This is the second part of a multi-part series.
Long before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first crossed into Idaho in 1805, the gray wolf reigned supreme in North America, from Alaska’s snow-packed gullies to sandstone beds in Mexico.
In Idaho, according to Suzanne Stone—published wolf researcher and cofounder of the Wood River Wolf Project—the apex predators once numbered in the thousands.
“Of course, no one took a census back then, but we know that over a very short period of time—just a decade—over 100,000 wolves were turned in for bounty in Montana alone,” Stone said. “The native wolf population [in Idaho] was probably in the tens of thousands.”
While Native American tribes in the West, including the Nez Perce, held a deep reverence for wolves, newly arrived settlers and sheepherders—who depended on livestock to feed their families—saw them as threats. The depletion of elk and bison herds due to hunting pressure and habitat loss only exacerbated wolf depredations on sheep, furthering the belief that the animals were pests that needed to be exterminated.
In the 1870s, politically driven campaigns to remove wolves in the U.S. began to pick up speed. At Yellowstone National Park, for example, bounty hunters hired by the state baited wolves with poison-laced carcasses.
By the end of the Great Depression, nearly all wolves in the lower 48 states had been shot, poisoned or trapped by federal agents to protect livestock herds from depredations, Stone said. In 1940, the canids could no longer be found in Idaho. Stone said it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when the first family of wolves trekked down to Montana from Alberta and began denning in Glacier National Park. Around that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service floated the idea of reintroducing wolves—then protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973—in two main locations: Yellowstone National Park and the central Idaho wilderness.
The proposal set off a vitriolic dispute between pro-wolf and pro-ranching groups, according to Brian Bean, co-owner of Lava Lake Land & Livestock and a member of the Wood River Wolf Project’s steering committee.
“It was a cultural thing,” he said. “You had operators that thought the worst thing that the feds could do was reintroduce wolves.”
Despite protest from agricultural organizations, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt greenlit a federal plan to bring wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1994. (Because state agencies in Idaho refused to participate, the duty of wolf monitoring in Idaho fell on the shoulders of the Nez Perce Tribe, headquartered along the Clearwater River.)
From January 1995 to 1996, a total of 66 gray wolves were captured in the Canadian Rockies and transported by helicopter, plane and truck to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park—31 to Yellowstone, 35 to Idaho.
Eleven wolves from the first batch—captured in rugged Alberta north of Jasper National Park—were flown into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, where they were immediately released. Two dozen more wolves, this time from Fort St. John, British Columbia, were set free in 1996 along the Salmon River near Salmon, Stanley and Indian Creek.
“Wolves were back in Idaho after being absent for most of the last century. The Frank Church Wilderness was wild again and the forests would soon echo with their ancient, soulful song,” Stone wrote in her 2014 recollection “I Was There.”
“[The release] was a very profound and emotional moment … We cried, hugged each other, opened champagne and gave our toasts to the wolves.”
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One member of the original helicopter capture team was Carter Niemeyer, who served as a darter, wolf-retriever (or “mugger”) and wolf medic alongside expert gunners from Alaska. Conditions that winter were treacherous; after the wolves were darted, many would fall into deep snowbanks, Niemeyer said.
“When the helicopter couldn’t land in that deep of snow, I’d have to carry, drag and maneuver the wolves onto river ice,” he recalled.
Because the wolves sent to Wyoming would have to stay within the tighter boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, many came from the same packs. Those sent to Idaho, on the other hand, were largely single, non-related animals on the younger side, Niemeyer said—the idea being that they’d roam far and wide across the Frank Church, the largest forested wilderness zone in the lower 48.
“In Idaho, the goal was to simulate the natural dispersal behavior of young wolves and have them venture out on their own to find a mate and start their own pack,” Stone said.
In both Yellowstone and central Idaho, wolves found mates, reproduced and started their own packs. Thanks to record-high elk populations and ample carrion in the Frank Church Wilderness, Idaho’s gray wolf population surged past Fish and Wildlife Service’s initial recovery goal—10 breeding pairs, or around 100 wolves—in just three years.
As the predators made their steady comeback, however, they also inspired one of the greatest divides between ranchers and environmentalists in recent history.
It wasn’t common to see gray wolves in Blaine County until around 13 years ago, when they first began denning in the Wood River Valley. Distress among local ranchers followed the predators’ debut.
One rancher’s fears became reality in the spring of 2007, when a newly formed wolf pack—nicknamed the “Phantom Hill” pack by locals—settled just a few miles from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters. Unaware of the wolf den, the rancher released hundreds of sheep and livestock guardian dogs into the area. Within hours, a “train wreck” of dead sheep and livestock guardian dogs had ensued, Stone said.
Today, Stone cites the Phantom Hill incident as the jumping-off point for the Wood River Wolf Project, formally established in 2008 by herself, Idaho Wildlife Services wolf specialist Rick Williamson and Mike Stevens, then-president of Lava Lake Land & Livestock. The group’s mission was simple: to prevent wolves from killing livestock and promote wolf-friendly ranching with nonlethal deterrents.
The first deterrent they tested was fladry, a ranching tool from central Europe that involves placing bright strips of cloth along corral fencing to ward off wolves. With that tool in place, no further sheep were lost to the Phantom Hill pack—granting the wolves a free pass from Wildlife Services in 2007.
“We’re not sure why exactly wolves are so freaked out by [fladry],” Stone said. “It has nothing to do with color. For whatever reason, they think it’s very risky stuff, even when it’s half buried in snow.”
In the early years of the project, Rick Williamson’s wife, Carol, crafted miles of fladry on a commercial sewing machine.
“She had so much going on at one time that they had to bring in a semi truck and use that as her sewing room. Her fladry was sent to ranchers all over Europe, all over the U.S. and Canada. It was even successfully tested on dingoes in Australia,” Stone said.
One of the largest experiments that the Wood River Wolf Project conducted was at a ranch near Salmon where wolves had been denning. The group hung more than nine miles of Carol’s fladry around the ranch; soon after, to their dismay, Williamson observed a group of wolves feeding off a yearling calf.
“The wolves had found an opening in the fabric where a windstorm had pushed it down,” Stone said. “Rick went up in his helicopter to investigate, and the wolves got caught between the [landing skids] and the fladry. They decided to escape under the helicopter instead of the fladry—that just goes to show how much they hated it—and they didn’t come back again.”
To prevent wolves from growing accustomed to fladry out in the pastures, Williamson invented “turbo fladry,” an electrified version of the original deterrent. That proved even more effective.
“Rick wanted to do everything he could to give wolves the best chance for survival,” Stone recalled. “He’d get up [at conferences] and talk about turbo fladry and how it’s preventing losses and how excited we were about it.”
That meant Williamson, who passed away in 2017, often faced condescension from his coworkers, Stone remembers.
“His colleagues would stand in the back of the room, arms crossed. They didn’t buy what he was saying,” she said.
Over the next seven years, the organization built up its arsenal of nonlethal deterrents: handheld spotlights, airhorns, whistles, boom boxes, guitars, whistles, airhorns and starter pistols. “Anything to give wolves the impression that humans are nearby, since humans are really the most effective deterrent,” Stone said.
In 2013, the Wolf Project added Fox Lights, or computerized, randomly flashing lights, to their toolbox, becoming the first organization in North America to pilot the technology. (Today, Fox Lights are used by livestock producers from Kenya to Tibet to ward off predators including hyenas, jackals and snow leopards.)
With a well-established collection of nonlethal tools, Stone said only 30 sheep in Blaine County were killed by wolves from 2008 until 2015—an average of about four per year. That put documented sheep losses to wolves in the Wood River drainage around 90 percent lower than the rest of the state, according to the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service.
In the Fairfield Ranger District, where nonlethal deterrents had not been deployed in those eight years, 300 sheep were killed by wolves, Stone said.
“[Fairfield’s depredation numbers] showed us that if you’re just killing wolves, you haven’t addressed underlying risk factors of why livestock are being put at risk,” she said. “New wolves will move in, and you’ll have same scenario play out over and over again without a different outcome.”