Wolves At The Door: Ranchers Uneasy
(c) 2002, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
SALMON, Idaho — In Yellowstone National Park, biologists can tell
wolves are near. The elk bunch together.
The same can be said of people living in wolf country.
Polls show most Americans are hungry to see the wolf return and to
its howl at twilight in their national forests — a powerful signal that
some past wrongs in the American West have been righted. But the sounds of
the big carnivores bring chills to the Baker family for different, more
Wolves are literally at their door, and they sleep with the window
through the bitter winter nights, listening with dread.
Their 2,000 acres on the East Fork of the Salmon River became a
battleground after wolves were released into the wilderness north of here
in 1995. The Bakers’ plight became a flash point in a cultural war of Old
West versus New, galvanizing ranchers and elk hunters from central Idaho
against wolf proponents.
The Bakers’ land covers high mountain valleys that form a natural wolf
funnel of prime game habitat. Twice, wildlife officials have come in and
completely wiped out entire wolf packs, shooting them from helicopters.
The Bakers earned tremendous public enmity. The wolves, among them a
white female named Alabaster, were beloved by wildlife watchers.
Six generations of Bakers have ranched here. Photographs of bighorn
sheep and other wildlife decorate the modest living room of Dick and Betty
Baker. A 1934 black-and-white photo shows Dick at a nearby lake holding
long, thick trout.
In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the official numbers on livestock
depredation are low — less than one-third what was predicted when the
federal government studied wolf recovery in the three states.
But ranchers say wolf kills of livestock are difficult to trace,
evidenced mostly by an absence of calves coming home after herds graze
national forests. This keeps the highly praised program of compensation by
the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife — which has paid out more
than $250,000 since 1987 — from meaning much to some ranchers, who can
rarely confirm kills in the forest.
For the Bakers, wolf attacks sometimes occur in the back yard.
Their grief started on public land, like most, as mother cows came
alone and walked around bawling for days with swollen udders and no calf.
Then, wolves started taking livestock in the valley. Wolves killed a
niece’s prize-winning sheep as it tried to hide in a herd of cattle, and a
day-old calf was killed behind the house beside a barn in a corral. One
Baker spread lost eight calves on private ground.
The White Cloud pack came first, and was exterminated after relocation
failed. The White Hawk pack moved in the next year, killing cattle as
“They really got after them with rubber bullets and helicopters and
spent a lot of money,” Dick Baker says. “Then we see wolves lay right up
there on the bench watching the cattle and waiting for dark.”
The Bakers — wildlife lovers who do not like seeing wolves shot –
praise wildlife officials for trying everything before pulling the
Fortunately, the Bakers’ troubles are an exception in an otherwise
successful story of wolf reintroduction.
In the three states targeted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for
wolf recovery, the biological goals have been met. The agency will soon
upgrade the animal’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.”
Later next year, the wolf may come off the endangered species list
altogether, depending on whether the agency decides the states can
maintain wolf numbers without federal protection.
So far, Montana and Idaho, after 17 tries, have wolf management plans
acceptable to Fish and Wildlife. Wyoming, however, is balking. Its
proposed open hunting season on the wolf outside Yellowstone and federal
wilderness areas is unacceptable, says Ed Bangs, Helena, Mont.-based
director of the federal wolf recovery effort.
Old West vs. New: The problem is animosity between the Western states
the federal government.
“Wolves biologically aren’t a big deal,” says Bob Loucks, a former
(Idaho) County commissioner and a 33-year veteran agricultural extension
agent for the University of Idaho. “Politically, they’re a huge deal, a
symbol. To the city dweller, they’re a big beautiful animal. To the
country people, it’s the goddamned federal government telling us how to
live our lives.”
Loucks knows ranching economies, and he wishes Idaho had no wolves,
he is a voice of reason in a vitriolic debate.
Salmon is a cow town, and local business is supported by ranching, not
the fleeting tourist season. The black shapes of scattered cattle fill the
valley in herds that stretch for miles. Flocks of magpies, hawks and the
occasional deer are seen in December, while elk stay high until the snow
It is the Rocky Mountain West people dream of — golden foothills
falling away from timbered mountains and a broad grassy valley with
wandering streams full of ocean-run fish. The hopes of the New West,
populated and urban, are coming back, represented by packs of wolves.
The predator has returned beyond expectations in a place where
gubernatorial candidate Cecil Andrus campaigned with a “no wolves”
platform and tried to block Fish and Wildlife planes from landing when the
agency first attempted to bring the first of 35 wolves into the state in
“The problem is [the wolves] did too damned good,” says Jay Wiley, a
rancher with 290 acres on the Salmon River. He loses calves in the forest
each year to wolves on his national forest grazing allotment north and
east of town.
“The population just exploded, and they’ve lost control,” Wiley says.
“They don’t have time, money or personnel to capture or keep collars on
Living With Wolves: Idaho wolves number about 300 now, but ranchers
hardly trust that number because only packs with radio collars can be
Mistrust of wolf advocates’ motives is as fixed as the mountains
“They blew so much smoke about how they’d release them and they’d stay
in the wilderness,” he says. “It took them two days to leave Frank Church
[River of No Return Wilderness] and kill a calf on private ground in Iron
Creek. They did exactly what we said they would do and the opposite of
what the wolf people said they would do.”
Loucks predicts wolves will have “tremendous impact on a few ranchers
and a few elk herds. A few elk hunting guides will go out of business. But
overall there will be very little impact. Individual ranchers will have to
be bought out of [grazing] allotments, and a few wolves will have to be
killed. Wolves will simply never be able to exist in areas with
concentrations of livestock.”
But few ranchers are losing livestock to wolves, and depredation is
actually lower than wolf advocates expected.
And although elk numbers are down in some areas around Salmon, hunters
still harvest more elk annually than made up the total elk population
before the 1970s.
Wolves and ranchers can co-exist in the West, Loucks says.
“You don’t have to kill them all, just make them scared of people.”
‘Getting out’: Wiley counts himself lucky. His neighbor John Aldous
two dozen calves grazing public land last year — about $12,000 worth –
in a business that has not seen a real price increase in decades. Aldous
says that with sage grouse and bull trout headed for endangered listing
and weak beef prices, his wolf loss is pushing his operation over the
“I’m looking at getting out. They should never have brought [wolves]
here,” Aldous says. “I’ll have to sell my place and help make this look
like Sun Valley.”
Nationally, public lands grazing receives little sympathy, and Aldous
knows it. But outsiders should care because subdivisions will replace
ranches, Wiley says.
The New West is breathing down their neck, with trophy homes sprouting
like mushrooms on the benches. A development near his house is home to a
California cellular phone businessman, a banker, a government worker and
someone who works in Antarctica.
“They’re good people,” Wiley says, “but they’re all cow haters, and
we have [domestic] dogs running the hell out of our cows.” Aldous’ land
was homesteaded by his family 110 years ago. His son, John Junior is
making a go of ranching but without high hopes.
“It’s a business of such tight margins you throw in wolves and that
kill your operation,” he says.
The Jureano wolf pack eats his calves in the mountains and is
after almost being killed off. Ranchers will not do the same, he says. His
brother, Jacob, fixes cars and sees ranching as a losing bet.
“I don’t think anybody will make it, to tell you the truth,” Jacob
says. Calves that are not killed on the Aldous allotments sometimes
of the woods with their rear ends torn out, hideous wounds filled with
maggots. Rarely are they saved. Ranchers say they are victims of wolf pups
training to hunt.
Pawn in a Larger War: Still, most ranchers do not hate wolves. Almost
say the wolf would have returned on its own terms. They say these
“natural” wolves would have been better accepted and possess a stronger
fear of people. Instead, a bigger, badder animal from Alberta with no fear
of people was introduced, not for the wolves’ sake, the ranchers say, but
to get cattle off public land.
Biologists say natural recolonization would not have occurred for
decades, if ever.
An anti-wolf sign outside the River of No Return taxidermy shop on
Street in Salmon shows a ghoulish wolf with a red cross-out across its
face above words telling sandal-wearing, Subaru-driving, ponytailed people
to get lost.
The shop’s owner, Dan Hooper, a burly elk hunter, sells a lot of the
signs. Elk hunting is big business in the West, and those invested in
hunting do not like competing with an old predator.
The days of huge elk herds may be ebbing, but the bottom line is that
elk and wolves coexisted for eons, says biologist Isaac Babcock, who
worked for the Nez Perce tribe, which stepped in to help administer wolf
recovery in Idaho after the state refused. “Wolves just generate animosity
or love from people.”
Counting Sheep: Lava Lake Land and Livestock company is trying to live
with predators while grazing sheep on 24,000 acres in central Idaho.
Biologist Mike Stevens is chief manager of the company, formed in 1999
from five historic Hailey-Ketchum area ranches.
Lava has suffered two wolf attacks. A pack killed 14 animals over
nights in June. Then, shortly after, a wolf killed two lambs near a
“We’re new at this,” Stevens says, “but we want to stay away from
Sheep flock tightly but are easy to kill.
Can a sheep rancher live with wolves?
“There is a good incentive to do so, with predator-friendly
Stevens says. “Organic, predator-friendly lamb” has a nice ring, and
Stevens hopes to accomplish that by knowing where the wolves are, keeping
a herder with the sheep at all times, and using herding dogs and Great
Pyrenees, 130-pound guard dogs.
People living in wolf country face another issue: fear, though
documented wolf attacks on people in North America are almost nonexistent.
Idaho state Sen. Brad Little argues that people are in more danger
wolf-chased elk crossing the road than from actual attacks by the
A rancher heavily engaged in the wolf debate, he found a drowned,
problem wolf tangled in a leg-trap chain in a creek on his land.
“It was this big, beautiful silver wolf, just a gorgeous animal,” he
says. “A big son of a gun, big paws.”
But the romance of the wolf soon wanes.
“My in-laws have lost well over a hundred head of sheep,” Little says.
“My wife and kids slept out with my in-laws’ sheep one night to try and
keep the wolves out. Two wolves came in and killed sheep while they were
Living With Wolves: Gathering shed antlers is a huge esteem-booster and
moneymaker for Salmon kids, but Melanie Baker, Dick and Betty Baker’s
daughter, will not let her children do it anymore based on reports of
wolves showing aggression around their kills. Another friend packs a gun
while cross-country skiing, at the insistence of her husband, who had a
run-in with snarling wolves on a kill.
“A lot of people in our area are very fearful,” Melanie Baker says.
“Last Monday a gal who lives near here said the wolves killed an elk calf
where she walks and she was scared to go up there now.”
At the Bakers’ spread, ranch hands are dreading spring. The wolves do
the most damage in April, and they are certain a new pack is forming in
the ridges above their home because hunters have seen them. Wolves killed
a deer 40 yards from their porch last January.
“It’s a lot of no sleep, and it ain’t too fun to see how them little
calves is chewed up,” Dick Baker says. “The cows start bellowing in the
middle of the night, and the sons-a-bitches are barking and growling and
the cows are all herded up.”
The bedroom window will stay open well into spring.