The future of the Wood River Wolf Project is up for debate, as the study wraps up its third year and the partners must decide whether to continue.
"The question is, would there be added value if all the participants were interested in continuing?" said Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson.
One of those participants is the U.S. Forest Service, which has worked with ranchers, advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to develop the project.
The project is composed of a series of non-lethal methods designed to minimize wolf depredations on sheep. While the study was originally planned for three years, the partners must decide whether the project's successes have been worth the high cost of materials and field staff.
Suzanne Stone, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, argues that the project has been a success. Out of the 30,000 sheep the project had grazing on public lands during the three years of the project, it lost only 14.
"[Before the project began] we lost that many easily in a night on many occasions," Stone said. "Wolves killed more sheep than any other type of livestock, and sheep on public lands are the most difficult to protect."
Many ranchers in the area, including Lava Lake Ranch, hold grazing permits on public land. Lava Lake sheep graze on more than 730,000 acres of allotments that range among the Boulder and Pioneer mountains as well as on the Snake River Plain.
Parts of those areas were at one time prime wolf habitat. Control actions and last year's public hunt have reduced wolf numbers slightly, Stone said, but the project still lost one sheep to depredation over the summer, proving a continued need for the project's preventive measures.
"We know we had wolves nearby," Stone said. "But there were not frequent encounters."
Stone was hesitant to ascribe the project's success to any particular method, saying the methods vary widely depending on the situation.
"It's not easy to just say, 'this works,'" she said.
Some of the more basic techniques include the increased use of guard dogs, removing the carcasses of dead sheep so as not to attract predators and keeping a human near the sheep at all times.
The one major incident since the project began, which occurred in August 2009 near Baker Creek and resulted in the deaths of 12 sheep, was caused by a miscommunication that left a sheep band unattended overnight.
Another common technique, Stone said, is the use of electrified night pens. The pens are solar-charged, and the electrical current lines have bright red ribbons known as "fladry" woven into them that flap in the wind.
"The flags are the first deterrent," she said.
If wolves become habituated to the flags, she said, they will test the rope with their mouths and receive a jolt.
"They bite the rope, and the rope bites back," she said.
Other deterrents include guard boxes that set off loud noises and strobe lights when triggered by radio-collared wolves. Stone said the project also uses alarms set off by motion, as the number of radio-collared wolves has been reduced significantly.
"These tools are valuable and have been proven successful," she said.
County Commissioner Larry Schoen, the county's liaison to the Wood River Wolf Project, said participants generally agreed the project has been successful.
However, he said, the project is "costly," perhaps most especially because of the salaries the field staff requires to stay out with the herds overnight.
"There's a need for fundraising," Schoen said. "There's a need for public support."
Currently, the project is being funded through Defenders of Wildlife, private donations and by money given to Wildlife Services by Blaine County for the project's non-lethal efforts.
"We've been able to keep it very lean, especially compared to what they use for lethal control," Stone said.
Still, if the project expands as Stone said the participants hope it will, more funding will be required, though the sources are uncertain.
One of the participants, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, has since relinquished all responsibility for wolf management, which could throw the project off balance. However, Stone and Nelson said they weren't sure what kind of impact that withdrawal would have on the project.
"It's a very interesting problem to tackle," Nelson said.
"We hope, of course, that the state will get back involved," Stone said. "This kind of program helps set aside the politics and works toward solutions."
On Tuesday, Blaine County commissioners agreed to draft a letter of support for the program to Defenders of Wildlife, but did not decide on whether to send it.
"I don't want to commit yet," said Commissioner Tom Bowman, citing the recent controversy over Defenders of Wildlife's discontinuing compensation to ranchers suffering losses to predators.
Still, Stone said she's encouraged by the program's successes so far.
"At the early stages of the project, our critics said it couldn't be done," she said. "There's always going to be conflict as long as you have sheep and wolves together. But we've proven we can reduce the conflicts to very manageable levels."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com