Tracking wolves in the Sawtooths

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I have a good friend who is a wildlife biologist for the BLM in Boise. Last month he was backpacking in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, at an area he has visited many times, and came across some wolf tracks. He had never seen tracks in this southern part of the wilderness area. He borrowed a couple trail cameras from his colleagues in Fish and Game and returned to set up the cameras at a couple locations along the trail. He invited me to go with him to retrieve the cameras and see what they caught, and to hopefully see some wolves.

Last weekend my oldest and youngest sons, Kai and Lars, along with my wife drove up to Mike’s house in boise. My wife would spend the weekend with Mike’s wife Kristiana. We were friends and neighbors years ago when Mike was studying at BYU. We drove up on Thursday night, then headed to the trailhead on Friday morning. It was unusually warm for this time of year. We headed up a drainage on the southern end of the Sawtooths.

Setting out from the Queens River Trailhead.
Setting out from the Queens River Trailhead.
Sawtooth Wilderness Area, Idaho.
Sawtooth Wilderness Area, Idaho.

Within a couple miles we found wolf tracks in the mud along a creek. One track was a large adult track. We were all pretty excited about this.

An adult wolf track. Notice how big it is. The track begins beyond Mike's fingers.
An adult wolf track. Notice how big it is. The track begins beyond Mike’s fingers.

A couple miles further up the trail, Kai and Lars were out front and heard a low barking, quite a few times. When Mike and I caught up to them, Mike said this is how wolves warn each other of danger. So we were pretty sure wolves were in the area. Along the way we came across the remains of a blue grouse, which consisted of a pile of feathers. Of course, wolves are not the only predators out there that might take a grouse.

Crossing the Little Queens River.
Crossing the river.

About five and half miles up the trail we retrieved the first trail camera, and about 7 miles up retrieved the second one.

Trail camera low on the tree to Mike's right.
Trail camera low on the tree to Mike’s right.
Lars, happy to be in wolf country.
Lars, happy to be in wolf country.
Kai, always happy in the mountains.
Kai, always happy in the mountains.
Mike, our intrepid guide.
Mike, our intrepid guide.

We hiked around seeing other wolf tracks along the trail and at a water hole just off the trail.

More wolf tracks, likely a pup.
More wolf tracks, likely a pup.

We hiked back down the trial a mile or so and found a place to camp on a sand bar near a small river. This area burned in a large wildfire back in the summer of 2012, so all the trees were charred, but there was brush and small aspens growing around.

Camp along the Little Queens River.
Camp along the river.
Camping in the burn area.
Camping in the burn area.
Burned forest.
Burned forest.

After setting up camp, we pulled the SD card from the upper camera, put it into Mike’s camera and began going through the photos. These cameras are mounted to a tree and are triggered by motion and heat. They also have a flash that cannot be detected by animals. During daylight hours the photos are in color, but at night they are black and white. The anticipation built as we flipped through the photos. We saw a mountain goat, lots of deer, elk, coyotes, then wolves.

The first animal we saw on the SD card.
The first animal we saw on the SD card.
A white weasel.
A white weasel.
There were lots of deer and some elk.
There were lots of deer and some elk.
Several coyotes showed up, which are much smaller than wolves.
Several coyotes showed up, which are much smaller than wolves.

 

 

First one, then two, three, four. In all we counted eight wolves, two adults and six pups, undoubtedly born in Spring of this year. It was really exciting seeing these photos. They had come through just ten days before and again six days before we got there. Mike had buried some meat out in front of the camera as well spread some wolf urine and coyote anal gland scent. The wolves in the photos were obviously interested in the area sniffing around, rolling in the scent, and generally horsing around. Unfortunately, the lower camera and been knocked loose and was pointing down toward the ground so it didn’t catch much. The most interesting thing on that camera was a white weasel.

Finally, wolves.
Finally, wolves.
A group of pups, most likely born in the Spring.
A group of pups, most likely born in the Spring.
Th wolf on the left is one of the pups, though it is bigger than most dogs.
Th wolf on the left is the alpha female.
Compare this adult with the pup in the photo above. This is a really large adult wolf.
On the left is the alpha male, quite a bit a larger than the female above.

Though it has been quite warm during the day, probably in the upper 70’s, it dropped down into the low thirties that night. After we had set up camp and eaten dinner, Mike and I took a bath in the river. It was bracingly cold but felt very refreshing after sweating all day hiking up the trail. After dark we hiked down the trail about a mile and tried to call in the wolves with some howling. Mike has been successful in the past with howling and getting wolves to respond. No such luck for us, but it was fun out there in the dark howling. We did get some coyotes to respond though.

We enjoyed a couple games of mountain Yatzee, a tradition with Mike’s family. He said normally they play on a slab of granite, but there was no granite around where we were, so we pulled off a slab of bark from a charred tree and had a nice big half-pipe-like board, about two feet long and a foot wide. It made for a nice playing board. It was pretty chilly sitting in the cold sand and was nice to climb into our warm sleeping bags.

Mountain Yatzee.
Mountain Yatzee.

It was cold during the night but we all stayed nice and warm. After breakfast we began hiking out. Along the way, we howled a few times but didn’t get a response. Mike later talked with the wolf biologist in charge of that area and she said that wolves howl less in the autumn and won’t howl when they are stressed and since it was hunting season with lots of people around, she said it was no surprise we didn’t hear any howling. It was a nice hike out with cloud cover and cooler temperatures than the day before. On the way out, we placed one of the cameras in another location along the trail. Mike will go back to retrieve it in a couple weeks. We also noticed what looked like fresh tracks along the trail on the hike out. These very well could have been made the night before.

Mounting another camera in a different location.
Mounting another camera in a different location.
Trail camera.
Trail camera.
Fresh puppy tracks; pretty big for a puppy.
Fresh puppy tracks; pretty big for a puppy.
Hiking out.
Hiking out.
Late blooming Indian paintbrush.
Late blooming Indian paintbrush.

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Even though we didn’t hear or see any wolves we were feeling pretty stoked about what we did find. The wolf biologist said that since it was hunting season they would not attempt to go in a trap a couple wolves and collar them; they will wait until spring.  The plan is for us to go back in May and put out a couple more cameras so they can go in during June and trap and collar a couple animals. We may also borrow a radio and go in and do a pup count by tracking the collared wolves in a different pack and observing the puppies at their rendevous site. There are several active wolf packs in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area.

On the way home we stopped at the Pine Flat hot springs that we visited in August during our bike tour. We had a nice soak in the pools below the waterfall. An enormous plate of nachos in Crouch, ID at the Dirty Shame Cafe concluded our trip.

Wading through the very cold South Fork of the Payette River.
Wading through the very cold South Fork of the Payette River.
Pine Flat hot springs.
Pine Flat hot springs.
Kai taking a wilderness hot shower.
Kai taking a wilderness hot shower.
Dirty Shame Cafe nachos.
Dirty Shame Cafe nachos.

It was my first time backpacking in Idaho and it certainly won’t be the last. The drainage we were in was not as picturesque as it might have been because of the burn, but the ruggedness of the area appealed to me. It was really nice of Mike to invite us out, and I’m glad he had these connections to make this possible. Mike and I went on several backpacking trips together back in the mid-nineties in the Uintas Wilderness Area, usually with groups of boy scouts.

I’m really looking forward to going back in the spring.

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