March 20, 2009

Backcountry Specialist - An Interview with Francie St. Onge of Sun Valley Trekking

Francie St. Onge Portrait by Sun Valley Trekking

Francie St. Onge has guided wilderness expeditions throughout the inter-mountain west and Alaska.
(Photo: Sun Valley Trekking)

Interview with Francie St. Onge, from Sun Valley trekking, a group that leads backcountry trips in the midwest, Alaska, and Chile.

Bio: Francie St. Onge hails originally from Minnesota, where some say she skied out of the womb. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Forestry-Resource Conservation at the University of Montana in 1995. Since then, she has guided wilderness expeditions throughout the inter-mountain west and Alaska, Co-founded a winter environmental education program in Crested Butte, Colorado, and worked as a naturalist in Denali National Park. Francie completed an MS degree in Recreation Resources-Environmental Education at Utah State University. Chief guide for SVT’s Chix programs.

How long have you been an outfitter/How long have you been running Sun Valley Trekking?

My husband Joe and I took over Sun Valley Trekking in December of 2000, so we are in our ninth season.  Sun Valley Trekking was started in 1982, so our backcountry hut system has been in place for over 25 years.

What other places do you travel to with Sun Valley Trekking?

Sun Valley Trekking operates 6 backcountry huts and yurts in Idaho, as well as does quite a lot of local guiding. We also operate in Yellowstone National Park, offering mulit-day sea-kayaking trips on the lakes, and backpacking trips. We also run ski expeditions in the St. Elias Range of Alaska, and Chile.

Why did you decide to settle in Idaho?

We have lived all up and down the Rocky Mountain states, but when we hit Idaho we realized we could spend out whole lives here and never see it all. We also moved here for the purpose of taking over Sun Valley Trekking.

Ridgetop view

The wolf tour participants near the summit of Butterfield Mountains, with the Boulder Mountains in the background.

(Photo: Jesse Timberlake)

What is your background with wolves?

Wolves have been a life-long interest. But specifically I worked as a naturalist in Denali National Park, giving educational programs on wolves and predator-predator interactions. I also had the good fortune to be able to accompany a biologist in the Park to assist in behavioral research on the Park wolves.

The wolves of Yellowstone have become famous, and there are great viewing opportunities to be had there. Could Idaho have similar opportunities to view wolves?

We do not have a viewing resource like the Lamar Valley, but when wolves are “in the neighborhood” it is possible to see them, and their “signs”, not too far off the road.  So far, we have had several sightings on our trips.  So, I believe Idaho is our best option to be able to see wolves in the wild.

Wolf tracks

Wolf Tracks: evidence that wolves were here last night.

(Photo: Jesse Timberlake)

Do you see the fledgling wolf tourism industry growing in Idaho?

Yes. Provided there are areas available to view wolves that provide adequate habitat, and an adequate population of wolves.

In what ways have you observed wolves benefiting the area since their re-introduction?

I have had guests specifically request to learn about wolves, so I believe it could be a draw for visitors to our area who are interested in viewing and learning about wildlife.  So, since recreation is an important source of income for Idaho, I believe the presence of wolves could help our economy.  Wolves also serve a very important ecological role as a wildlife species.  Having the historic and natural big predators helps to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem.  Maintaining an intact ecosystem is an important objective for our land managers, and for any area.

Anything else you'd like to add? 


July 18, 2008

Where the Wild Things Were - An Interview with Author William Stolzenburg

Will Stolzenburg Portrait by Kathy Stolzenburg

William Stolzenburg, author of Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators

Will Stolzenburg Portrait by Kathy Stolzenburg

Congratulations on your new book, "Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators" and thank you for taking time for this interview.

In your book, you describe how the disappearance of the world's great predators has led to devastating affects on ecosystems around the world. Can you highlight one of the examples for us?

The disappearance of the wolf from America. Not so long ago, this country was roamed coast to coast by wolves. Now they're just a few pushpins on the nation's map. We all but obliterated them, for reasons not well considered.

Sixty-five years ago, Aldo Leopold was warning that there were ecological repercussions from the killing, that deer and elk were amassing in destructive numbers, and that they in turn were wrecking the range.

Now we have scientists repeating Leopold's warning, with strong new data, the worst of it coming from our national parks and preserves. We have floral inventories dropping by dozens of species over the past fifty years, we have statewide tracts of timber no longer regenerating for too many deer. We have streamside groves being denuded and trampled by elk and deer, losing birds, butterflies, frogs, and fish. We have a horrific epidemic of Lyme disease, carried by what was once called the deer tick. We have deer crashing through our windshields and driving us into trees, killing upwards of two hundred of us every year. In our suburban woods and backyards we have epidemics of little predators—raccoons and foxes, opossums and housecats—and songbirds vanishing by the many millions. I could go on.

Nobody is seriously claiming that these plagues spring solely from the disappearance of wolves—or cougars, to name another top predator that's missing over much of its former range. Backyard America has become a smorgasbord for urban wildlife. We plant flowers and shrubs and clear land to their liking, we leave pet food on the back porch and garbage in the carport. But one point to consider: While it's become all too easy to find the deer and the little predators running amok wherever the big predators are missing, you won't find them doing so anyplace where wolves and cougars still hold sway.

Few people have heard about the important role played by major carnivores.  What led you to focus on these species?

For so long, so much of the campaign for conservation has focused on the more blatant assaults on nature: the cutting and paving of forests and wildlands, the draining of wetlands and fouling of seas. I was inherently more interested in the denizens of those damaged ecosystems, and how the individual lives and livelihoods were altered by the upheavals. And it turns out a few ecologists were particularly curious too.

I was lucky enough to come upon the work of some of these scientists early on, when the idea was just beginning to blossom that the loss of certain species—keystone species they've come to call them—could trigger ecological cascades that tumble through the food chain. And it so happened that some of the creatures most readily identified for these keystone powers were those big, fierce, and rare creatures at the top of the heap. As much as I've dedicated myself to championing the little and the unsung creatures in my career as a wildlife journalist, there's always been that special fascination for the big predators and their profession. And the recent discoveries of their inordinate ecological powers has made them all the more fascinating.


Why should people care about biodiversity and the balance of these ecosystems?

I suppose I should answer here with the familiar rollout of utilitarian products and services that a balanced diversity of life provides—as buffer against outbreaks of pest and plague, as food for our stomachs, medicines for our ills.

But it's a mistake to discount the softer rewards, the benefits of the mind. The sheer fascination and yes, fear, that comes from living with and learning from the dizzying array of lifeforms—some of which occasionally make meat of us. There's a good argument to be made that the big and dangerous beasts made us who we are today. For most of our first million years, they inspired us and challenged us, made us wiser and stronger. Only in the last couple centuries have we been going it alone, as sole superpredator of the Earth. We've only just begun this worldwide experiment. It's anybody's guess how we're going to fare. But that's an answer we won't know until it's too late. And given the discouraging signs so far, I'm not very comfortable with the gamble.

What can citizens do to help protect these species?

Give them a break.

The big predators are missing because we kill them. And if we're not shooting them outright, we're strangling the life out of their habitats and livelihoods. As amazing as it might sound, there remain places in this country still big enough and wild enough and meaty enough to support populations of wolves and cougars (and yes, jaguars) where they haven't roamed for nearly a century. And yet we resist and delay, while those special places shrink out of sight. In some cases, all it would take to jumpstart a new population would be to truck a few individuals across a state line or two.

In some cases, the predators have shown themselves able and willing to do the work for us, if we would let them. Over the last few years we've seen a wolf from Yellowstone make its way to the Colorado Rockies, only to be hit by a car on Interstate 70. It's harder to imagine any making it that far now, what with Wyoming lawmakers lately inviting their citizens to shoot wolves on sight. Last April, a cougar that may have come from the Black Hills of South Dakota wandered eight hundred miles to Chicago, where of course it was executed.

This is not to suggest inviting wolves into our sheep pens, or turning cougars loose in Chicago. But there does remain room where the great predators could still fit, if society just made a few reasonable concessions. And time is wasting.

For more about William, read his bio at

June 19, 2008

Spotlight On: Larry Thorngren

Larrysheepshort700 A professional nature photographer, Larry Thorngren has spent many years studying animals.  One of his favorite is the North American Bighorn Sheep.  He did range studies for, and helped trap, wild bighorns in Canada for transplantation into central Idaho.  In the ensuing years wild sheep all over North American, and other animals, seem to find him irresistable as you'll see when you look at his photo galleries.

Enthusiasts worldwide including those from North America, Europe, and Japan have purchased and collected his photos.  He has been published in Italy, Australia and New Zealand in addition various publications in the United States.

During his spare time Larry spent 21 years teaching science and photography in the Idaho school system.  Many of his biology students have been inspired to go into careers in the natural sciences.

Larry was kind enough to answer the below questions for us:

Q). Some people believe that supporting a future for wolves and being a hunter are mutually exclusive. You were a hunter, yet you also support wildlife conservation -- how do the two go hand-in-hand?

A). I was interested in wildlife long before I was a hunter or a photographer. Carnation Corn Flakes cereal had Audubon Bird Cards included in the package when I was in grade school.  I ate a lot of corn flakes to get all of the cards. I knew most of the numerous species of birds on our Eastern Idaho farm near the Snake River by the age of 10.

For me, hunting or photography are reasons to get out of doors and observe wildlife.  Taking game or getting a good photo is simply a bonus to an enjoyable day in the wild.  My fondest memories have something to do with experiencing wildlife in action.

Q). How did you first become interested in shooting wildlife photography?

A). I photographed plants and animals to use for slide shows while teaching High School Biology  for 20 years in the Boise, Idaho School District.  I won National Wildlife Magazine's Photo Contest in 1980 and it was a natural progression to start selling some of my better photos.

Q). What is it - in your opinion - about wolves in this country that make people so passionate on both sides of the divide?

A). I think many of the anti-wolf people are actually afraid of wolves and other predators.  You get the same anti-predator response from them if you suggest putting Grizzlies back in Idaho Wilderness Areas. Pro-wolf people are more likely to be advocates for all wildlife, but some of them get very possessive and tend to think they own the wolves and seem to resent photographers or hunters who might get close to "their" wolves. 

For some reason, wolves invoke a response from some rather extreme folks from both sides of the issue. I am more of a moderate on wolves and don't fully understand what triggers such intensity. 

Q). How would you like to see wolves managed in the Northern Rockies?

A). I support a biological approach to wolf management. I think there is a middle ground between the "Shoot,Shovel and Shutup" crowd that wants all wolves removed and the "Save Every Wolf" bunch on the other end.  I would like hunting seasons set after proper biological data is collected .  The Idaho Fish and Game Commisioners set this years' wolf kill quota higher than that recommended by their own biologists. Emotional and political input seemed more important than biological assessment.

The wolf introduction has been a remarkable success and proper scientific management will insure wolves thrive in the Northern Rockies from now on.

Q). What is your favorite photo that you have taken of a wolf - and may we see it?

Hayden_pack_larry_thorngren_6353 A). I like my photo of the Hayden Pack pursuing elk in Yellowstone that I took just one day before they were decimated by the Mollie's Pack. IMG# 6353 - The image on the website is of a low resolution and doesn't do justice to the enlarged print I sell of it, but shows the wolves closeup and personal as they run along with the elk.

Q). Why do you believe that establishing a wolf viewing area is important in Idaho?

A). Wildlife viewers outnumber hunters by 3 to 1 in Idaho and other western states.  Wolves look their best in late fall at the same time that hunters are out in the field. There are open meadows in Bear Valley and near Ketchum that would ideal places for the non-hunting public to observe and photograph wolves. If all of Idaho is open to hunting wolves, the wolves will be so gun-shy that the opportunity for wildlife watchers to see wolves at close range just won't happen.


Get Connected with Defenders

  • Add to Technorati Favorites     Join My Community at MyBloglog!
  • My Zimbio     Environmental Activism Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory