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July 29, 2008

Big Wood River Valley Project

Dogs and fladry guard grazing sheep
Livestock Guard Dogs (LGD) and fladry guard grazing sheep

Earlier in July, I headed up to Sun Valley, Idaho, to visit one of our proactive projects in the area. This is the Big Wood River Valley project that we have been discussing on this blog for the last month, and this was my first trip to the project site since it began last month. I met up with two of our field technicians, Cindi and Justin, as well as one of the sheep foremen and an officer from the Forest Service. We discussed the progress of the project, what the wolf activity was, and where the herders were planning on moving the sheep to next. Open communication between everyone involved in this project is essential to making sure that the sheep producers, state and federal agencies and field techs are all on the same page.

Justin, one of our field technicians, was able to get a good telemetry reading from this rocky perch
Justin, one of our field technicians, was able to get a good telemetry reading from this rocky perch

Justin and I drove up Oregon Gulch, one of the many such drainages in the project area. As we reached the top, we turned off the dirt road, parked the car and started our hike in. We were weighed down with all of our camping gear as well as carrying telemetry gear, GPS equipment, scare-devices and spotlights. We found a rocky outcrop which gave us a good view of the surrounding area, which also gave us a tree-free area where we could get a good telemetry signal from the wolves. In most packs in Idaho there is at lest one individual that has been trapped, darted and collared. This collar allows agency people find the wolf easier, and as wolves are pack animals one usually finds the whole pack. These collars send out a signal that can be picked up by someone with telemetry equipment. In the Phantom Hill pack there are two individuals out of the eight that have collars, and it is these wolves that we can listen for with the telemetry.

Great Pyrenees to guard sheep from predators
Great Pyrenees to guard sheep from predators

Sitting on the outcrop we did not pick up any signal from either wolf. This meant that they were a good distance away, or that they were over the ridge or in the woods, both of which would dampen the signal. As we scanned the area for signals, we caught sight of the sheep band that we would be protecting that night. It is hard to describe the sight of 2500 sheep being herded up the steep and rocky slopes that central Idaho is famous for. In amongst the sheep were the dogs, a few border collies to herd the sheep, and a few Great Pyrenees to guard sheep from predators.

 Jesse Timberlake talking with one of the Peruvian sheep herders
This is me, Jesse Timberlake, talking with one of the Peruvian sheep herders

The two herders, both from Peru, looked equally impressive as they maneuvered their way up the treacherous slopes perched upon their horses. We chatted to the herders in our broken Spanish about how the sheep were doing, where they planed to bed that night, and if they had seen any sign of wolves lately. The wolves had not been seen in the last couple of days, although before that Justin had snapped some photos of wolves just a stone’s throw from the band during dusk. This is certainly wild country, not only are there wolves and coyotes in the area, but Justin had seen five black bears in the last two days. Because of this we decided to buy some bear spray, just in case.

Sheep graze on a slope at sunsetSheep graze on a slope at sunset

As dusk turned to night we waited until the sheep bedded down for the night before making camp. During the night we took turns to check the telemetry equipment for wolf signals, and to walk around the sheep band, making sure all was quiet. Every now and then one of the guard dogs would start barking at something in the night, although this would usually only last a few minutes before they were quiet, and we could relax again. It was a quiet night and in the morning the herders came by to check up on us and to start moving the sheep again. We did not get any signals from the wolves that night; it seemed that they stayed on the other side of the valley. So another night in wolf country, with both the wolves and the sheep out of danger. This is just one night of many that our field crews are spending out in the Idaho back country, using non-lethal deterrents and proactive strategies to try and keep the wolves and the sheep apart.

Keep checking this blog for more news from the field, as well as other wolf news from the northern Rockies.

Here's just one for the photo album: Livestock Guard Dog... in training?

Puppy playing in fladry

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