Friday, August 14, 2009

Phantom Hill wolves go free—for now

Pack linked to sheep deaths will be monitored for rest of summer


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

The 12 sheep killed by wolves in the lower Baker Creek drainage sometime late Sunday night or early Monday morning spent the night alone, unguarded and untended.

The sheep were part of a group of some 300 that were grazing uphill from a larger band that was being watched over near the Newman Creek corrals, located on Sawtooth National Forest land near the bottom of Baker Creek, north of Ketchum. Officials say the valley's Phantom Hill wolf pack was responsible for the attacks.

After consulting with the rancher whose sheep were killed, officials with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided Wednesday to "postpone" any retaliatory action. They say they will continue monitoring the Phantom Hill wolves through the remainder of the summer. At least two members of the pack—which numbers at least a dozen wolves—sport radio collars allowing officials to track their movements.

Fish and Game officials haven't ruled out killing members of the pack if additional attacks occur.

Whether through oversight, miscommunication or some combination of the two, the herders responsible for the band owned by Gooding rancher John Faulkner and the field assistants hired by nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife mistakenly left the band untended, officials say. Each night this summer, the five field assistants hired by the group have been watching over the thousands of domestic sheep that graze public lands in the upper Big Wood River drainage.

But in the end, the confusion over who was tending what allowed members of the Phantom Hill pack to come in under the cover of darkness and attack the sheep, said Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson.

Contributing to the mix-up was a new band of sheep that was trailed into the area from the west a day earlier than expected from the forest's Fairfield Ranger District. That, combined with the trucking out of another band of lambs and the return of one of the Defenders of Wildlife field assistants who had been away for the past week, set the stage for the break in communication, Nelson said.

"This was kind of a fluke of misinterpretation and miscommunication," he said.

Nelson said the field assistants have repeatedly detected wolves near sheep this summer, both visually and through tracking.

"In a couple of instances, wolves were sighted in very close proximity," he said.

Nelson said wildlife officials are considering placing a GPS collar, which provides more accurate movement data than does a radio collar, on one of the Phantom Hill wolves. So far this summer, they believe the pack has mostly stuck to the east side of state Highway 75 along the Boulder Mountains front, across the valley from where the attacks occurred.

Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, estimates that 12,000 sheep owned by five different ranchers have grazed in the area so far this summer. Stone's group is one of the primary participants in the project that's attempting to keep wolves and sheep separate in the upper valley, the home range of the Phantom Hill wolves. The effort, called the Wood River Wolf Project, has successfully limited the number of sheep killed in the area after the Phantom Hill pack was discovered in 2007. Before Sunday's attacks, just two sheep had been killed in the past two summers, one in July and the other during last year's grazing season.

The decision to forgo action against the Phantom Hill wolves was ultimately that of Jerome Hansen, Fish and Game's Magic Valley regional manager. He said he made the decision after Faulkner requested that the wolves be given a reprieve. Fish and Game was poised to give the go-ahead to kill members of the pack after the attack occurred.

The deaths touched off intense behind-the-scenes talks between wolf advocates, Fish and Game, federal Wildlife Services and Faulkner, which reportedly resulted in the decision to give the pack a break. Hansen acknowledged the different challenges the Phantom Hill wolves present because of their popularity, but added that the agency must take a consistent approach to dealing with depredations.

"The Phantom Hill pack is one of our more well-known packs in the state," he said.

Faulkner's band is still on Sawtooth National Forest land, but will begin trailing south out of the area in the coming two to three days, officials said. The rancher has agreed to allow the Defenders' field assistants to take additional measures, including setting up night pens, to keep his sheep safe as they trail out of the area. Faulkner was already using five guard dogs to help watch over his sheep before the incident occurred.

Stone, who spoke with Faulkner after the attack, said he deserves kudos for his "conciliatory" attitude.

"It's a big step for John," she said. "It shows a willingness to work with the project."

Jason Kauffman: jkauffman@mtexpress.com




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