A Rural Viewpoint On Wolf Reintroduction And Protection
In Idaho wilderness,
Article Last Updated:10/30/2006 06:42:27 AM MST
Posted: 6:38 AM-MCCALL, Idaho - A pair of University of Idaho researchers living in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness say that while wolves around their three-room cabin are making elk more skittish, they're not decimating populations of the big game animals as some hunters fear.
Wolf researcher Jim Akenson, 48, and his wife, biologist Holly Akenson, 48, live and work at the Taylor Ranch Field Station as part of what is so far a nine-year study of wolf behavior. The ranch is 34 miles from the nearest road - supplies come in by bush plane - and may be the most remote year-round human habitat in the lower 48 states.
The Akensons concede elk have become harder to find, but they say that's not because wolves are killing them. They say the wolves' presence has made elk more leery of exposed ground. That makes hunters mad because tracking the big ungulates during fall hunting season has become more difficult.
A spooked elk in wolf country typically plunges into a river or mountain lake, because wolves are at a disadvantage in water, the Akensons said.
"That is something you didn't see before wolves," Holly Akenson said in an interview with the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Ore.
Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are trying to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for wolves, whose population in the region including Yellowstone National Park now tops 1,200.
Eventually, the states want to hold legal wolf hunts. Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials say such hunts are needed to restore balance in areas where wolves have gotten the upper hand.
With computers and an Internet connection to keep them connected with the outside world, the Akensons also are studying how the growing wolf population is interacting with other species: cougar, bighorn sheep, moose and bear.
"When there is a pack around, cougars are not comfortable around their kills or raising kittens," says Jim Akenson. "A lot of times a big cougar will kill a wolf, but the pack phenomenon changes the table."
Four years ago, he recalls, he was riding a mule on an icy mountain trail 200 feet above Big Creek when he encountered a dead cougar. In an instant, a pack of wolves appeared and began howling.
"We could not turn around," says Akenson. "It is the most precarious condition you can imagine, with wolves howling around you."
Akenson's saddle mule, Daisy, sniffed at the cat carcass, stepped over it, and led Cricket and Rocky, the pack mules, down the trail. When Akenson returned later, he discovered the cougar had been killed by another cougar - not by the wolves, as he'd suspected.
The Akensons are surrounded by three wolf packs at Taylor Ranch, but say they've never been threatened. Still, they take precautions.
They don't allow Mica, their golden retriever, to roam unaccompanied. Wolves generally hunt in packs of eight to 12 and have killed several hunting dogs in Idaho in recent years. The researchers also don't let their horses graze in large pastures. Horses instinctively flee wolves, and could provoke an attack.
The mules are less of a worry, Jim Akenson said.
"Mules look at a wolf and say to themselves, 'Do I need to stomp it?"' he said. "Our mules love to chase bears, too."