Though Wood River Valley residents have almost grown used to the sight of the Phantom Hill wolf pack over the past few years, the wolves have proved more phantom than pack lately.
Regan Berkley, wildlife biologist for Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Magic Valley region, said the wolves are proving to be "elusive," with only a few confirmed sightings since the end of the state's wolf-hunting season in March.
"To be honest, we're not sure what the pack consists of right now," Berkley said.
Idaho's first state-authorized wolf hunt began in September 2009. Wolves in the Wood River Valley—including the Phantom Hill pack—were hunted during a shorter season stretching from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31.
The valley falls into Idaho's Southern Mountains wolf zone, where Fish and Game authorized 10 wolves to be shot during the season. The quota for the region was reached, and Berkley said Fish and Game believes three of the 10 wolves shot in the region were from the Phantom Hill pack.
"What that's done to pack cohesiveness and makeup, we just don't know that right now," Berkley said.
Berkley said three to four black wolves have been spotted together in the pack's old territory. The wolves' color and location have led Fish and Game staff to speculate that these were Phantom Hill wolves, though if they are the pack's only remaining wolves is still unclear.
Complicating the search is the lack of functioning radio collars within the pack. Berkley said that normally wolves are spotted by helicopter operators who lock onto a radio collar signal.
Though there were as many as three functioning collars in the pack over the past few years, Berkley said that one collared wolf was hunted and killed, one left the pack and one's collar stopped functioning.
Without a radio collar, Berkley said spotting a wolf is up to "the luck of the draw."
The wolves' elusiveness is mainly due to the hunting season, Berkley said. Previous hazing attempts, which discouraged wolves from approaching residential areas, proved ineffective in the long-term.
Hunting, however, has likely made the remaining wolves much more wary of approaching residential areas, she said.
There were only one or two sightings near Elkhorn this past winter, and Berkley said all recent wolf sightings have been "well north" of Ketchum.
"It's been a relatively incident-free summer," she said.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game requests that residents report any and all wolf sightings. The department can be reached by phone at (208) 324-4350.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org