Wolf B2 changed Idaho

This story ran Sept. 5 2004

Biologists called him Wolf B2. The Nez Perce named him Chat Chaaht. Admirers knew him as The Old Man. He was the second wolf released in Idaho in 1995 and, at 14, one of the oldest wolves ever recorded in the wild.

B2 was found dead three weeks ago. He was preceded in death by his first mate, B66, killed in 2002 by an elk. He is survived by a mate and four to 11 offspring.

His death, like much of his life, was documented by science, giving biologists and citizens a rare opportunity to understand a central character in the controversial program to return wolves to the Rocky Mountains.

B2 began his life as a Canadian, destined to be killed to line the hood of a winter coat. Instead, the trapper who snared him near Jasper National Park in Alberta sold him alive to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for $2,000.

He was packed onto a plane with 11 other wolves and sent to the United States for relocation in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park as part of a federal program to replace wolves exterminated earlier in the century.

He left his mark on Idaho from the time he entered that cage. B2 helped Idaho´s Nez Perce Tribe reconnect with its spiritual past, ate a cow owned by the president of the Idaho Cattle Association and inspired wolf supporters around the world.

Like thousands of newcomers who came to Idaho in the 1990s, B2 and the other wolves helped ignite a debate over changing Western values.

You may find meaning in B2´s mournful search for his dead mate. You may find hope in his remarkable survival. You may see in his story one more example of an arrogant federal government forcing its will on Westerners.

Or you may wish he and the 34 other Canadians who augmented Idaho´s struggling native wolf population would have gone back to where they came from. Today, officials estimate the Idaho wolf population at 375.

B2 died next to a young bull elk, his final kill.

George Kelly, the trapper

’He’s still got lots of relatives up here’

Idaho´s most famous wolf was born in Alberta, Canada, in 1990 or 1991. His pack lived off the elk, deer and moose in the thickly timbered hills of the Hay River Valley, 30 miles east of Jasper National Park.

In December 1994, U.S. Fish and Wildlife authorities contacted outfitter-trapper George Kelly of Hinton and offered to pay $2,000 for every wolf caught and radio-collared.

Kelly and another trapper snared three members of the Hay Pack so American biologists could tranquilize them for transport to the United States.

Kelly thinks he´s the one who trapped B2.

"He was a gray male, I remember," Kelly said one night last week after a day of guiding bear hunters. "He´s still got lots of relatives up here. The pack remains strong."

B2 weighed 76 pounds, a medium-sized wolf for the Rocky Mountains.

U.S. wildlife officials flew him to Hinton, where veterinarians examined, measured and readied him for shipping. They crammed B2 and 11 others into small packing crates and onto a plane Jan. 11, 1995, ready to begin what would later be called one of the greatest environmental success stories of the 20th century.

Events in the United States would make the trip one of the most harrowing of his life.

Chapter 2

Horace Axtell, the tribal elder

’I personally welcomed him back ... as a brother’

While B2´s plane was airborne, a federal appeals court in Denver issued an emergency order halting the reintroduction.

The legal challenge came from the American Farm Bureau, representing Western ranchers. They had successfully delayed reintroduction for more than 10 years until Bill Clinton was elected president, which changed the political leadership of the federal agencies in charge of wolves. The federal courts were the opponents´ last hope.

The wolves´ fate was still in doubt when the plane landed in Great Falls, Mont.

The court lifted its order the next day. Eight wolves were moved to Yellowstone and placed in large kennels. The court´s decision came too late to move the four wolves bound for Idaho; they spent the night cooped up in their crates in Montana. The next day, the Idaho wolves flew to Missoula, where a delegation from the Nez Perce Tribe met them.

Elder Horace Axtell is the leader of Seven Drum, the Nez Perce religion that sees wolves and people tied together in the circle of life. That spiritual connection was broken when wolves were exterminated.

In Missoula, Axtell kneeled down, his long gray braids hanging below his cheeks. He looked into the eyes of B2.

"I personally welcomed him back to our land as a brother," said Axtell.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game had chosen airstrips in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness for the releases. But overcast skies Jan. 14 made the mountains too dangerous for helicopters.

Ed Bangs , coordinator of wolf recovery in the Rocky Mountains for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decided to truck the wolves to the Corn Creek boat launch at the end of the icy Salmon River Road. A caravan of reporters, wolf advocates and residents accompanied the wolves on the bumpy, four-hour drive .

Bangs still recoils at the trauma for the humans and the animals.

"What a horror show," he said. "The road was solid glazed ice, the river was raging, the canyon was steep and high."

Despite his 74-hour ordeal, B2 bolted out of his cage and loped west into the wilderness.

Chapter 3

Brett Barsalou, the lawman

’We’re going to have some problems’

Among those watching B2´s release was Lemhi County Sheriff Brett Barsalou, who opposed the reintroduction. He thought the wolves would bring trouble for themselves and the residents of a county where sentiment ran heavily against reintroduction.

"I knew at the time it was going to begin a new chapter in my law enforcement career," Barsalou said. "I can remember thinking we´re going to have some problems evolve out of this."

Within days, another wolf would be killed on a Lemhi County ranch while eating a dead calf. Barsalou stood between residents who saw federal wildlife agents as "jack-booted thugs" and federal authorities who wanted answers about the illegal killing of an endangered species.

Within months, an unrelated court decision threatened to stop logging, mining and grazing -- and wolf reintroduction -- on federal lands. Violence nearly broke out among residents of Lemhi County. The cool-yet-defiant leadership of Barsalou and other local officials helped quiet the situation and lay the groundwork for a decade of tense but peaceful debate over wolves in Idaho.

"I knew we were going to have some problems with depredation to cattle herds, and that it would hurt our elk and deer herds, but you felt we had tried to stop it and now we were going to have to live with it," Barsalou said. "We were going to have to move forward."

Chapter 4

Larry Judd, the teacher

’A couple of kids ... chose that name’

B2´s first two years in Idaho were peaceful, even boring, for the people watching him most closely.

He spent most of 1995 in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, a wild refuge filled with elk, deer and moose like his home in Canada´s Hay River Valley. Nez Perce tribal biologists monitored his movements under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The tribe got the job when the Idaho Legislature refused to allow state officials any role in managing wolves legislators didn´t want in the state. The tribe lobbied hard to get the wolf program, which would become the nucleus of its ambitious effort to share management of wildlife on its traditional lands.

Tribal leaders made sure a fish and wildlife class at Lapwai High School was part of a "Track a Wolf" program tied to the reintroduction.

The Nez Perce students named B2 Chat Chaaht, which means "older brother" in the Nez Perce language. They painted red and black on the glorified dog collar that carried Chat Chaaht´s radio transmitter. They followed his movements .

"There were a couple of kids who chose that name," said teacher Larry Judd, "but I can´t for the life of me remember who they were."

As the novelty wore off and the wolf didn´t move around much, the reports became rather boring, Judd remembered. One of the few highlights: Biologists watched Chat Chaaht bully a mountain lion off an elk kill.

Chat Chaaht remained in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. By the end of 1996, he seemed to drop off the Earth: For more than a year and a half, biologists recorded no sightings. Scientists thought maybe the radio collar had failed early.

Biologists got one bit of hope: Repeated reports placed a wolf wearing a red and black collar in the Elk River area in north-central Idaho in 1997.

Chapter 5

Carter Niemeyer, the wolf point man

’There were people who said we should have left them where they were’

Suddenly, in 1998, B2 seemed to be everywhere.

He showed up more than 50 miles south of his wilderness haunts in the East Fork of the Salmon River on the east side of the White Cloud Mountains. He moved around Ketchum and Sun Valley, creeping through the back yards of Idaho´s wealthy wilderness lovers.

B2 had another surprise for his watchers: He´d found a mate. She was B66, a young member of the Stanley Basin Pack.

In 1999, B2 was seen in the Trail Creek area that connects Sun Valley to the towering Pioneer Mountains to the south. By the spring of 2000, he and B66 had set up housekeeping in 300,000-acre Copper Basin, a stunning high-mountain valley southeast of Sun Valley.

The pair had a litter of two pups and formed the Wildhorse Pack, named for the Lost River tributary . In 2001, they had five more pups.

Copper Basin was the back yard of Rick Williamson , a federal trapper with U.S. Wildlife Services, the agency that had to control wolves -- and kill them, if necessary. Williamson lived in Arco, east of Copper Basin, killing coyotes and other predators that ate ranchers´ cattle and sheep.

Williamson tracked the Wildhorse Pack and developed a close relationship with B2 and his family.

"I was fond of him," Williamson said. "There was a lot of mystery in B2´s life and that´s what intrigued me about that wolf."

Williamson stepped in when a U.S. forest ranger planned a controlled burn in the drainage where the pack denned. "I told him if he wanted to make front-page news, go start that fire," Williamson said.

Carter Niemeyer worked for the same agency. He had killed hundreds, maybe thousands, of predators in his career, including wolves. By 2001, he´d become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service´s point man on wolves in Idaho.

Niemeyer was the man who decided whether a wolf would live or die.

In 1995, he had worked with the two Canadian trappers capturing the wolves. He admired B2 for his survival skills.

´"There were people who said we should have left them where they were," said Niemeyer. "If we had done that, B2 would have been made into the lining of a winter coat."

In the winter of 2001, B2 needed a new collar. Niemeyer chased him from a helicopter and shot him with a tranquilizer.

"He just kind of ran down the hill, then reversed himself and made it an easy shot," Niemeyer remembered.

B2 was now at least 10 -- old for a wild wolf. Niemeyer could see cataracts in his eyes.

"He looked like one of those old farm dogs that comes up to you with the droopy eyes," he said.

Yet, said Niemeyer, the old wolf was still lean and strong.

Chapter 6

Dave Nelson, the rancher

’Everybody wanted to coddle the old boy’

Every rancher-wolf conflict after the reintroduction was inherently political. Ranchers would go all the way to Washington, D.C., if necessary to pressure Niemeyer and his superior, Bangs, to act.

Dave Nelson was no ordinary rancher. He was president of the Idaho Cattle Association. He didn´t have to call his congressman to exercise his clout.

When Nelson told Niemeyer in 2001 that he suspected he was losing cattle to wolves, he wanted something done. Immediately.

Niemeyer and Nelson went toe to toe, in a respectful sort of way.

"I told him we´ll kill the wolves around him," Niemeyer said, "but I won´t kill B2."

Like almost every other rancher in Idaho, Nelson had opposed wolf reintroduction. In 2001, he and his association opposed anything but complete removal of wolves.

But that view was evolving. The Farm Bureau´s challenge to reintroduction was resolved. Two federal appeals courts had ruled the wolf program legal.

Williamson, the federal trapper, helicoptered up Fox Creek where B2 and B66 had their den, and saw the pack had just killed one of Nelson´s calves.

B2 had one of the calf´s legs in his mouth as he scurried away. Williamson was 20 feet away with dart gun in hand. Niemeyer was on the radio.

"I told Rick I didn´t want him shot," Niemeyer said.

Trappers caught one of B2´s female offspring and relocated her to Montana. The cattle killings apparently stopped.

"Everybody wanted to coddle the old boy, and I said I could accept that," Nelson said.

The next year, the Cattle Association reversed its position, becoming a major supporter of Idaho´s wolf management plan, which gave ranchers more power to kill wolves that killed their livestock. Nelson wrote newspaper columns calling on other wolf opponents to sign on.

"We can live with the wolves if we can manage the wolves," he said. "And we need to keep them wild so they are afraid of us."

When Nelson brought in his cattle from the range after the 2001 grazing season, he came up 21 head short . He lost four cattle in a normal year. He´s convinced the Wildhorse Pack cost him thousands of dollars that year .

"We don´t hate wolves," Nelson said. "We just don´t want them in our private lives."

Chapter 7

Ralph Maughan, the environmentalist

’They were howling ... above my tent’

Ralph Maughan has welcomed wolves into his life. The political science professor at Idaho State University is one of Idaho´s most prominent environmentalists. A former national Sierra Club board member, he is one of the founders of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a leading national voice for wolf reintroduction. His Web site provided regular updates on the wolves and the battles swirling in their wake.

He´s skeptical that B2´s kids deserve the blame for all of Nelson´s extra losses.

The year Nelson lost the cattle, Maughan said, he found four calves trapped behind a fence in the area and reported them to federal range managers. Ranchers lose livestock to more than wolves.

Maughan developed his own bond with B2.

In July 2000, he hiked up the East Fork of Fall Creek in the Pioneer Mountains. He found hundreds of antelope, elk, deer and moose in a small, wet canyon largely unaffected by the drought.

The moon lit the valley, shining off the backs of animals. Suddenly, B2 and the Wildhorse Pack came within several hundred yards of Maughan´s lonely camp.

"They were howling on a cliff above my tent," he said. "It went on for about five minutes. It was wonderful."

Chapter 8

B66, the mate

’He never quit looking’

Tragedy visited B2 in the winter of 2001-2002.

He and B66 had moved south out of Copper Basin up Muldoon Creek east of Carey, just north of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Williamson was flying another darting campaign to radio-collar more of the pack when he picked up B66´s signal.

It was in "mortality mode," a signal triggered by the wolf´s lack of movement.

A federal investigator later concluded B66 had been killed by an elk, Williamson said.

The Wildhorse Pack broke up. B2 began ranging far from his home, heading back to the places where he´d first met B66, the Stanley Basin and the East Fork of the Salmon River.

"When that female got killed, he was in search of where she went," Williamson said. "He never quit looking."

B2 still displayed remarkable stamina. One day Williamson found him in Copper Basin. The next day, Bangs found him in Muldoon Creek. B2 had covered more than 15 miles and climbed over a 10,000-foot mountain range.

Bangs was accompanied by ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and a video crew. The crew wanted to keep shooting, but Bangs ordered the helicopter to move on.

"If I was an old fart," he said, "I wouldn´t want anyone running me up and down the hills too long."

Near the end of 2002, B2 had moved back to the East Fork of the Salmon River.

That was the same area where Niemeyer and Williamson had killed an entire wolf pack, the Whitehawk Pack, because of repeated livestock losses to wolves.

The act triggered protests from all over the world.

Jennings´ special on Idaho´s wolf battles and the controversy over the Whitehawk Pack´s killing helped bring Idaho´s wolves out from the shadow of the Yellowstone wolves, which had dominated media coverage and government funding.

Idaho´s wolf population was 300 and growing. B2 and his counterparts were proving that Idaho -- despite ranchers, hunters and other threats -- was the safest place for wolves in the West.

"All along, Yellowstone politics has overshadowed everything," Bangs said. "I´ve always said Idaho habitat is the best place for reintroduction."

In December, B2 showed up in the corrals of an East Fork rancher. He left the livestock alone and remained the great survivor.

Chapter 9

Curt Mack, the biologist

’We affectionately referred to him as The Old Man’

Incredibly, in 2003 B2 found another mate and that spring had four more pups -- his second litter since Niemeyer had decided to let him live .

B2´s new Castle Peak Pack lived in the White Clouds, part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area where a federal judge had ordered -- after the Whitehawk Pack´s destruction -- special protection for wolves .

Curt Mack, the biologist who leads the Nez Perce wolf program, saw B2 several times in his frequent flights over the area.

"We affectionately referred to him as The Old Man," Mack said. "We were very careful not to run him. We didn´t want to stress him out."

In February of this year, USA Today called B2 "a Methuselah among wolves" in a story about the death of the last original Yellowstone wolf.

At 14, B2 had outlived all but perhaps one of the four Idaho wolves that spent their first 74 hours in the United States boxed up waiting for a judge to set them free.

Chapter 10

Rick Williamson, the wolf manager

’He lived the way a wolf ought to live’

This past February, tribal biologists were working in the headwater of Herd Creek, east of the East Fork, an area under consideration for wilderness protection by Republican Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson.

The biologists got bad news: B2´s collar was sending a mortality signal.

In April, Williamson tried to hike into Herd Creek to determine B2´s fate. He came within a half mile when a snow and hail storm forced him to return the five miles to his car. On the way back, he picked up a tick bite that sent him to the hospital for five days.

For Williamson, B2 remained a mystery.

"He lived the way a wolf ought to live, I guess," he said.

On April 16, Mack and Jon Trapp, a graduate student working with the tribe, hiked six miles through the rolling hills of Herd Creek. They found B2 in a grove of aspen .

The old wolf lay beside the remains of his last kill, a young fork-horn elk that the Castle Peak Pack had picked clean.

B2 had either been injured in the hunt or, as Mack suggested, just decided he would stay and pick at the carcass until he died.

"He was laying there just like he was taking a nap," Trapp said.

"I wouldn´t have been surprised if he had got up and walked away."