sheep mortality rate at between 0.01 and 0.02 percent out of the 15,000 to 25,000 sheep that graze throughout northern Blaine County every summer. In the adjacent Fairfield Ranger District, which did not employ nonlethal methods over that time period, 300 sheep were killed by wolves.
“The Fairfield area saw depredation losses were far greater than ours, with several packs killed [by Wildlife Services]. This went to show that if you’re just relying on killing wolves, you haven’t addressed underlying risk factors of why livestock are at risk,” Stone said. “New wolves will move in and you’ll have same scenario play out over and over again, without a different outcome.”
By preventing wolf depredations on sheep from occurring in the first place, wolf project members believe both the livelihoods of sheep ranchers and the restoration of gray wolves can take equal priority.
That’s a rare viewpoint in Idaho today, says Stone. The clash between pro-wolf and anti-wolf rhetoric in Idaho is perhaps no better exemplified than on Facebook, where echo chambers stoke polarizing viewpoints. On both sides, users are more often than not dismissed with laugh-reactions or labeled “wolf haters” or “wolf lovers.”
But offline, the Wood River Wolf Project—now in its 13th field season—is confronting controversy head-on.
“There are lots of differing opinions as to whether wolves or sheep should be here, but to address [depredation] issues back in 2008 we thought it was important to leave politics at the door and say, ‘How do we focus on solving the problems at hand?’” Stone said. “And, here we are.”