Feature June 28, 2016

The Long Journey Back

Wolves, People and Reconciliation in the West

Long before all of the sound and fury—the lawsuits and ugly confrontations in town hall meetings, the livestock depredations and aerial gunning, before wolf reintroduction and the Endangered Species Act and even the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 which sought to and largely succeeded in the extirpation of predators from the West—there was a story told by the Nez Perce people. It was a very different story from all that would follow. It was a story of creation, one told for thousands of years in the Nez Perce oral tradition, and one that two tribe members and brothers, Josiah and Jaime Pinkham, both shared with me on separate occasions.

…Before humans walked the Earth, the Creator brought the animal-people together in council concerning a prophecy that foretold the coming of a two-legged creature. The two-legged creature would emerge naked, weak and unable to feed itself. Only those animals that could help the new creature survive, the Creator said, would themselves survive. The salmon came forward first and offered his flesh to feed the new creature. His skin, he said, could be used to bind together bows and spears so the new creature could hunt. Then the buffalo and elk offered their flesh for food and coats for warmth and shelter. Finally, the wolf approached the Creator and vowed to teach the two-legged creature about family. He would teach the humans new to the Earth how to take care of one another and, most importantly, how to live together…


“If I could define a wolf, I would say they do three things: they travel, they kill, and they’re social,” said Doug Smith, project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project in Yellowstone National Park. Smith has been studying wolves not only since their reintroduction to Yellowstone and Idaho in 1995, but prior to that at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan and in Minnesota. He is witness to and a participant in what is arguably one of the biggest biological and ecological laboratories in the world: Yellowstone National Park itself.

“Wolves choose to live how they want to live,” Smith explained. Specifically, they live in packs—approximately 95 percent of wolf packs comprise extended families—that can vary in size from a breeding pair and a pup or two, to a dozen or more. As a wolf reaches 2 to 3 years of age, he or she will commonly, but not always, break off from its pack to find a mate and form a new pack, a process called dispersal.

“They have very complex behavior in terms of getting along with other individuals in their packs,” Smith said. “They have a pecking order and different relationships with different individuals in a pack. So, if you take out the wrong wolf—whether through hunting, livestock control or if another pack does it, it can have a greater or lesser effect on the functioning of that pack.”

The social nature of wolves, according to Smith, is manifested in two key aspects of their survival: hunting and defending territory. In hunting, for example, wolves prey on elk and bison, animals that far outweigh them, so the number of wolves involved in a hunt is critical to its success.

“The number of wolves optimal for taking down an item of prey varies with the size of the prey,” Smith said. In Yellowstone, where Smith and others have done extensive studies, the average number of wolves to kill an elk is four, whereas the average number of wolves to kill a bison is 10. Still, he pointed out, 80 to 90 percent of wolf hunts are unsuccessful. While two wolves can kill an elk and five wolves might kill a bison, the probability of success increases up to the optimal averages of four and 10.

Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project, with a radio-collared wolf under study.

Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project, with a radio-collared wolf under study.

This difficulty of bringing down big prey underscores the importance of cooperative behavior. “There are different ages and sizes of wolves in packs, and they tend to do different things,” Smith said. Typically, a full grown female is, on average, 20 percent smaller than its male counterpart, and, consequently, tends to be speedier. The same is true of a young male 2 to 3 years old. These speedier wolves will be the ones out front in a hunt, choosing which prey to take down.

“Wolves, almost always, choose an animal that has a problem,” Smith added. “They’re very selective killers. Sometimes these are problems we can’t even see when we film and watch these hunts.”

Once the chasing wolves select an elk, they typically bite it in its hind legs, which slows the elk down so that the other wolves can catch up. The bigger wolves will then take down the elk and kill it with crushing bites to the neck area.

It is worth noting that wolves live relatively short lives. The average age at death for a wolf in Yellowstone is 5; it is likely lower in Idaho, because human-caused deaths (hunting, trapping and lethal control) occur at a much higher rate in Idaho. While yearlings do help in a hunt, they aren’t very effective, and pups do not participate at all. The 2- to 3-year-olds are hunting masters. By the time they are 4 to 5, wolves tend not to hunt as much, particularly if there are other, younger wolves in the pack to hunt for them. There are exceptions, Smith noted: the oldest known wolf in Yellowstone lived to 12 and hunted until the day she died.

Another key aspect of survival in which social behavior is critical is in defending territory. “Most animals live in what are called home ranges,” Smith explained. “These are areas of use that overlap with other creatures of your species.” Wolves, on the other hand, live in exclusive areas of use—a rarity in the animal kingdom.

How well a given pack defends its territory often depends on the size of the pack and experience of the pack. Bigger packs with older males fare better in territorial conflicts. To suss out potential threats to their hunting territory, wolves will communicate with neighboring packs in two ways. One is through verbal communication; packs will howl back and forth and gauge the size and proximity of one another. A second method is through scent. According to researchers, wolves can smell other wolves or prey up to 8 miles away. However, in the end, if there are elk in the neighboring territory, Smith said, “Hunger may trump fear,” and two packs will have it out at the territory boundary for control of the hunting area.

It has been well documented in Yellowstone that when elk and deer become scarce in a given area, pack-pack clashes increase, wolves die and the wolf population goes down. This is what Smith terms “self-regulation.” There have been several incidences in the park in which a pack crossed into another territory and killed an entire den of pups from the neighboring pack. “Now, if that doesn’t tip the balance in your favor,” Smith said. Such efforts can give a pack a competitive advantage for a year or two, maybe more.


“I find it the most exciting part of my job to be surrounded by a pack of wolves,” Carter Niemeyer told me one winter day in his Boise living room. “When you get close to their den or kill site, … it’s upsetting to them and so there’s a lot of howling and howl-barking. Man, I could just sit and listen to that for hours … and just hope they come closer.”

If there is one person who has lived in the thick of the long and sometimes nasty reality of wolf recovery in the Northwest, it is Niemeyer. As a trapper for Animal Damage Control (ADC) in the Department of Agriculture, later renamed Wildlife Services, Niemeyer’s job for 26 years was to kill or trap predators that preyed on livestock.

Carter Niemeyer, a retired trapper for Wildlife Services, gathers data from a drugged wolf.

Carter Niemeyer, a retired trapper for Wildlife Services, gathers data from a drugged wolf.

Based in Montana in the 1990s, Niemeyer investigated incidents in which a predator—whether wolf, coyote, grizzly bear, fox, black bear or golden eagle—came into conflict with livestock. A day at work generally involved a dead cow or sheep that had to be skinned for examination, an irate rancher, and, with luck, some hard evidence—predator tracks, scat or other signs of the alleged predator. Niemeyer’s job was to determine what exactly had killed the livestock. He was also responsible for killing or relocating wolves that were determined to have caused livestock losses. On more than one occasion, Niemeyer, who is physically imposing but measured in demeanor, was toe-to-toe with angry and sometimes armed ranchers that didn’t hear the conclusion they wanted to hear. Also on more than one occasion, Niemeyer was faced with single-handedly hog-tying in the wild a half-drugged wolf with little more than the shoelaces in his boots.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, began the process of reintroducing wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, Niemeyer was tasked with finding and trapping (along with other local trappers) wolves in Alberta, Canada, to be released in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and in Yellowstone.

“I don’t think any of us could have foreseen the success of bringing 66 wolves—35 to Idaho and 31 to Yellowstone,” Niemeyer said. As of December 31, 2015, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) estimated there to be at minimum 786 wolves in Idaho. Well over 100 are thought to be in Yellowstone.

“Two words I use in all of my talks about wolves: they’re prolific and resilient … No, due to the rugged terrain, the abundance of deer and elk in Idaho, the wolves are here to stay … However, I don’t accept the rhetoric that there will be 2,000 wolves, then 5,000 wolves, then wolves at your door. A thousand will probably be the peak in Idaho. There will be an eventual balance.”

Beyond their own biological success, wolves have had a significant effect on the ecosystems in which they were put. While wolf country in Idaho is too rugged for any practical studies, much work has been done in Yellowstone to document what’s known as  a trophic cascades. Researchers William Ripple and Robert Beschta have done exhaustive work tracking the effects of wolves on the landscape. Most immediately, and unsurprisingly, the elk population dropped. With less grazing pressure from ungulates, the aspen, cottonwood and willow trees have grown taller and the canopy cover has increased. With more woody-browse species available, the beaver population has increased, which has had dramatic positive effects on the riparian systems: reducing erosion, raising wetland water tables, improving the nutrient cycling, and providing healthier habitat for amphibians, reptiles and fish. In sum, the biodiversity of the system has increased dramatically.

Though people are still fighting about wolves 21 years after their reintroduction, the argument has clearly shifted. Early on, the debate centered on whether wolves would be permitted to exist at all. Now, the issue has moved to “wolf management”—to what extent and how they will be managed.

Having been in the middle of the the issue for so long, Niemeyer has had dealings with just about every constituency involved—ranchers, wolf advocates, biologists, the federal and state agencies, the Nez Perce tribe and the general public. Now retired, Niemeyer said, “I don’t have a dog in the fight one way or the other. But a lot of wolf advocate groups don’t accept the need for ‘management,’ which is just a long word for ‘kill.’ In a state like Idaho, I just don’t think it is realistic to think you’re not going to hunt, trap and control wolves. There are groups that still envision that wolves and elk should be allowed to live out their lives and do their thing. But ranchers and hunters and wildlife biologists do not accept that. And herein lies the problem.”

Niemeyer’s relationship to wolves and all that they engender is no doubt complicated. For 26 years he was a loyal soldier for Wildlife Services: when predators had to be killed because they had preyed on livestock, he was the guy who had to do it. He was blamed for killing hundreds of wolves; however, he knows exactly how many wolves he has killed: 14. Reading his memoir “Wolfer” and talking with him about it at length, it is clear he got no joy from the task given him. In “Wolfer,” Niemeyer expresses more than a little anguish over his orders to kill the Whitehawk pack living along the East Fork of the Salmon River. A big chunk of his life and energy had been devoted to bringing wolves back to the Northern Rockies. Now he was killing them. Like many others entwined in the wolf debate, Niemeyer has been changed by it. “I’m not a wolf-lover, but I appreciate them … My level of appreciation of them absolutely grew.”

Niemeyer sees a need for a distinction between policies on public and private land. He makes the point that if a property owner wants to rid his property of every wolf, coyote, elk and fox, well, fine. But, he feels, that principle shouldn’t carry over to public land management. “Are we going to kill wolves? Yes. Do I like it? No. I’m tired of the killing. I lived that lifestyle, and that’s what changed me. I participated in all this because it was my job, and I did my job. But we can advance. We can move forward and do better. There could be less killing.”

The lethal control of problem wolves is not cheap. Typically, a gunner in a helicopter is sent out to destroy the pack from the air. In 2014 the Idaho Legislature appropriated funds to create the Wolf Depredation Control Board, a unit within the Governor’s Office that disburses funds to kill wolves causing livestock depredations. The board receives annually $110,000 each from livestock industry assessments and hunting license fees, and, if approved by the Idaho Legislature each year, $400,000 from the state budget.

Wolf packs assess the size and proximity of neighboring packs through howling and their sense of smell, which can detect threats and prey up to eight miles away.

Wolf packs assess the size and proximity of neighboring packs through howling and their sense of smell, which can detect threats and prey up to eight miles away.

With funds left over from the previous year, there was approximately $924,600 available for wolf depredation control for fiscal year 2016, ending June 30. The reporting of lethal control of wolves is done by calendar year, so it’s difficult to accurately parse administrative costs and the precise expenditure per control action. However, intermediate reporting in 2015 showed that lethal control cost approximately $4,500 per wolf killed. In fiscal year 2017, available funds for the Wolf Depredation Control Board are projected to be $980,000.


On June 15, 1994, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt signed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency’s record of decision on wolf reintroduction. In that decision were provisions for the affected states (Idaho, Wyoming and Montana) and the Nez Perce tribe to manage the reintroduction. There was within Idaho, however, fierce opposition to the plan. Just three days after the first four wolves were released at Corn Creek on the Salmon River, the Idaho Legislature on January 17, 1995, prohibited the IDFG from participating in the recovery plan. In the wake of this action, the Nez Perce Tribe took the lead in managing recovery. This entailed hiring biologists, radio-collaring wolves, and monitoring wolf numbers, both the absolute number and the number of breeding pairs and packs.

Jaime Pinkham, who was then the manager of natural resources for the tribe, said the Nez Perce stepped up to the responsibility because the majority of the recovery area overlapped with the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce. What’s more, the tribe had previously, and on its own accord, committed to restoring all animal species to their homeland. In the Nez Perce treaty of 1855, that homeland was recognized to be almost 14 million acres of north-central Idaho—then the Oregon Territory. While the tribe was ultimately relocated to a much smaller reservation, it was guaranteed “access” to their original homeland, which, Pinkham said, included their rights to maintain their lifestyle, get sustenance from the land, recreate there, practice their religion and gather natural materials for their medicines.

The tribe’s role in recovery was also a function, Pinkham said, “…of our role as a governing sovereign … so that any decision or action taking place on the federal lands had to be coordinated with the tribe.”

One of the key goals of recovery for the Idaho plan—the presence of 10 breeding pairs each year for three consecutive years—was met by the end of 1998. Pinkham has long felt that the experience of the wolves mirrored that of the tribe’s. “Both had been displaced from their lands by Western expansion and the taming of the new frontier,” he said. “But (with recovery), both the tribes and the wolves were regaining their rightful place, not only on the landscape, but also socially and politically.”

By 2002, it was clear that the wolves were in Idaho to stay. So, despite continued animosity toward wolves in general, the Legislature approved a management plan for Idaho and gave IDFG authority to co-manage the plan with the Nez Perce Tribe.

Today, the man responsible for compiling and editing the annual IDFG wolf monitoring progress report is Jim Hayden. The task of counting and tracking wild wolves over millions of acres of central Idaho wilderness is a formidable one. Hayden and his team use a variety of tools to determine the number of wolves and packs in the state. These include radio-collar data, remote camera data, field observations, and DNA collections. They also employ what’s called patch occupancy modeling, which uses this data to predict wolf distribution.

The number of wolves IDFG reports is almost certainly a minimum value. Hayden said that in counting breeding pairs, which is heavily dependent on radio-collar data (not all wolves are radio-collared; perhaps 20 percent are, but that number is a loose estimate), “The number of packs we identify is a function partly of effort. So, a change from one year to the next may not have anything to do with the number of wolves out there. It’s a function of funding, weather conditions and other variables … We spent $1 million one year and $250,000 a different year. So, you can come up with different numbers.”

As it turned out for 2015, IDFG reported 786 wolves and 108 packs. 

While we were talking, Hayden pulled up a Google Earth map of Idaho that had dozens of clusters of dots, each dot representing a collared wolf. The map showed in real time where particular wolves were (each had a coded name). Hayden could track their movements, delineate the territories of given packs, even determine when a wolf was dispersing—that is, leaving its current pack to find a new territory, mate and create a new pack.

The agency also reports annually the mortalities of both wolves and livestock. In 2015, there were 358 wolf mortalities, 256 of which were due to legal hunting and trapping. Fifty-four were killed through lethal control in response to confirmed livestock depredations. Another 21 wolves in northern Idaho’s Lolo elk hunting zone were lethally controlled in an effort to increase the ungulate population there. Wolf depredations documented by Wildlife Services agents last year comprised 125 sheep, 35 cattle, three dogs, and one horse.


Suzanne Stone, like others in this debate, has been involved with the wolf issue for many years—in her case for 28 years. She is the senior Northwest representative for the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife.

Stone first felt the draw of wildlife conservation when she was 12 and read Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain.” A few years later she read “Of Wolves and Men,” by Barry Lopez, and she knew she was hooked.

Like Niemeyer, Stone has seen the tenor of the debate change over the years. “Originally, it was the ranching community that was opposing wolves. They would fill meeting rooms with hundreds of ranchers, and they fought it as hard as they could and were completely threatened by wolves being back on the landscape,” she said. “After wolves were here for about a decade, we really saw a transition with ranchers; most of them that were living in wolf range didn’t fear wolves as much as they expected to.”

Stone feels, however, that while the reintroduction was a biological success, “Socially it could have been handled better. There was no attempt to bring stakeholders into the process … A lot of people felt that it was forced on them, even though more than 165,000 people commented on it … However, it was a very one-way communication … It was never explained why we were doing what we were doing, why wolves were necessary or important. That hurt wolves more than anything—not having any kind of social conflict process.”

Wolf reintroduction in Idaho began with four wolves being released in 1995 on the Salmon River near Corn Creek. There are now an estimated 786 wolves and 108 packs in the state.

Wolf reintroduction in Idaho began with four wolves being released in 1995 on the Salmon River near Corn Creek. There are now an estimated 786 wolves and 108 packs in the state.

Twenty-eight years into it, Stone clearly appreciates the perspectives of others in the debate and devotes her time and energy to finding solutions for all parties involved. Still, Stone seems to be as passionate as ever about the issue and continues to press hard as an advocate for the wolves, particularly in the area of developing nonlethal wolf management techniques.

“The wolf is a native species to Idaho. To me, they have an inherent right to be here. To the extent that we have complete ecosystems, wolves should be a part of that,” she said. “It’s up to us to learn how to live with all forms of wildlife if we want to preserve those ecosystems.”


Brian Bean, president of Lava Lake Land & Livestock headquartered in Carey, Idaho, has since 1999 run sheep on approximately 875,000 acres of public and deeded land. As Bean explained in a presentation to state legislators I attended at the Capitol, he has seen his share of wolf depredation losses. In one day in 2002, he lost 36 ewes and lambs. Another night, in a few hours, he lost 25 ewes and lambs, two rams and one guard dog.

“The truth is, we didn’t really know what to do,” Bean said. So he reached out to Defenders of Wildlife to see if they had any techniques that might be effective in protecting his sheep. With their help, Bean said, “We became proficient in applying nonlethal tools and techniques to keep our animals and wolves separate.”

With that experience, in 2008, Bean became one of the original collaborators in the Wood River Wolf Project (WRWP), which seeks to minimize depredation events and sheep loss, minimize lethal control of wolves, and save livestock producers money. The organization brought together a number of stakeholders, including the Forest Service, IDFG, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Defenders of Wildlife, Wildlife Services, and several livestock producers.

The organization, Bean said, has since developed a protocol of nonlethal practices for grazing sheep in wolf country. The tools and techniques include employing greater human presence, more guard animals, active animal management to avoid dens and rendezvous sites, temporary fencing called fladry, foxlights, air horns, satellite phones and SPOT devices for communication, as well as telemetry devices for locating radio-collared wolves.

John Peavey runs a range-lambing operation out of Carey, Idaho. With this type of sheep ranching, Peavey says, the use of fladry, small enclosures, and other tools of nonlethal control are not practical. Due to wolf depredations, Peavey has had to move his early lambing operations farther south near Kimama, Idaho.

John Peavey runs a range-lambing operation out of Carey, Idaho. With this type of sheep ranching, Peavey says, the use of fladry, small enclosures, and other tools of nonlethal control are not practical. Due to wolf depredations, Peavey has had to move his early lambing operations farther south near Kimama, Idaho.

Over the course of seven years, the WRWP conducted a study (to be published in the Journal of Mammology) that looked at depredation rates in areas in which these techniques were employed (“protected areas”) compared to those in which they weren’t (“unprotected”). They found that the depredation rate in the protected areas was three and a half times lower than that in the unprotected areas. Sheep loss to wolf depredation was 0.02 percent, which, according to Bean, is the lowest rate in Idaho for areas in which sheep are grazed in wolf range.

“We’ve been dealing with wolves for 14 years,” Bean said. With these deterrent methods in place, “…we’ll have a depredation event on sheep by wolves typically once every two to three years. When an event occurs, our livestock losses are on average one to three animals. When you are dealing with sheep in the thousands, then these losses, to us, are acceptable, particularly in the context of the much greater depredation loss from coyotes.”

John Peavey, operator and co-owner of the Flat Top Sheep Company, attends meetings of the WRWP, but he doesn’t subscribe to the nonlethal methods espoused by Bean and Defenders of Wildlife. Peavey’s operation combines about 25,000 acres of deeded land near Carey, Idaho, with half again as much acreage in the Wildhorse Sheep Allotment, a shared BLM grazing allotment south of Carey and north of Idaho State Highway 24. It is a ranch Peavey’s grandfather started putting together in 1925.

Peavey explained that Bean runs a shed-lambing operation, whereas he runs a range-lambing operation. With the former, ewes give birth indoors and are fed hay and perhaps some grains. Lambs are paired up with their mothers in the safety of the shed for a significant span of time. “There used to be a lot of shed-lambing, but it’s a very expensive way to run sheep,” Peavey said.

In range-lambing, operators separate the ewes that have lambed from those that haven’t. So, one day 40 or 50 ewes might give birth; Peavey then moves the others a little ways away, say, over a ridgeline. As ewes continue to lamb each day, new bunches are formed and become spread out over 4 or 5 miles. “You try to keep them in these little bunches as long as you can—at least two to three weeks—so they learn to find each other (mothers and lambs). So, it’s very important to have lots of space.” Herding them into small fladry enclosures, Peavey said, is not practical when you’re running sheep in this fashion.

Peavey also points out that depredation is not the only issue. “It’s just chaos when a bunch of wolves come in,” he said. “You don’t know how many there are—there could be one or six or seven. In the middle of the night they’ll run through these bunches spread over a couple of miles and mis-mother all of these lambs, and they’ll never find their mothers again … It’s just disastrous. You count the carcasses, but that’s just part of the problem.”

A few years ago, Peavey had significant depredation losses on his deeded lands near Carey. He used the “flashing lights and noisemakers,” but, he said, it didn’t make much difference. It was then that he decided to move his early grazing and lambing south to the Wildhorse Allotment. “We’ve had no wolf deaths and no sheep deaths since we moved down to the desert. We were happy to do this, because nobody wants to agitate a bunch of people who truly love wolves. And we eliminated the conflict as much as we could.”

Sometime around mid-May or early June Peavey has to move his sheep north through what’s considered more threatening “wolf territory.” Come September, the process is reversed and the sheep move south.

Peavey has adapted to the reality of wolves disrupting his business, but he’s not particularly happy about it. The potential for wolf attacks adds to his operation a lot of man-hours and, consequently, cost to an already difficult way of life. For him, the burgeoning number of wolves is a concern, too. “There is a vast difference between what the plan was for the number of wolves in the state and what we ended up with,” he said. “It’s just a problem we didn’t need from an agricultural and ranching perspective.”


In January, the Salmon River at Corn Creek is a subdued, solemn version of its summer self. The river is slow and frozen in places; snow dots the landscape. One such morning—January 14, 1995—four wolves scampered out of cages and onto the banks of the river. Though they could never know it, their purpose was about as momentous a one as any four animals could have—the regeneration of a species. Still, survival is the purest of instincts and, at heart, a simple one. Those who put the wolves on that riverbank and those who fought it, however, have had a much more uncertain and tortuous path forward. Reconciliation has been halting, but it has advanced. Whether or not the mythological wolf of the Nez Perce Creation story has fulfilled his vow to teach us to live together is harder to say.

This article appears in the Summer 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.