Phantom Hill wolf pack shows themselves near Ketchum, Idaho
by JASON KAUFFMAN, Idaho Mountain Express Staff Writer
The wide-ranging Phantom Hill wolf pack, which has been moving throughout the Wood River Valley this winter, has changed the views many locals have from their dining room table.
Just ask Jan Main, who along with her husband, Bob Main, lives out the East Fork of the Big Wood River near Triumph. In the early morning hours before daybreak last Wednesday, Main went to let her dogs out.
But first, she scanned the backyard with a large flashlight to make sure it was safe. The couple began doing this after a cougar attacked a neighbor's dog last year.
Main spotted what looked like an elk carcass with a coyote feeding on it in the darkness just 40 feet from the back of her house. This was especially surprising given that when she and her husband went to sleep the night before there wasn't anything in the spot. Based on the location of blood in the snow and a lack of drag marks, Main believes the elk was attacked right there.
"We never heard a thing," she said. "We slept through the whole thing."
After feeding on the elk for a while, the coyote disappeared.
Then, around 7 a.m., Main got a call from her next-door neighbor. She told her to look up on the nearby hillside at what looked like a black dog. But it wasn't a dog; it was a member of the Phantom Hill pack. Main saw it sitting on its haunches looking down at the dead elk in her backyard.
Calls were quickly placed to other neighbors in the area.
"We're running to lock up all the dogs in the neighborhood," she said.
Throughout the morning, Main watched the wolf walk down to her yard to feed, then return to the hillside. Main, who was able to watch the animal close up through her binoculars, said the scene was riveting. She said it was a lot like the trips to the African bush she's taken, except in this case, all she had to do was look out her window.
"This is Mother Nature at its finest," she said. "That's part of the reason we decided to live out there."
After the wolf left, Main called the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Lee Garwood, a Hailey-based conservation officer, came out and hauled the elk away.
Later that day, Garwood and another Fish and Game official located six more Phantom Hill wolves that they hazed with "cracker" shells fired from a shotgun as part of an ongoing effort to convince the 10-member pack to stay away from residential areas.
Less than a week before Main's wolf encounter, Bellevue resident Curtis Tidwell also came within feet of a member of the pack while he was taking a lunch break out Greenhorn Gulch, on the western side of state Highway 75. Tidwell, who is managing a residential construction project nearby, decided to drive up the valley with his foreman after hearing that the pack had been seen hunting elk on the valley's open hillsides.
The two men spotted a single black wolf angling along an open, south-facing hillside. At the same time, down off the hill and across the road, three large Alaskan malamutes were barking at the wolf from a fenced-in yard.
The barking drew the wolf down the hill and across the road to within yards of the dogs, Tidwell said. For perhaps a minute or more, the wolf walked back and forth along the fence with the malamutes following in tandem, he said.
"That wolf was real hesitant to go in there," he said.
When its curiosity finally got the better of it, the wolf jumped the fence and began running through the field in a wide loop alongside the three dogs, Tidwell said. Seconds later, it jumped the fence and ran back onto the road, he said.
Tidwell suspects the wolf was trying to draw the dogs out.
"I think it would have been the end of those dogs," he said.
Tidwell said he opposed the original reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rockies back in 1995. He said he's concerned about the impact wolves have on Idaho elk herds.
Though Tidwell now believes there's a place for wolves in the state, he thinks they need to be managed with hunting. He says wouldn't have had a problem shooting a wolf in the past. But seeing the wolf so close changed his perspective somewhat.
"I wouldn't have wanted to harm it at all," he said.
Like others in the valley, including Fish and Game officials, Tidwell thinks the wolves are taking advantage of an easy food source. In the Golden Eagle subdivision in lower Greenhorn Gulch, homeowners have been feeding wintering elk near Timber Gulch for years.
"I think we have a congregation of elk that's not natural," Tidwell said. "It's like a smorgasbord for these wolves."
It was wintering elk that originally drew the pack out of its normal range in the mountains north of Ketchum to the foothills above Sun Valley several weeks ago. Randolph Williams, a resident of Elkhorn, was able to view all 10 wolves from a distance with the help of local wolf advocate Lynne Stone.
"They were high up on the face of a ridge above the Elkhorn Bluffs and were walking, rolling and lolling in the snow, very near to the carcass of an elk they had recently taken down," he said.
At least two more times, Williams was able to drive out to a viewpoint to view the pack. When he and several others met up with Stone the last time, they spotted the pack near another downed elk.
"They all seemed to be napping," Williams said.
The Phantom Hill wolves' recent advances into the mid-valley in places like East Fork, Greenhorn Gulch and Deer Creek have a lot to do with the pack's growing ranks. With more mouths to feed, the wolves must cover more ground.
When the pack was smaller, the small groups of wintering elk north of Ketchum were enough for the pack, said Regan Berkley, Magic Valley regional wildlife biologist for Fish and Game. But now, she said, the pack is probably seeking out a larger home range that covers more winter elk range.
Though Fish and Game plans to continue hazing the pack whenever it comes too close to residential areas of the valley, in the end it will likely be Mother Nature that pulls the wolves away. As soon as slopes begin to green up and draw elk higher into surrounding ranges, valley residents will have likely seen the last of this year's easy wolf viewing.
This story first appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express on March 25, 2009