Barker: Death of celebrity wolf may be an omen

Statesman environmental reporter writes confusing story about Wood River Valley and the wolf pack that lives there-

Barker: Death of celebrity wolf may be an omen. Idaho Statesman

Rocky Barker, who was written numerous books and articles about conservation, seems to have let some kind of barely suppressed animosity toward Idaho’s Wood River Valley motivate him to write what must be a clever article about the local wolf pack. Those who don’t know the area, however, might need some background.

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The Wood River Valley of south central Idaho is narrow stream valley beginning in the Boulder Mountains and widening out onto the Snake River Plain. Like most similar Idaho valleys it has a lot of wildlife. In this case even though parts of it are densely populated (by central Idaho standards) by people.

There are four towns. Bellvue, Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley. The upper reaches of the valley have few permanent residences because in the early 1970s, Idaho conservationists and green senators like Frank Church had set aside the headwaters of the Wood River as part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to be managed for recreation, scenery, open space, wildlife, and where compatible the grazing of livestock. Wildlife have the clear legal priority over livestock, and the Western Watersheds Project has won several lawsuits on the issue against the government who seemed to get confused about the law’s priorities.

The valley is well known because it is a destination and corridor for the outdoors oriented, and the development of Sun Valley Resort in the late 1940s began the building of amenities that attracted wealthy folks to the scenic valley. A number of famous, or celebrated people now visit or live in the valley part time. Others are just wealthy. Many people with more modest incomes also live in the valley, although real estate prices make it increasingly difficult like similar towns in the West.

Because urban developments directly abut undeveloped public land, much of it steep, wildlife has always been common in these towns, especially in the winter. You can hit a deer anywhere in these valley or maybe an elk. The well landscaped and leafy valley bottom is an attraction to wildlife despite the population, but then so is my neighborhood in much larger Pocatello, Idaho. The sighting of bears and cougar in these towns is not uncommon.

They find plenty to eat. Like Pocatello, local cougar and coyotes dine on pets as well as the deer and elk in the winter. In fact local folks feed the elk, guaranteeing that predators of the elk and deer will be nearby.

The Phantom Hill wolf pack inhabited the upper reaches of the valley beginning about 3 years ago. Their territory has always been adjacent to both sides of very well traveled State Highway 75, which bisects the upper as well as the lower parts of the valley. Many animals are hit on this highway, just like along every mountain road in Idaho. The wolf pack gets a fair amount of its food not by killing, but by eating road kill. So do other Idaho wolf packs. This means, of course, that wolves get hit too. Because one of the Phantom wolves getting run over was highly likely, I can’t see it as some kind of omen except it will happen again.

The Phantom Hill Pack was soon seen by many travelers and became a local attraction, something conservationists in Idaho have long hoped for (why should this just be reserved for Yellowstone Park?). Among these are Barker’s favorite conservation group, the Idaho Conservation League, whose proposals for some modest wolf watching areas in Idaho were rudely rejected by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.

Because this wolf pack has become a celebrity, Defenders of Wildlife (the environmental group he mentions) has spearheaded a summertime program to keep apart the resident wolves and domestic sheep that are trucked in from miles away and released into the the wolves’ habitat. The Wolf Recovery Foundation, of which I’m President, has also given some financial aide to this effort. The project  has been costly, and I find it irritating because these sheep graze our public lands essentially for free while our native wildlife are destroyed by loss of habitat, the bullet from government agents, and sheep diseases to maintain a few big sheep outfits which should accept the cost of predation as a business cost related to free grazing on these public lands. I will partially exempt one outfit — the Lava Lake Land & Livestock — which is quite progressive, from part of my criticism.

So yes, Rocky, as you write, “An environmental group is spending thousands of dollars to keep the wolves and the sheep separated. Imagine the costs to provide that service statewide to ranchers whose herds and flocks are not threatened by celebrity wolves.”

What you don’t say is this should be an unnessary “service.” But then too many in Idaho get used to paying livestock outfits twice while they harm the wildlife on our public lands. It’s so easy to get along, if you don’t challenge the powers that be.



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  1. Salle Avatar

    I have found, over several years of reading Mr. Barker’s writings, that he plays the role of “coyote” in his opinions and paid-for writings. By this I mean that he advocates for opposing “camps” when there is (perhaps) some hidden motivation. A schizophrenic opinionator, if you will. Some days he’s a friend and advocate of the conservationists ~ as the media calls them environmentalists I would like to be clear on the intentions of such groups ~ and then on other days Mr. Barker seems to be an advocate for the public lands abusers…

    Maybe he’s just living up to his namesake which originates from the carnival/circus “barker” who just tries to call attention to the latest attraction in town with the motivation of collecting funds from the unsuspecting public for profit by “announcing” an opinion that isn’t always well informed of the facts… Or maybe he just likes some facts and not others and serves only those he likes when convenient so he can get a “story” into print for the sake of earning his wages.

    Whichever it is, Mr. Barker appears to have no real grasp of the reality and travesty at hand that he continues to facilitate for the sake of earning wages as a writer.

  2. timz Avatar

    When it comes to wolves and their history in the recovery area the local media here in Boise is strangely clueless. I say it’s strange because they love to report stories about it on the ten o’clock news, write about it in the Statesman and even talk about on local radio but know one seems to really know much about it. When the Statesman endorsed Idaho’s management plan I had multiple e-mail conversations with the editor who wrote the editorial and she knew absolutely nothing about wolves, in fact hadn’t even read the plan. When a local news channel led with a story about a wolf killing a cow near Emmett I e-mailed the news director asking him how that could be important enough to be a lead story, I never heard them talk about coyotes and cougars that kill livestock. I swear this is the truth, his only response was “he didn’t know coyotes and cougars killed livestock.” A couple of months ago the topic on the local afternoon talk show was wolves and it almost seems like that was the first the host ever even heard of a wolf, he knew absolutley nothing about them and the history of the re-introduction and sounded like a total fool in trying to discuss it. I e-mailed him some suggested reading and all I got back was an e-mail from the program director saying it really wasn’t his job to know anything about all the subjects that come up on his show.

  3. jdubya Avatar

    Salle, you called Barker a “A schizophrenic opinionator, if you will.”. Oddly, though, he is schizo in the same piece. I read this three times and could not figure out just what exactly he was trying to say. Famous people shouldn’t have dogs? I dunno…The larger scope of things is that the more trophy homes get built up canyons and hillsides in places like Ketchum the more the wildlife will intermingle with people, and the better the chance the meat eaters will be ambling down the streets at dusk.

    What is wrong with that?

  4. Maska Avatar

    Barker’s piece is so disjointed and shallow that it sounds as if he must have come up against his deadline with nothing ready and cranked it out at the last minute. Jdubya is right–parts of the article are incomprehensible, even after you read Ralph’s excellent discussion of the background.

  5. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Some people should not write in newspapers.

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar

    I’ve seen the Phantoms on many occasions – WWP, Lynne Stone & our volunteers “tweet” what they’re doing (you may have noticed the Phantom’s tweets on the sidebar) to try to spread awareness about wolves & generate interest – to bring it to being about wolves – rather than focusing on ranchers or hunters which i think too often ends up the case.

    I will say however, I agree with Rocky on this :

    Imagine the costs to provide that service statewide to ranchers whose herds and flocks are not threatened by celebrity wolves.

    These guys should be paying for this themselves – especially on our public lands. We can make it happen.

  7. Salle Avatar

    I must agree that the article is disjointed but if you read Mr. Barker’s writing through time, it is the same as this article, which is a good example of his entire reporting history as far as I can tell.

    It appears the his loyalty to his job within the corporate media regime is what matters most. If this type of trashy reporting, with no actual knowledge of the subject matter and sns objectivity, it’s just another facet of faux news netwerks. It doesn’t serve the public as news services once did and were originally meant to do and the public will never learn what is really happening in their world perpetuating the know nothing short attention-span mindset. And that is precisely what the corporate media intends.

  8. Lynne Stone Avatar

    The the record, to date there have been three Phantom Hill wolves hit on Highway 75 north of Ketchum. A yearling female in May 2008 on Phantom Hill, a pup-of-the-year hit near Galena Lodge in October, and now Papa, killed as he crossed the highway near Baker Creek. That creek and the Big Wood River were roaring at the time from all the rain, and Saturday night was extremely rainy. The wolf likely never heard the vehicle.

    Several times recently I have chased other Phantoms off the road, as they sniff around road kill (which the Highway Dept usually picks up quickly), or are just crossing from the Boulders to the Smoky Mountains.

    10,000 sheep in four bands will start arriving tomorrow. I am full of dread for what this means to the Phantom wolves, despite efforts of Defenders hazers. The wolves are ranging far and wide, often in pairs or even alone. An army is needed to protect the Phantoms, for that matter, the Basin Butte wolves and all other Idaho wolves. The best way to scare off wolves is with gunfire, and that is not allowed in the Defenders program. Others of us, however, are not confined by this rule. Nor are we paid by anyone.

  9. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Lynne, that is good that you and Defenders are hazing the wolves. I hope that they will stay safe and stay out of trouble.

  10. timz Avatar

    A pack of five wolves has been hanging out recently at the landfill (dump) about 4 miles outside Idaho City. Not good news.

  11. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Timz, that kind of habituation is dangerous. It gets bad with bears all the time. How big of a town is Idaho City?

  12. timz Avatar

    About 500 people, rural between Boise and Stanley. People are already in a panic over it.

  13. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    I can only imagine the panic people are in. While I think most fears are unwarranted I do think that Fish and Game needs to relocate these wolves fast.

  14. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Is that area considered outside of the wolves’ established range?

  15. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    No. It is clearly in the established range of the wolves for a number of years now, but wolves at any dump are like grizzlies at a dump. That’s how they become dangerously unwary of people and maybe aggressive.

  16. Salle Avatar

    I wonder what factor at these dumps is attracting them. Is it just the smell or are the dumps unsecured?

    In most rural places there are large transfer containers and high fencing surrounding the containers and the ramps, like loading docks, above them to keep wildlife out. Or are people just dumping road kill and the like inside the area?

  17. timz Avatar

    We have had wolves around Idaho City for years, I have seen them in the meadow right across the road from my house, and have heard them at night. They have large transfer containers and the landfill is kept relatively neat (if you can ever call a landfill neat) but not much to keep wildlife out.

  18. Jon Way Avatar

    They could have pups in that area and simple hazing or disturbing the area might move them? They don’t seem to be a danger based on reports…

  19. timz Avatar

    So far they have not bothered anyone but they have been seen at the dump in broad daylight. It is only opened two days a week. They may be the same pack that killed a dog near Centerville a year or so ago. Centerville is just a few miles away.

  20. Maska Avatar

    While they may not now be a danger, they may be putting themselves IN danger by hanging around where they are easy pickings for poachers. Encouraging them to move on would be doing them a service, I imagine.

    Then the town powers-that-be might look into ways of making the landfill less of a wildlife magnet. If wolves are attracted, what other critters may follow?

  21. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Build a fence around the dump. That is what Churchill, Manitoba did to keep the polar bears out of their dump. Shooting at wolves to haze them will only condition the wolves to ignore the sound of gunfire. It is also against the law.

  22. timz Avatar

    They do have a fence around it but one of the entrances is only a cable streched across it.

  23. Lynne Stone Avatar
    Lynne Stone

    Shooting at wolves is not against the law in Idaho to scare or even kill it, if a wolf is thought to be doing something like worrying you or your pet or livestock, or laying in wait, or following , or any of the other conditions that state statute 36-1107 says. This has been discussed at length several times on this blog.

    Back in 2000 or 2001, when the Landmark Pack was one of the more well known Idaho packs, there were some wolves hanging out at the Challis dump, that we dubbed the “Landfill Pack”. They got scared away with gunfire, I recall.

    Roadkill and dead farm animals are hauled to landfills – that’s why the wolves are attracted there.

  24. Rocky Barker Avatar

    First I say, Lighten up. This column was meant to poke fund at the concept of a wild creature that grows to celebrity status. As Ralph and others know I know and understand the history of wolves in Idaho as well or better than most. I like the idea of having wolves available for viewing. The SNRA is a good places for this but because people did not choose to make it a national park it will take a compromise with the ranchers that were clearly protected in the legislation to get the situation needed.

    When wolves get habituated they are no longer wild and we might as well go see them in a zoo. At that point our interests in being near them become senior to their interest to live wild.

    My job is to call it like I see it and sometimes I praise conservationists and sometimes I criticize them. It has nothing to do with corporate journalism its just me.

    Sorry for the delay. I just got off the Middle Fork where I bumped into hikers who came down Camas Creek thanks to a useful guide book.

    The only way to protect wolves from cars, is to remove the roadkill that attracts them to roads.

  25. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    Thanks for responding.

    I believe the SNRA was written in part to protect pastoral open space, and at the time that partially implied livestock operators (ranchers) because they were the most obvious users of the pastoral open space.

    However, the SNRA organic act also made the protection of wildlife a higher priority than the protection of individual cows, sheep, or bands of them. I should get out the legislation and read it again, but it is late as I write this.

    “Habituated” wolves is not really an exact description. Wolves might be in the habit of seeing people without being alarmed. Most of the northern range wolves of Yellowstone are that way, but they are wild animals. The same seems to be partially true of the Phantom Hill wolves.

    A wolf that begs or tries to take food from people is quite a different form of habituation which cannot be tolerated even though it is not likely the wolf began the unfortunate process.

    I have not heard that the Phantom Hill Pack approaches people. They live out their lives with indifference to us, rather than fear of humans. Of course, that will get them killed this hunting season if not before.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan