Imported wolves lope off into Idaho wilderness

  • Federal officials ready a wolf for release in the American West

    Michael Milstein

Editor's note: After being trapped, caged, tested for disease and analyzed by genotype by having blood and tissue taken, inoculated, ear-tagged, radio-collared and tranquilized, they were loaded up for a plane ride south. This was a trip more than a decade in the making - restoring wolves to the West.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, on hand at Yellowstone National Park, called it "an incredible victory that has been a terribly long time coming."

Most attention focused on the park, where eight wolves remain in a pen. They will not be released into the wild until they have become acclimatized some six weeks from now. But in Idaho, four wolves were set free for real, and they are now on the move. Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Rocky Barker saw the animals emerge into their new home last week.

FRANK CHURCH-RIVER OF NO RETURN WILDERNESS, Idaho - Soon after Moon Star Shadow, a 90-pound, silver-tipped, black male wolf stepped out of his cage here Jan. 14, he stopped to urinate - a wolf's way of telling the world, its new territory was Idaho.

He and three other Canadian wolves were the first of at least 150 wolves expected to be reintroduced to the wilds of Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the next five years. Their release ended a 74-hour ordeal for the endangered predators. It also gave the Clinton administration a major environmental accomplishment.

David Langhorst, director of the Ketchum-based Wolf Education and Research Center, said he hoped the reality of wolves back in Idaho would end opposition to the predators as people "start to learn they can live with wolves here."

The two male and two female wolves were loaded on a plane in Hinton, Alberta, Wednesday, Jan. 11, and flown to Great Falls, Mont., along with eight wolves destined for Yellowstone. While the plane was airborne, a federal appeals court in Denver issued an emergency order halting the reintroduction at the request of the American Farm Bureau (see accompanying story).

The order was lifted the next day, allowing Yellowstone's wolves to be placed in a large enclosure, but the court's decision was not in time to move the Idaho wolves to the staging area in Salmon. By Friday, when they arrived in Salmon, the wolves had been sitting in metal transport cages for more than 48 hours. Then, overcast weather in the mountains prevented their journey by helicopter to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The clouds didn't lift Saturday morning, and officials decided to truck the wolves to the end of the icy Salmon River Road. That left the wolves with a final four-hour-long, bumpy drive, accompanied by a caravan of reporters, wolf advocates and residents.

"This wasn't our first choice," said Laird Robinson, a Forest Service spokesman for the interagency team. "This long in cages is unprecedented. It's too long. It was a case of diminishing returns."

Despite their ordeal, the wolves appeared none the worse for wear. Moon Star Shadow, a 2- to 3-year-old, loped gracefully to the banks of the ice-floe-laden Salmon River and headed west into the wilderness shortly after he was set free. As he moved off, Boise wolf advocate Suzanne Laverty celebrated with a long, haunting howl while Langhorst poured wine for a toast.

The wolves' names were given by students of schools around the state who painted radio collars for the animals. They will keep tabs on their movements through the "Track a Wolf Program," run by Langhorst's research center.

Seventy-six-pound Chat Chaaht, which means older brother in the Nez Perce language, went second, following the path of the first. Akiata, a gray-black, 75-pound three-year-old, female, was third in line and the only one to show reluctance.

David Hunter, an Idaho state wildlife veterinarian, prodded and pushed the wolf, attempting to pry her from the den-like cage that had become a safe haven. Finally he snared the wolf and lifted her out of the cage. Once free she followed the other two downriver.

Kelly, an 82-pound, 5-year-old dark-gray female, quickly left her cage and ran first upriver, then eventually followed the others into "the Frank."

"They've got 50 miles they could go before they run into anybody," Robinson said. "It's real good habitat for wolves. It's rugged and full of elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep."

In Yellowstone, biologists are trying to establish families or packs intact. Idaho's four wolves are unrelated by design. Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who heads the reintroduction team, said the idea in Idaho was to replicate the natural process of pack-forming for wild wolves. Only the two dominant, or alpha, wolves in the pack mate. Just before breeding begins in February, younger pack members disperse to seek a mate and form a pack of their own.

When the animals first start out on their own in Idaho, he said, they'll try to find their home. "When they realize they can't find it, that dispersal instinct will kick in."

Not everyone was pleased about Idaho's newest residents. Just before the wolves arrived, newly-inaugurated Gov. Phil Batt, R, and the Idaho congressional delegation demanded a halt to federal reintroduction.

Debate over who will control the wolves now on the ground remains unresolved. Idaho has been working on its own wolf management plan in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service for about a year. The state plan gives ranchers more leeway for killing problem wolves but not as much as ranchers want.

If lawmakers approve the plan, Idaho's Fish and Game Deptartment will take over management of the wolves; if they don't, the Fish and Wildlife Service has already prepared to contract with the Nez Perce Tribe to manage them.

Rocky Barker is the author of Saving All the Parts, a book on endangered species published by Island Press.

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