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For the week of May 3 through May 9, 2000

Wolf wars

Idaho ranchers see their livelihood at stake

Eddie Baker, Jr. - East Fork of the Salmon River rancher
Eddie Baker Jr. is a fifth generation East Fork of the Salmon River cattle rancher. Of wolves in the valley he said, “When the cattle are scattered up on the hillside they have a chance, but when they’re down here it’s a picnic.” Express photos by Willy Cook



Express Staff Writer

CLAYTON—Eddie Baker is roughened from years of running cattle in the East Fork of the Salmon River. Except for a stint in World War II, where he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans, he’s always lived in the East Fork. He never saw a wolf until the past two years.

On an icy winter morning in January, 1998, Eddie Baker Jr., his son, rode horseback through the 900-acre East Fork of the Salmon River valley ranch his family has called home for over 100 years. He was performing a routine check on some of his 250 cattle.

As he and his horse sauntered through the snow among bawling cows and steers, a gnawed piece of meat, once a grazing cow, caught his eye.

"I looked right across the river, and I saw the wolves were there," he said in an interview at the Baker ranch on Friday. "Big wolves. Pretty to look at."

An attractive winter scene. But not for a rancher scrambling to protect his livestock.

The wolves were the cause of the cow’s death, he said. That was the first of many cattle the 46-year-old Baker Jr. said he’s lost to hungry wolves.


The Baker spread is 15 miles south of the hamlet of Clayton, a community nestled between the White Cloud and Salmon River mountains, along the main Salmon River. It’s the nearest town to the East Fork of the Salmon.

Sentiment there is strongly anti-wolf.

A cartoon hangs on a bulletin board of the Rocky Ridge Café on the town’s main street. It shows a woman burying a wheelbarrow full of dead wolves.

"Transplanting wolves," the caption reads.


Just five years ago, federal authorities released 35 wolves into central Idaho under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Thirty one were placed along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which flows north through the heart of the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness Area. Four were released on the northern fringe of the wilderness area at Corn Creek.

The East Fork, to the southeast of the Frank Church wilderness, runs through the Bakers’ spread. Cattle speckle the spring-green landscape, which has been home to ranchers and cattle for over 100 years.

Baker Jr.’s great, great grandparents settled the East Fork in the early to mid 1800s, and his 79-year-old father still works the land as his health allows.

Baker Jr. is a fifth generation East Fork cattle rancher, and he makes clear he doesn’t want to let the only way of life he knows slip through his fingers.

Federally protected wolves in the valley, among other outside pressures, are a threat to that way of life, he said.

Though authorities did not officially confirm that wolves killed Baker Jr.’s dead cow last January, it was the beginning of what he said was an increasingly frustrating 18 months of vanishing cattle, a period that may have ended, at least temporarily, two weeks ago.

On April 8 in response to two confirmed wolf kills on Baker’s ranch, and two on the ranch of his cousin, Wayne Baker, and his cousin’s wife, Melodie, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the execution of the East Fork wolves, commonly known as the White Cloud Pack.

Shotgun blasts from a helicopter decimated most of the pack—a federal decision that followed an unsuccessful attempt to disband the wolves by relocating the pack’s dominant alpha pair and two other members.

Five wolves that roamed the White Cloud and, occasionally, Boulder mountains are now dead. Included are the pack’s alpha male, which returned to the East Fork by traveling over 150 miles in three weeks from its relocation site in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness Area.

The alpha male was believed to be a wild wolf that migrated to Idaho from Montana.

That was only the most recent "lethal control" action taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, the agencies responsible for the packs.

Earlier this winter, members of the so-called Twin Peaks wolf pack were killed by federal agents for preying on cattle near the confluence of the East Fork and main Salmon rivers only 15 miles downstream from the Bakers’ ranch; and last summer two members of the Joreano Mountain Pack were shot near Salmon, also for preying on livestock.

Environmentalists are up in arms over what they say is needless killing. Wild animals have a right to roam freely in a wild Idaho, they say.

But Baker Jr. said the actions were appropriate and necessary, that "wolf management right now is in good hands."

In the middle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to keep the peace.

Lethal control "is a necessary action if the recovery program is to be successful," wrote the agency’s wolf recovery leader, Roy Heberger, in a Saturday e-mail to a news organization. "The actions were not taken to appease ranchers. They were taken because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

"Please don’t look for villains here. There are none."


The presence of wolves has placed a new hardship on East Fork ranchers, Custer County Commissioner Melodie Baker said in a telephone conversation on Thursday. She and her husband, Wayne, own a spread just a few miles downstream from Eddie Baker Jr.’s ranch.

"We can’t do a normal operation," she said. "When the wolves are around, you check the cows night and day. When the cows come bawling to the house and the wolves are out there howling…No one gets a lot of sleep."

For his part, Baker Jr. doesn’t blame the wolves for his wolf problems. The people who put them in Idaho are at fault, he said.

"These wolves are programmed," he said. "They don’t know any better."

In effect, he’s saying what all ranchers know—wolves are intelligent, natural predators.


Environmentalists take a largely contrary view of the wolf introduction project.

Wood River Valley activists Jon Marvel, of Idaho Watersheds Project, and Lynne Stone, of the Boulder White Cloud Council, have been hammering on the Bakers for years for overgrazing public lands in the White Cloud Mountains. Now, they’re accusing ranchers of a lack of tolerance for wolves.

In a Friday e-mail to four federal wildlife officials, Marvel threatened to work toward shutting the Baker ranches down.

"…I want you to know that our group will redouble our efforts to put the Bakers and some of their neighbors out of the ranching business permanently because of this killing of wolves," Marvel wrote. "We hope to have that legally accomplished within the next three years."

Next week: the formation and demise of the White Cloud pack


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