The long life of one wolf embodies the story of wolf recovery in Idaho

Idaho StatesmanMarch 4, 2007 

A silver-tipped gray wolf found dead along a highway north of Salmon in January was likely the last of the 34 original wolves brought to Idaho from Canada in 1995 and 1996.

His life spanned Idaho's modern experience with wolves. The story of the wolf known to scientists as B7 is the story of wolf recovery in Idaho.

His 12 years in Idaho's high country make him perhaps the longest-lived wild wolf known to scientists.

Thanks to management, plenty of prey and a vast roadless heart in the middle of the state, Idaho is the place where wolves grow old — and plentiful. The state now has at least 650 wolves, as many as Montana and Wyoming combined. Three of the five oldest wolves ever recorded in the wild — including B7 — have lived in Idaho since 1995.

"I think B7 would have been dead many years before had he not lived in Idaho," said Isaac Babcock, the Nez Perce biologist who knew the wolf best.

As an adolescent, B7 and his longtime mate B11 created chaos among ranches in Montana's Big Hole Valley.

After a relocation strategy that included months in an enclosure in the Selway Wilderness, the pair were released in North Idaho, where they finally settled down to a life of raising pups and eating elk in the Lolo Pass area.

B7 was hit by a car and found dead next to a road-killed deer Jan. 8, as federal officials were proposing to remove Idaho wolves from the endangered species list. Hinton, Alberta, 1993:Born in Canada

B7 was born somewhere in the Oldman River Basin, a heavily wooded area much like Idaho on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains near Hinton, Alberta, Canada, in 1993 or 1994.

Like thousands of wolves across Canada's hinterlands, he lived a hazardous life. A wolf can expect to live two to three years on average.

If he wasn't kicked to death by an elk or killed by other members of his pack competing for food and status, he might have ended up in a trapper's snare. But fate intervened.

U.S. biologists were looking for wolves to take to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness — a vast area of rugged mountains, deep canyons and thick forests in Central Idaho.

A plan to reintroduce wolves to America's Northern Rockies had been in play since the early 1980s, but had long been held up because of opposition from Western congressmen backed by powerful livestock ranchers throughout the region.

In January 1995, with reintroduction finally approved, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gathered wolves in Hinton for shipment.

They divided the wolves into cohesive packs and unconnected singles.

The pack families were destined for Yellowstone, where they would be kept in acclimation pens for several months — the so-called "soft release."

The singles would be dumped in Idaho, a "hard release."

B7, then a 60-pound yearling, was captured with a 2-year-old, 72-pound female from the same pack. Two wolves weren't enough for a Yellowstone pack, so both were slated for Idaho.

"I remember him being so young and small," said Alice Whitelaw, then a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. "He would kind of avoid your eyes."

Whitelaw came to know the young gray wolf with a slight silver streak well in the days she and other biologists and veterinarians were preparing the Canadian wolves for their journey.

It was Whitelaw who attached the ear tag and radio collar that B7 would wear for the rest of his life.

Corn Creek, Idaho, 1995:FREe in THE WILDERNEsS

The first five wolves were released Jan. 15, 1995, at Corn Creek along the Salmon River north of Salmon. B7 was part of the second group of nine reintroduced wolves that were flown by helicopter Jan. 20 from Missoula into the wilderness.

He was flown to the air strip at Indian Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Ed Bangs, Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont., was in the helicopter.

"I was sitting there with a bunch of wolves on my lap," he said of the day he moved the wolves by air to their new home in Idaho.

After a shot of an antidote to wake them from their drug-induced sleep, the wolves staggered into the wilderness.

Alone for the first time, B7 roamed hundreds of miles. In the spring, he was located by plane in the Payette National Forest north of Yellow Pine.

Using a radio receiver while driving around the forest near Salmon, Whitelaw and biologist Val Asher detected him with a black female, another Canada transplant known as B11, the first time the mates were seen together.

"I remember saying to Val, ‘Oh, my God, we've got a signal,' " Whitelaw said.

BIG HOle, Mont., 1996:Horror and romance

The following spring, B7 and B11 followed the elk east out of the Salmon area, across the Beaverhead Mountains into the Big Hole Valley in Montana.

It was in this wide-open valley of pastures, ranches and hayfields bounded by lodgepole pine and aspen that they walked into the life of rancher Wayne Turner.

Turner first saw the wolves as his cows were calving in April. The pair he dubbed "7-11" walked through his herd but stayed out of trouble.

At first.

"I would have thought he was a coyote, he was so small," Turner said.

The young male's size was deceiving. Later that summer, Turner found a heifer dead.

"It appeared that one of them got ahold of the nose and the other one got ahold of the shoulder," Turner said. "They sure must have a lot of power to bring that animal down like that."

Two other cows had been hamstrung, with holes in their backsides big enough for Turner to stick his hand through.

Turner and his neighbors wanted action. Bangs, the wolf manager, called in Carter Niemeyer, then an agent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services branch, to catch and move the pair.

Niemeyer had been darting depredating wolves since 1989. Like a gunslinger of old, he was the man the service and ranchers called in times of trouble.

"You tell me where you want me to be and what you want caught," he explained of his role then.

He found the pair in a rancher's pasture. Niemeyer hit B7 with a dart filled with tranquilizer, but the dart bounced off a bone. B7 got away. Niemeyer hit B11 and knocked her out.

The black female was flown 160 miles west, deep into Idaho's wilderness. Within 10 days, she'd returned to Big Hole to rejoin B7.

"It's almost a romance story," said Beverly McDougal, who followed the pair through Big Hole with her husband Graeme, a Wildlife Services trapper.

McDougal remembers sitting along a backcountry road soon after B11 returned.

"They were howling together," she said.

But McDougal's romance tale was Turner's horror story. He and other ranchers reported increased calf losses when they brought their herds in for the winter. They called Bangs to a public meeting in Wisdom, where 50 ranchers and hunters demanded the wolves be removed.

Niemeyer darted them both in December.

selway-bitterroot, 1997: Teaching restraint

By now, the Nez Perce Tribe was managing wolves in Idaho for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Tribal biologists took B7 and B11 to Yellowstone National Park and placed them in an acclimation pen there. Biologists hoped that by spending time in a pen, the wolves would lose their sense of direction.

In January 1997, biologists moved the wolves to a newly built pen at Running Creek Ranch in the middle of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, about 100 miles northwest of Big Hole.

They planned to release them into the wilderness in the spring.

B7 had other plans.

He chewed and climbed until he got over the fence but stuck around for 10 days waiting for B11 to join him. Finally, he left B11, heading east for Big Hole and Turner's cattle.

The rancher saw B7 in his calving pasture again. When Niemeyer arrived by helicopter, B7 was in the midst of a herd of cattle. Niemeyer quickly darted and captured the wolf.

Doug Chadwick, a wildlife biologist and author of more than 10 books, arrived in Big Hole to research an article for National Geographic.

He helped unload and examine the drugged wolf before B7 was dropped on his lap as he and then-tribal biologist Timm Kaminski drove to the building where they would hold the wolves overnight.

For Chadwick, who has devoted his life to writing about and studying the world's disappearing wildlife, it was a seminal moment.

"I remember having this animal in my lap, feeling it was a joy," Chadwick said. "I didn't think in my lifetime in Montana I would see a wolf, never mind hold one in my lap."

But Chadwick was holding the wolves because ranchers couldn't tolerate them.

That he was holding 100 pounds of wildness in his hands challenged his deeply held view of how wolves and humans fit into the ecosystem.

"It's easy to demonize something in a vacuum," Chadwick said. "That's how the human mind works. Once you touch hands with fur, you can no longer deny it's a beautiful (creature.)"

Wolves, he said, should be shapers of their environment and shaped by it. They hunt elk and affect where and how elk live. The availability and wariness of their prey shapes the wolves.

And the interplay between predator and prey affects the elk, and the growth of the shrubs and the grasses that elk eat, Chadwick said.

But in the agrarian Big Hole Valley, wolves could not be allowed to be wild.

"Once you have your hands on an animal, its breath steaming in your face, it's a different reality," Chadwick said.

During one of the capture trips to the Big Hole, several ranchers brought their neighbors and families to see the kenneled wolves.

Those rural families expressed the same awe and wonder as Chadwick.

Turner went to the informal wolf presentation too. He still grumbles that it was largely pro-wolf propaganda.

Today, Turner has moved most of his operation out of the Big Hole Valley. Wolves are part of the reason, he said. Yet he, too, is careful not to demonize the wolves.

"I don't hate the animal, I hate the people who reintroduced them," he said.

north fork, clearwater, 1995: ONE Last chance

B7 and B11 had been given second, third and fourth chances — more than future Idaho wolves would get as the numbers grew and problem animals were more quickly killed.

"Wolves are capable of learning and remembering," said Kaminski, who today helps livestock owners cope with wolves. "We can use this to manage them better both around livestock and with their traditional prey."

Managers knew "7-11" could never return to the Big Hole again. Any new incident would mean their deaths.

So tribal biologists hauled B7 and B11 from the Running Creek Ranch enclosure to the North Fork of the Clearwater, where they were released in August 1997.

The wolves had lived longer than the average Alberta wolf. But they'd survived only because of the decisions of wildlife managers.

Lolo Pass, 1997:A new life

The wolf couple set up housekeeping near Lolo Pass on the Idaho-Montana border.

Most of the area is heavily forested wilderness, with lush, high meadows and a legendary elk herd that for more than 60 years has drawn hunters from across America seeking trophies.

The wolves had their first litter of six pups in 1998. The pair were seen in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, over the rugged mountains from the hunting territory they had established. Niemeyer trapped and collared one of the pups, but the pair stayed out of trouble.

Now they were known as the Big Hole Pack, even though they never returned to that valley. The multiple captures and months of confinement had worked: The pack was never again accused of raiding ranches.

Meanwhile, after just three years, wolf recovery in Idaho was moving along faster than anyone predicted.

The original 34 animals reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 and the handful of native wolves in the state had grown to 126 in 10 packs.

Well ahead of Montana and Wyoming, Idaho had reached the minimum population needed for "recovery" — success as defined by the Endangered Species Act.

W. FORK, LOLO CREEK, MOnt., 1999:ROOM For a three-legged WOLF

No one knew B7 better than Isaac Babcock, a young Nez Perce biologist. He monitored the state's wolf packs and put collars on as many animals as possible.

By the time he first saw B7 in 1999, the wolf was full grown, his distinctive silver streak more prominent with age.

Near Lolo Creek in Montana, in the spring of 1999, Babcock caught a large wolf in a trap in the Big Hole Pack's territory, and it dragged the trap away.

B11 was pregnant with pups at the time, and Babcock worried that his trap might have prevented her from delivering her pups or might even have killed her. He and another biologist hiked into the area to find out what happened.

They found the pack. Babcock crawled to within 15 feet of B7 and B11, who stood together. He could see that neither had any trap damage.

Another time, Babcock was trying to collar other members of the pack. He crawled up close to B7 in a violent thunderstorm. The underbrush suddenly opened up, and B7 stood 15 feet away.

As the wolf caught Babcock's scent, he stepped forward — revealing three pups the alpha wolf appeared to be protecting.

"They are jumping for his muzzle and he's looking down at them, then smelling me," Babcock said. "Right at that moment lightning hit hard enough to shake the ground. It made my heart bounce."

The wolves fled. Today, the biologist counts the moment as one of the best of his life.

In 2001, as Babcock watched the pack for three days, he saw a large three-legged wolf — the animal that must have been injured in the trap two years before.

In Yellowstone or in Canada, an injured wolf either would be killed or driven out of the pack. But with little competition for food and space, the Big Hole Pack had a place even for a handicapped wolf. Babcock even witnessed the wolf participating in pack hunts.

boise, 2001:STATE accepts wolves

By 2001, Idaho had 300 wolves, and the Fish and Wildlife Service was less charitable about saving troublesome animals.

Niemeyer, the former hired gun, was now based in Boise as the wolf coordinator in Idaho with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 6-foot-6, plain-spoken Iowa native had earned respect from both ranchers and environmentalists for his efforts to keep wolves and livestock apart.

But by 2002 he had been forced to kill more wolves — 27 in a 31-month period in the White Cloud Mountains alone.

When he decided to kill a pack in the East Fork of the Salmon River, he did the job himself. He was inundated with thousands of angry e-mails from wolf-lovers worldwide.

"I never wanted to shoot another wolf again, but I had to," he said afterward.

The killings weren't slowing down the wolf population, which was rising at more than 20 percent a year. But Niemeyer's carefully balanced control tactics — allowing some wolves to live — convinced ranchers their best hope for controlling wolves lay in delisting the wolf from Endangered Species Act protection and permitting more aggressive control.

Ranchers convinced the Idaho Legislature to approve a wolf-management plan in 2001 that satisfied Bangs and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

With the state's wolf numbers far above the recovery goal of 10 breeding pairs, hunters took the place of ranchers as the managers' worst critics.

Lolo zone, unit 12, 2004: hunters worry about ELK

The Big Hole Pack's territory covered part of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Lolo Elk Management Zone. Fires from 1910 to 1934 had burned off hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth forest. This created some of the best elk habitat in the country in the second half of the 20th century, and by 1989 as many as 16,500 elk were counted in the zone.

But the forests grew back. Grassy hillsides and shrublands that provided elk food were replaced with thick stands of lodgepole, pine, red fir and Western cedar, which do not. By 2000, less than a quarter of the herd living in the 1980s had survived.

Hunters lobbied Fish and Game through the 1990s to allow them to kill more black bears and cougars, which they blamed for dropping elk numbers. As wolf numbers in Idaho grew, they became both a perceived and real part of the problem.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Fish and Game officials dramatically increased the killing of mountain lions and bears. In 2005, department biologists suggested they could help the elk herd by killing wolves.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had granted the state's request to take over most of the day-to-day wolf management, including monitoring, control and education. Steve Nadeau, who started as a game warden in the territory of the Big Hole Pack, replaced Niemeyer as the man in charge of Idaho's wolves in 2006.

Nadeau had traveled the backcountry looking unsuccessfully for wolves with Kaminski in the 1980s. He was an expert on large carnivores and the Lolo region.

In 2004, Nadeau and Niemeyer were on a moose hunt near Lolo Pass. After the three moose they shot were boned out, the Big Hole Pack came down and picked the carcasses clean, Nadeau said.

"We were listening to the presidential debates on our radio and listening to the wolves howl in the background," Nadeau said.

Outfitter Rick Martz of Victor, Mont., has 14 camps spread throughout the Big Hole Pack's range.

The presence of wolves has scared off clients despite his continued success at bringing them to big bulls.

Like most of the outfitters in the area, Martz supported a Fish and Game proposal to kill up to 43 wolves in the Lolo zone. The Big Hole Pack itself, which now dens in Montana, would have been off-limits, Nadeau said.

The department's research suggests that the elk herd would grow if the wolf population in the area were reduced 25 to 40 percent.

"They need to be managed," Martz said.

Martz has seen a big black wolf — the color of B11 — walk right into his camp. Other times, he's heard elk bugle on one ridge while wolves howl on another.

He too has contradictory feelings about wolves.

"Every night we turn those lanterns down we hear those wolves howling and it's cool," Martz said. "When I hear that howling, the skin rises on my neck. I'm leery about tethering my horses.

"But that's part of the wilderness."

Lolo Creek, Mont., 2005: The last goodbye

In July 2005, Babcock and a volunteer snuck close after locating the Big Hole pack in Montana along the East Fork of Lolo Creek from the collar signal of a younger female.

B7 and B11 had outlived their radio collars, which went silent in 2003. They had lived long past the life expectancy of most wolves. Only a handful of the original 34 wolves were still alive.

Babcock doubted he would find the old pair he had come to love. But as he watched the pack, he got a surprise.

"B11 and B7 jump up, and they both go running off," Babcock said. "We turned around and smiled."

Babcock had seen B7 and B11 for the last time.

Idaho's request to kill wolves in the Lolo was denied by Bangs and the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006. But in December, the agency said it would propose removing wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho, Montana, parts of the Oregon, Washington and Utah in 2007.

In the lifetime of one old wolf, Idaho wolves had gone from functionally extinct to endangered to biologically recovered in Idaho.

The population had risen from less than 20 in 1995 to more than 650.

In 2005, only three of the original 34 wolves was known to be alive. B11, 1 or 2 years old when she was caught in Alberta in 1994, would be 14 or 15 if she is alive today. Nobody knows. B7 was likely a year younger. B9, a white female the same age as B11, was last seen in the Chamberlain Basin in 2005.

A typical Yellowstone wolf lives four years. An old wolf there is 9.

SALMON RIVER, 2007: end of an era

On Jan. 8 this year, chukar hunters stumbled across a dead wolf with a radio collar in a draw across U.S. 93 from the Salmon River 15 miles north of Salmon. A car had hit the wolf, which was eating a road-killed deer.

Now he was roadkill.

The ear tag and collar were worn smooth, so Fish and Game couldn't identify the silver-tinged wolf immediately. They sent the collar to the manufacturer, to check its unique frequency. The dead wolf was B7.

A week later, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter stood on the steps of the Statehouse and made killing Idaho wolves an international issue. Otter told hunters that he wanted to bid for the first tag to hunt a wolf once the predators are delisted, which could be as soon as 2008.

With delisting, hunting and more aggressive control of the now-thriving Idaho population, the era of old wolves could die with B7.

Idaho Statesman environment reporter Rocky Barker has covered public lands and wildlife issues in Idaho for 22 years. He is the author of four books. To offer story ideas or comments, contact Barker at rbarker@idahostatesman.com or 377-6484.

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