Letters From the West

Idaho’s wolf soap opera begins a new season

Wolf B2 leaves his kennel at Corn Creek in 1995 beginning Idaho's modern wolf saga

Wolf B2 leaves his kennel at Corn Creek in 1995 beginning Idaho’s modern wolf saga

The killing of 31 sheep by wolves near Carey earlier this month at first look, appears to be the classic Idaho story.

Wolves kill sheep. State issues kill order on wolves. Wolf lovers criticize rancher, wolf haters say I told you so.

The 23-year Northern Rockies soap opera continues. But this time the story is different.

John Peavey, the former Democratic state senator who owns the Flat Top Ranch, has been a part of a cooperative project between ranchers, local officials and the Defenders of Wildlife aimed at protecting sheep and wolves. The five-year program has pushed non-lethal methods of controlling wolves over traditional trapping and aerial gunning by federal agents.

Last year, there were 27,000 sheep in the project area around the Wood River Valley and two to three packs of wolves on landscape. They lived in harmony with only one late incident when the bands of sheep came upon wolves no one knew were there and they killed sheep.

That was only after the lambing season when Peavey chose instead of the others to use a method called range lambing. Most ranchers lamb in sheds in Idaho, which get it over with earlier in the spring and also fattens their lambs earlier.

Shed lambing also keeps the lambs away from predators longer.

The advantage for Peavey of range lambing is he doesn’t have to buy hay to feed his ewes. Idaho‘s growing dairy industry, along with high demand from China for exported hay, has driven its price of sky high.

Ketchum's annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival honors rich Idaho traditions.(Idaho Statesman file photo)

Ketchum’s annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival honors rich Idaho traditions.(Idaho Statesman file photo)

Peavey estimates he would pay $100 a ewe for hay during lambing compared with a dollar on the public range. That cost differential makes a few losses to wolves and other predators acceptable to him.

But this spring his heart broke as he found a ewe and three triplets killed by wolves along with 27 other dead sheep. His reaction is a universal response that comes from the overriding ethical imperative of shepherds to protect their flocks.

Suzanne Stone has the same feelings for the wolves that run wild throughout Idaho and the northern Rockies. The Boise representative of Defenders of Wildlife fought hard to bring back wolves to the region and she has shed tears over the deaths of many wolves since 1995.

The kill order issued by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is, to her, an attack not only on her precious wolves but also on the project she has championed to show that wolves and ranchers can co-exist with fewer killings. Peavey’s range lambing does not fit into the non-lethal management model that seeks to keep the sheep together and protected with guard dogs, noisemakers and colored flags that keep the wolves away from the sheep.

The Wood River Valley is one of the few places in Idaho where wolves are actively embraced. The Phantom Pack several years ago turned thousands of observers into wolf lovers.

Who can forget the wolf pup who was discovered last spring and embraced by people throughout the nation? The valley also loves its sheep herding history, which it celebrates with an annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
When lambing is over Peavey will bring his sheep in with the others under the protection of the non-lethal management cone. Look at a map of wolf depredations statewide and this area stands out for its empty space before this spring.
If the wolf issue was not so polarized and if even major livestock or wolf killing was not elevated to national news, I suspect the players would get over it and move on just like neighbors usually do after a spat. But today this is not just a local argument.
It will be fought out on social media and in blogs with comments including mine. The biology of wolf recovery is far easier than the cultural and political aspects.


Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West