By Brittany Karford
The snap of cold steel on steel slices the air, breaking the silence in the Payette Mountain Range.
Jim Holyan instantly jumps backwards at the crack, then gently resets the steel-jaw foothold of the trap, his fingers dancing nervously around the pad set off under just 8 pounds of pressure.
?We use the same traps they used to wipe out wolves 100 years ago,? Holyan said, pulling the snare out of the ground by a trailing 5-foot chain and fishhook.
In 1907, the call was given by the USDA to exterminate the gray wolf. Now, in 2005, they have ordered the traps back ? this time to collar and release.
It?s one of the few methods they have to keep tabs on the predator, who can be more than elusive with 80,000 acres of wilderness to call home. Tracking is no small task, but the whereabouts of the North American Gray Wolf are crucial. As part of a statewide management plan for the wolves introduced to Central Idaho in 1995, it is Holyan?s job to find out how many wolves there are, where they?re at and how fast they?re reproducing.
There are at least 450 wolves roaming somewhere in Idaho?s expanse of forest. Each pack has an average territory of 350-400 square miles. Multiply that by 50-plus packs in Idaho, factor in that a wolf may travel up to 50 miles a day, and it becomes too much ground to cover on foot.
?It?s like trying to find a needle in a hayfield, not a haystack,? said Holyan, a wolf tracker with the Nez Perce Wolf Recovery Program.
With that, the engines of a Cessna 20G personal aircraft begin to roar outside McCall Aviation Center.
?Let?s go find us some doggies,? said Mike Dorris, pilot for the flight chartered to track wolves in Scott Valley. He pilots one of the last aerial mail and grocery routes in the country, but says the wolf routes are his favorite.
?I like keeping track of where they?re going and where they?ve been,? Dorris said.
Under the direction of Holyan?s agenda, which includes locating nine wolves, Dorris peaks at an altitude of 10,500 feet and heads into the backcountry.
From this height, the Payette National Forest in Northern Idaho looks like a sprawling ocean of green, each fir tree a blade of grass, every granite slab a fortress jutting out of the mountainside.
The plane will scour each range with hopes of passing over a collared wolf. Every collar transmits on a different frequency.
?I heard a beep,? said Holyan, pressing his face against the window.
Over scraggly reception a faint pulse is heard from the receiver.
?That meadow looks perfect for wolves,? he points. ?That?s where they?d be.?
In a series of stomach-jerking circles and figure eights, the plane drops down tighter and tighter to provide a more accurate location. The sudden dips are enough to make Holyan?s lunch rise.
?Five hours is the longest I?ve been up in the air,? he calls back over the headset. ?Any longer than that and I?m in the fetal position.?
At just 20 feet above the ground, all that can be seen in the meadow are two cows.
?I?ve heard cows and wolves don?t mix ? is that true?? Dorris jests.
Unfortunately, livestock and wolf relations are a primary concern for tracking.
?We?d just leave em? [the wolves] be, but livestock producers want to know where they?re at,? Holyan said.
After hours of combing the forest, the receiver in Holyan?s lap picks up the signal for the last on the list on the skirts of the valley ? the fringe where the ranches meet the hills.
?I didn?t want it to be in the valley,? Dorris said.
Holyan is silent. A wolf mingling around livestock is a dead wolf.
It?s a hard loss to swallow for Holyan and his team at the recovery program, who spend May through October chasing the wolves.
?You spend all summer hiking in after one wolf, and you finally get a collar on her and two days later she?s dead,? Holyan said. ?It makes me wonder what we?re doing out here.?
But his measurements hold the future for the gray wolf in the Northwest. In order for the wolf to be removed from the USDA Endangered Species act, 30 breeding pairs must be established and equitably distributed between Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
?Idaho is pulling its weight and more,? Holyan said, sprawling out on a couch to recover from the flight. ?It has 30 breeding pairs at this point in time, in and of itself enough to meet the entire recovery goal.?
The way the wolves have flourished over the last 10 years makes the recovery program?s job almost unmanageable.
?Seems like in the old days there were fewer packs, and we had more time to devote to each pack,? Holyan said. ?Now we have so many wolves ? and less of us ? as soon as we see two pups we move on to the next pack.?
The criteria for a pack is a breeding pair producing two pups, making the pup count the measure of wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region. At this point, it?s all Holyan is looking for.
?The fun part of sitting and watching behavior ? we can?t do that anymore,? he said.
Now its trap, collar, track and count. And it keeps Holyan on the move.
His summer schedule is 10 days out on a hitch, four days back in civilization, ratcheting up 15 or more hitches each season. This one brings him to Scott Valley.
Winding back on dirt roads as deep into the wilderness as possible, he stops his truck and softly shuts the doors.
?We?ll just howl these meadows and see what happens,? he said.
Sucking in a deep breath, Jim Holyan cups his mouth and sings out a long, deep howl in varying octaves. After a series of three calls, he pauses to listen. The echo rings off the surrounding mountains, then silence.
?There are no wolves within 500 miles of here,? he said, returning to his truck.
And if there were, they would have answered back. While Holyan said his howls are a foreign language to them, he gets an answer more often than not. He has heard choruses of wolves answer back all over the state.
?Issac has a very impressive howl,? he said of his cohort at the recovery program. ?He?s like an alpha male where as I am like a pup.?
The discouraging point is that the coordinates from the plane indicated an alpha female was in this valley just six hours ago. No matter ? he will pursue her in the morning by foot.
Holyan said he covers up to 25 miles a day hiking, confirmed by his wiry frame. Every mile or so he stops to raise his antenna in the air, turning in all directions while listening closely to his receiver.
?If you?re on top of a mountain you can pick up a signal from 10 miles away,? he said.
Getting the collar around its neck is a different story.
They?ve tried several methods, including dart guns and helicopter netting, but traps are the most successful ? though at 10 pounds each, the weight adds up fast on his pack.
To catch a wolf they create ?conspicuous scent post,? in high wolf-traffic areas, positioning wolf feces near a unique object in their environment.
?If a wolf?s goin? up and down here, it?s like, ?whoa, I gotta check that out,?? Holyan said.
Leaving as little human scent as possible, they dig a hole big enough for the trap near the post, cover it with dirt, and wait. Once the traps are set off, they transmit a signal to which they respond within 24 hours.
Offset or rubber clamps, a swiveling head and a trailing hook allow the trap to move with the animal and minimize harm or injury.
Still, Holyan said he has seen a wolf chew its own foot off to get free.
?Usually when a wolf is in a trap they are very submissive,? he said. ?They just don?t want people around.?
From there, they sedate and collar the wolf, taking blood samples to check for disease. They treat any injury the animal sustained in the trap, tag its ear and release it.
With a collared wolf they at least have a place to start tracking. Without it, they often must rely on sightings by ranchers.
?If we know where they are we are way ahead,? Holyan said. ?If not it can be a crap shoot.?
The best wolf to have collared is the alpha-female, because she is the only one in the pack to reproduce and will inevitably always return to her pups.
Holyan fondly remembers one alpha female, B22.
?Yeah, me and B22 had some good encounters,? he said.
Among numerous run-ins with B22, he staked out her den and waited eight hours for her to return. When the pack came back, he was able to observe undetected ? at least for a while.
?I could literally see her bust me,? he said. ?She knew something was up, she went on howling for 15 minutes.?
B22 died naturally three or four years ago, Holyan said, one of their lost collared wolves.
According to the 2004 Idaho Wolf Recovery Program Report, 70 wolf captures were made last year resulting in the radio-collaring of 56 wolves. Ideally, they aim for one from each pack.
From their counts, they can make projections of at least the minimum number of wolves out there.
?But how far off we are, we don?t know,? Holyan said. ?We?re falling behind and will continue to. In a way it?s not a bad thing ? it will reduce expectations.?
If the population continues to increase, it may no longer be feasible to monitor all of Idaho?s wolves.
Until then, Holyan and his colleagues will continue their summer season in the woods and winter season confined to the trailer from which the NPWRP operates.
?The hardest part about this job is the months spent in the office waiting for spring to come ? when the fun stuff slows down to nothing,? Holyan said. ?The best is to be out here in wolf country ? to touch one every once in a while ? and know how magnificent they are.?