Listening for wolf howls

  • Outfitter Travis Bullock

    Candace Burns photo
  • Wolf expert Suzanne Laverty

    Julie Ellis photo
  • Camped out in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

    Candace Burns photo

When Suzanne Laverty first met Travis Bullock, who calls himself a "redneck outfitter," she wrote a brief impression of him in her diary: "Travis Bullock - Butthead."

But Bullock wasn't so bullheaded that he didn't see value in Laverty's suggestion that he capitalize on the nation's curiosity about the wolves that had been transplanted into Idaho by the federal government in 1995 and 1996. Almost before she knew it, Laverty, then program director for the Wolf Education and Research Center in Boise, Idaho, was helping Bullock figure out how to market "wilderness wolf trips."

Since that first fiery meeting, she and Bullock have teamed up to lead expeditions into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Laverty tells visitors about the wonders of wolves, while Bullock tells them about his worries.

"The big thing that doesn't get talked about in the movies is their effect on elk," Travis tells his guests at dinner in Idaho Falls, the night before they fly into his camp. "A lot of money has been spent on putting wolves back, but not a dime has been spent studying what's happening with the ungulates."

Bullock's bread and butter is fall elk hunting, and he and other Idaho outfitters say they have seen a dramatic reduction in elk calves. Meanwhile, nobody is monitoring the wolves' impact, they say, not Idaho Fish and Game and not the Nez Perce Tribe in charge of wolf recovery in Idaho.

In Bullock's view, the wolves have been dumped in Idaho by the feds, without adequate funding or forethought. The Nez Perce Tribe in Lapwai, Idaho, is in charge of wolf management. But its budget is barely big enough to track adult wolves and to collar the pups. Nothing is left over to study the wolves' effect on elk, or on anything else.

The odd couple

Now in their third year of leading wilderness wolf trips, Laverty and Bullock have fine-tuned their partnership and their friendship.

Laverty, a longtime advocate for wolves, is the expert on the animals when she can make a trip. Bullock, a fifth-generation Idahoan, provides the base camp, mules, guides, food and backcountry expertise.

Bullock hiked "the Frank" as a child, went to work in an outfitter's camp at age 14, and bought his outfitting business at 26. He treats his wolf-loving guests to an intimacy with wilderness and Western hospitality. He sings songs on the trail, plays the harmonica around the campfire, and spins backcountry tales. Laverty relates wolf lore and fact with a voice as soothing as brook water. She also can howl just like a wolf.

"Until people make that personal contact, they tend to put each other into categories," Laverty said. "Just seeing each other as opponents is a missed opportunity. We're learning together on a lot of these issues, and to be able to work together is a real privilege."

The only non-cooperators in the trips are the elusive wolves. Without telemetry equipment (Laverty expects to be able to use it in the future), the odds of seeing one of the animals are next to nil. Still, surrounding trails are littered with their scat and prints. And, if the wolves are in the neighborhood, guests may hear them howling. So far, all the clients have come from the Eastern United States, and almost all go home with a plaster cast of a wolf print.

Guests wind their way through the Frank Church on mules, always on the lookout for wolf sign. And wolves wind their way through conversations on horseback and around the campfire. On the trail, the wolf is a mystery lurking in the shadowy forests and deep folds of the rugged wilderness. In conversation, the predator is the catalyst for fiery and friendly debate.

"Arguing is one of the things we do best," said Laverty. "We were so busy having a heated discussion on the trail one day that everybody else got to see the bear that we missed while we were arguing."

Bullock and Laverty say they've grown to trust and respect each other in spite of, and because of, their different points of view. Bullock hopes his knowledge of wolves and partnership with Laverty will add weight to his suggestions for wolf management. Laverty says she understands better the concerns of outfitters. And guests who ride along with them recognize there's more to wolf recovery than they thought.

"We never realized how much controversy there was over wolf reintroduction," said Margaret Zimmerman of Milford, N.J. "Talking to Travis, I learned that people out there have concerns about livestock and hunting that we never thought of."

Candace Burns lives and writes in Salmon, Idaho.

You can contact ...

* Travis Bullock, Mile High Outfitters, P.O. Box 1189, Challis, ID 83226 (208/879-4500);

* Suzanne Laverty, Wolf Recovery Foundation, P.O. Box 44236, Boise, ID 83711 (208/343-2248).