A single high-elevation divide is all that separates these two scenic Western mountain valleys, but the realities of managing wolf-and-livestock run-ins in the Big Wood River and Sawtooth valleys may as well be miles apart.
So far this year, at least 35 sheep and a handful of cattle have been killed by gray wolves ranging across the wide-open fields and forests of the Sawtooth Valley and adjoining Stanley Basin near the rural hamlet of Stanley. Most of the nearly three dozen sheep killed were part of a large band grazing the Cape Horn area northwest of Stanley, while another ewe was killed on state land in the Fourth of July Creek drainage near Obsidian.
Elsewhere throughout the Sawtooth Valley, wildlife officials have investigated several reports of calves allegedly killed by wolves. Officials say a cow was killed on private land near Smiley Creek in the upper Sawtooth Valley southeast of Stanley. Though not all of the losses have been definitely tied to wolves, some have, with officials attributing them to either the Galena or Basin Butte packs.
Less than an hour's drive away on the south side of Galena Summit in the upper Big Wood drainage northwest of Ketchum, the year's tally of livestock deaths due to wolves stands at a single sheep.
The differences between the Big Wood and Sawtooth Valley seem similarly lopsided when one considers the number of wolves that have been killed by officials in response to livestock losses. In the Sawtooth Valley, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has authorized the killing of seven wolves it says were linked to livestock deaths, said the agency's large carnivore manager, Steve Nadeau.
But in the Big Wood River drainage, no wolf-control orders have been authorized, Nadeau said.
So, why the disparate results in each of these valleys despite their close proximity and the fact that thousands of livestock are permitted to graze on federal lands in each location?
For one, Nadeau said, livestock producers operating in the Sawtooth Valley must contend with several wolf packs whose home ranges overlap or fall wholly within the large area. Another difference in the Sawtooth Valley is that these packs—the Galena and Basin Butte are just two of the four to five wolf packs officials say use the area—are far larger in numbers.
But another significant difference this summer is a groundbreaking project on the Big Wood that has brought together public and private interests to keep wolves and sheep separate and alive.
"Part of it is the intensive management that is going on in the Big Wood," he said.
Leading the project are three field assistants hired by the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife who have been working closely with local sheep ranchers. Using a variety of methods—including carrying telemetry receivers to track the signals of radio-collared wolves, setting up electrified night pens to protect bedded sheep and scaring wolves away by firing .22-caliber starter pistols into the air—they've succeeded in reducing deadly wolf-and-sheep interactions.
While Nadeau commends the project, he believes it would be impossible to replicate it on a large scale in Idaho.
"We don't have a lot of money floating around to hire hundreds of people to do this," he said.
Prior to the birth of pups in April and control actions carried out this summer, the Basin Butte pack numbered around 13 members, Nadeau said. Having to work alongside such large packs puts Sawtooth Valley ranchers at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts over the hill in the Big Wood, who, for now at least, are only thought to be dealing with one pack.
First discovered in the valley in June 2007, the Phantom Hill wolf pack is thought to number eight members. Compared to the single-sheep depredation the pack has been linked to this summer, the Phantom Hill wolves were considered the culprits in 12 sheep deaths last summer.
Determining total wolf numbers in the Sawtooth Valley is increasingly challenging, said Jim Lukens, Salmon regional supervisor for Fish and Game. Lukens said that while they do know the Basin Butte and Galena packs use the valley, "border packs" like Warm Springs, Landmark and Bear Valley are also thought to roam the vast area occasionally.
Nadeau said another thing changing the scene these days is an increase in the number of dispersing wolves showing up in established wolf territories around the state. Because most are uncollared, tracking these unknown new arrivals is difficult, he said.
Fish and Game estimates suggest that as many as 10 to 20 percent of Idaho's wolves are dispersers.
"Those are typically the ones that get into trouble," Nadeau said.
Idaho has seen a 70 percent increase in statewide livestock losses compared to last year, he said. And in July and August alone, the number of livestock losses has nearly tripled compared to the same time last year.
The fact that most packs have just one or two radio-collared members makes things further challenging, Nadeau said. Even if wildlife managers realize a livestock depredation has occurred, finding the responsible wolf can be difficult.
"A wolf is pretty mobile," he said. "It can make a kill and be several miles away in little time."
Nadeau said it isn't an easy thing to ask herders to implement the same measures the three field assistants have been hired to do in the upper Big Wood.
"They stay awake all day and they have to stay awake all night?" he asked. "It's a lot of extra work."
Dustin Miller, environmental liaison for the Idaho Governor's Office of Species Conservation, speaks with ranchers from the Sawtooth Valley and elsewhere in Idaho who are concerned with wolves preying on their livestock. He said the recent decision by a Montana federal judge to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections for northern Rockies wolves has left many ranchers unsure about what they can do to protect their sheep and cattle.
Miller said ranchers realize wolves are here to stay and are trying to incorporate non-lethal measures to keep them away. But at some point, he said, measures like bringing on an additional herder to keep an eye on things at night become cost-prohibitive. When livestock losses become what ranchers call "chronic depredation," they're not left with many options, Miller said.
"The only other option if there's continued depredations is to lethally control," he said.
Still, supporters of implementing proactive wolf deterrents around Idaho are not deterred by pessimism. Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, said the idea behind the Wood River Valley wolf project isn't necessarily to replicate it everywhere else, but to learn what helps reduce wolves preying on livestock, and, thereby lessen calls from ranchers for wolf control.
Defenders is known for its work with individual ranchers and their payments for livestock losses. But lately, the group has seen the wisdom of working with groups of ranchers to take pro-active measures.
"It becomes much more cost effective," Stone said.
Next week, the group will release a 26-page guide for agency officials, ranchers and others that discusses what's been learned about keeping wolves and livestock separate since the predator returned to the Northern Rockies.
Although Defenders hasn't received requests for help from any Sawtooth Valley ranchers, Stone is confident that successes like those in the Big Wood will inspire similar efforts elsewhere. She said some of the best ideas for keeping wolves away from livestock—like radio-activated guard boxes, which are portable devices that set off loud noises and strobe lights when triggered by radio-collared wolves—have come from the ranchers themselves.
"They've come up with really creative things," she said.
This story first appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express on August 22, 2008.