Click to enlarge - Map courtesy of Idaho Conservation League
Members of the Boise-based environmental group Idaho Conservation League are hoping the Idaho Fish and Game Commission will designate lands shown highlighted on this map as a Central Idaho Wolf Viewing Area. Under their proposal, lands within the viewing area would be closed off from wolf hunting.
A barely perceptible gasp swept through the crowd of onlookers standing next to state Highway 75 just after sunrise Saturday a few miles downstream of Stanley.
Less than an hour after the sun hit the jagged peaks of the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, the attention of the 20 to 25 warmly dressed people was drawn to an open, sun-splashed slope above the Salmon River on the northwest side of the highway. Picking its way through dense stands of chest-high sagebrush, a lone gray wolf gave the crowd the spectacular display they'd come to find.
Perhaps only 500 yards distant, the uncollared adult wolf was angling its way up the moderate slope.
Reminiscent of the more famous crowds that gather along the two-lane roadway that passes through Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park in the hopes of glimpsing the elusive species, many of the people were seeing a wolf for the first time. They were gathered in the picturesque mountain valley over the weekend to take part in the Idaho Conservation League's annual Wild Idaho! conference at nearby Redfish Lake Lodge.
Several times during its steady march to a nearby ridgeline, the wolf paused to look back toward the onlookers. Just minutes before, it had popped its head above a nearby knoll for a brief moment, its attention directed at the crowd led by Stanley wolf advocate Lynne Stone and Carter Niemeyer, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho. Soon after, the wolf came into full view several hundred yards away to the right.
Without missing a beat, it loped across a grassy saddle and disappeared from view.
Wolf-viewing area sought
Saturday's sighting of the single wolf—a member of central Idaho's Basin Butte wolf pack—took place in the heart of a large wolf-occupied area that ICL members hope state wildlife managers will designate as a Central Idaho Wolf Viewing Area. The conservationists' aim is to have the Idaho Department of Fish and Game designate lands on both sides of several highways in the region as an area where wild wolves can go about their lives free from the threat of hunting.
Portions of the viewing area would fall inside the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a popular destination for travelers arriving from around the nation to recreate in its many mountains, rivers and abundant wildlife areas. The territories of at least 10 wolf packs, including the Basin Butte pack, fall entirely or partially within the larger area eyed by conservationists.
It's also a hit with recreationists from around the country.
"This corridor is used by thousands of tourists each year," said John Robison, ICL public lands director.
Robison said he will present his group's draft plan to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission ahead of its scheduled consideration this week of rules for a statewide wolf hunt later this fall. At the agency's Magic Valley regional headquarters in Jerome at 10:30 a.m., Thursday, May 22, the commissioners will consider a host of rules presented by agency biologists for Idaho's first and highly controversial managed wolf hunt. The agency envisions allowing no more than 328 Idaho wolves to die this year from hunting, control actions and natural causes. Once that number is reached, all hunting would cease.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the controversial predators occupying the northern Rockies region from the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act on March 28. The delisting covers Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as well as the eastern halves of Washington and Oregon and northern Utah.
In an effort to protect wolves from hunting in some portions of their range, Idaho conservationists hope to convince the commissioners that creating hunting-free zones would be a prudent move. They claim that as in gateway communities to Yellowstone, the viewing area could boost the economies of rural towns in the area.
"There's a tremendous interest in seeing wolves," he said.
As part of the ICL proposal, the viewing area would stretch along a number of valleys with paved highways passing through them. From Ketchum, the proposal calls for a buffer area on both sides of Highway 75, stretching northwest to Stanley. From Stanley, the buffer area would cover both sides of state Highway 21 to Lowman along the South Fork of the Payette River as well as Highway 75 and the main Salmon River to Challis.
Last Saturday's wolf sighting happened just a few miles from the hotels, restaurants and other tourist-related businesses that help drive Stanley's traveler-dependent economy. Robison said many visitors arrive in the area hoping to see wild wolves.
"The landscape is perfectly suited to that," he said.
The viewing area would also cover the range of the Phantom Hill wolf pack south of Galena Summit.
The Idaho Conservation League is also seeking to have the viewing area extend to the remote Bear Valley area northwest of Stanley. Drained by Bear Valley Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the valley was one of the first sites Idaho wolves occupied after the federal government's 1995-96 wolf reintroduction. The home range of one of the first packs that formed after the reintroduction, the Landmark pack, includes the wide-open meadows and conifer forests that grace Bear Valley.
Home to large numbers of elk, the valley on the north end of the Boise National Forest is no longer grazed by livestock, presenting an opportunity for viewing wolves in an area free from the strife that dominates many other federal grazing areas occupied by the predator, conservationists say.
"It's already a popular place for wolf viewers," Robison said.
He said the ICL proposal represents just over 2 percent of Idaho's entire land base, and contended that setting aside such a small viewing area shouldn't be difficult.
Robison pointed to a 2006 survey by the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Census Bureau that indicates that 156,000 Idaho hunters took to the field that year. The survey indicates 498,000 wildlife viewers took to the field that same year.
"There's plenty of room in the state for wolf hunting and wolf viewing," he said.
Robison said viewing areas would need to protect the wide-ranging biological needs of wolves to function properly.
"Wolves will quickly become shy and nocturnal after being shot at," he said.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Fish and Game commissioners will agree to the plan. The agency is funded primarily by license and tag fees from hunters and anglers as well as federal sources.
Robison said his group does recognize that wolves are a polarizing issue in Idaho, and that hunting and viewing opportunities will need to be balanced. Wolf managers could still manage problem wolves inside the viewing areas under the group's proposal. The plan would also allow ranchers to protect their livestock and other private property from wolves inside the proposed viewing area, Robison said.
Plan has local support
As long as the needs of various stakeholders—including ranchers, outfitters and guides—are addressed, establishing a zone free from wolf hunting makes sense, Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said. She said public lands in the upper Wood River Valley above Ketchum are ideal for wolf viewing.
"This area is a natural fit," she said. "It's a really exciting possibility."
Michael said resolving conflicts between ranchers and wolves in the area will be crucial. She said a new plan to implement proactive measures to keep wolves and sheep separate there will go a long way towards accomplishing the peace needed to create an area free of wolf hunting.
Michael said Idaho tourism officials, with whom she has spoken with recently, are excited about the possibility of encouraging wolf tourism in the state. She said they were also excited to learn of the proposal to implement proactive measures.
"They were very delighted," she said.
At least one local outfitting company, Sun Valley Trekking, is interested in adding wolf viewing to its list of guided activities. Francie St. Onge, who along with her husband, Joe St. Onge, owns the trekking company, said they would likely add wolf viewing to their existing day hiking outings in the Wood River Valley and Stanley areas. The outings emphasize natural history and environmental education.
"A couple of miles on both sides of the highway would be wonderful," she said. "We get people who are really interested in seeing wildlife.
"I think it would make the area more interesting and attractive to people."