Last weekend Defenders of Wildlife, along with Idaho Conservation League under the Western Wolf Coalition, sponsored a Wolf Habitat Tour in the Sawtooth National Forest. We met up at the coffee shop at 7:30 that morning. It was still dark due to the daylight savings time change the week before. The leader of the trip, Francie St. Onge from Sun Valley Trekking made sure we were all there before heading out into the hills surrounding Ketchum. Our first stop was Greenhorn Gulch. We parked our cars at first light and started to scan the area for wildlife. As the morning fogs lifted we could see that the hills were covered in elk. In the spotting scope we estimated there must have been at least 200 elk visible from the road. We did not see any wolves in the vicinity at that time but we did see some wolf tracks near the side of the road and so decided to follow them. The tracks must have been fresh, as snow had not filled them in yet. The tracks led to the base of the hill were we discovered the remains of an elk. Apparently this elk had been killed a couple days ago according to the locals, and in that time the area wolves had reduced the elk to a bunch of hair. Surrounding the kill site were numerous wolf tracks and scat. As Francie explained the details of an elk kill site, a number of locals came over and started asking questions about wolf and elk ecology, obviously they were very interested in what was happening in their own backyards.
Our next stop was Anderson Creek, where the snowshoe trip was to begin. By now the sun had come out, the clouds had parted and it was turning into a beautiful day. We strapped on our snowshoes and our sunglasses and headed off into the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. This is one of the most beautiful places in Idaho if not the country. The Big Wood River Valley is surrounded by the Boulder Mountains to the north, and by the Sawtooth National Forest to the south; a mix of rugged mountain peaks and open valley bottoms that is host to many large animals including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer wolverine, fisher and of course the wolf. We headed to the base of Butterfield Mountain where the Boulder Yurt was, our destination for lunch. For those of you who do not know what a Yurt is, it is a circular, domed tent used by nomadic peoples of Mongolia. We climbed up the slopes with Francie leading the way until we got to the yurt. Chase, one of the Sun Valley Trekking interns, had already fired-up the wood burning stove and the yurt was toasty warm. As we sat down to our lunches, Francie gave a wonderful presentation on wolf biology and ecology. Francie worked as a naturalist in Denali National Park, and has had many firsthand experiences with wolf packs in the wild.
After lunch we headed to the top of Butterfield Mountain, from where we could see the Boulder Mountains stretching off into the distance, and the whole of the Big Wood River Valley. We then snowshoe’d down the mountain back to our cars and the day was over.
A 2006 study by John Duffield, showed that Yellowstone wolves brought $35 million dollars to the region annually. The success of this tour shows that people in Idaho are willing to travel across the state, and spend money to watch wolves in Idaho’s wild areas. Everyone on this trip enjoyed themselves immensely. Just the fact that we were snowshoeing in a beautiful part of Idaho, knowing that there were wolves in the vicinity, made the trip that much more exiting. Idahoans are enjoying the opportunity to watch wolves in their natural habitat, something that they have not been able to do for over 70 years. Hopefully this is the start of a fledgling wolf tourism industry here in Idaho.