Written August 13, 2003
After a one-year hiatus, gray wolves have returned to the White Cloud Mountains, renewing a debate in central Idaho over how huge tracts of federal land in and around the region are managed.
Wolf advocates have applauded a federal ruling this year that prohibits federal officials from killing wolves that prey on livestock in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which includes the White Clouds. At the same time, many object to grazing permits that allow thousands of sheep and cattle to be placed in proximity of known wolf dens in the 756,000-acre SNRA.
Meanwhile, opponents of wolf reintroduction in Idaho have asserted that Idaho's wolves are negatively impacting livestock and elk populations, threatening the valued institutions of ranching and hunting.
Two new wolf packs moved into the White Clouds this year, filling a void left in 2002 by the erstwhile Wildhorse Pack, which disbanded, and the Whitehawk Pack, which was killed by federal officials after it was implicated in attacks on livestock.
The recently named "Galena Pack"—which resides in the western foothills of the White Clouds, near the Champion Creek drainage—was deemed a viable pack last spring after a litter of five pups was born to two adults.
In July, officials confirmed the viability of a second new pack in the northeastern White Clouds, named the "Castle Peak Pack." That pack comprises two adults—including the former alpha male of the Wildhorse Pack—and four pups.
Carter Niemeyer, Idaho wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency currently charged with managing reintroduced wolf populations in Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, said the new packs bring to 20 the number of wolf packs with litters in Idaho. An additional 20 known groups of wolves without a breeding pair reside in the state.
Niemeyer said the USFWS has seen ample evidence to believe that wolves are also residing near the Bench Lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains.
The region around the White Cloud Mountains is considered by biologists to be excellent wolf habitat, offering the far-ranging canines room to roam and abundant big game to feed on.
"It is very good wolf habitat," said Robin Garwood, wildlife biologist for the SNRA.
The SNRA wolves currently have an extra measure of protection over that provided by its status as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act. In April, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill renewed a 2002 injunction that prohibits killing wolves in the SNRA—even those that prey on livestock.
Still, wolf advocates have opposed permits that allowed approximately 4,500 sheep and 2,500 cattle to graze in the SNRA this summer—some in pastures immediately adjacent to the den of the Champion Creek wolves.
A third wolf pack residing just outside the SNRA boundaries is not protected by Judge Winmill's order. The Buffalo Ridge Pack, which in spring was established south of Clayton, has been a candidate for federal control actions this year because of previous suspected livestock kills.
The pack, however, relocated this summer into the mountains above Squaw Creek before any lethal control actions were deemed necessary.
Niemeyer said only a handful of suspected wolf predations on livestock have been reported this year. "We've had an extremely quiet summer all over Idaho," he said.
Niemeyer said a key to this year's success in keeping wolf-livestock interactions to a minimum has been a series of collaborative efforts by wolf managers and wolf advocates. Efforts have included installing electric fencing in some areas and delaying the installation of cows with calves in pastures near wolf dens.
"We certainly believe that if we can keep wolves and livestock apart, that would be the best solution," Niemeyer said.
Despite the newfound success of wolves in the White Clouds, their future is not certain. The wolves are scheduled to soon lose their federally protected status, and eventually will be managed by the state of Idaho. The state has determined it will manage wolves depending on the number of packs in the state, with an overall goal of maintaining at least 15 wolf packs in Idaho.