Danny Wise got a good look at the charcoal-colored carnivore just 25 yards away.
It was a wolf.
“Definitely, a wolf,” said the Priest River man.
The waist-high, 100-pound animal was in North Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains, far away from the controversial wolf relocation project taking place in central Idaho.
Wise spotted the endangered species two months ago while hunting near Priest Lake. The wolf was running toward him, its nose to the ground, chasing a scent. Wise had to clap his hands to get its attention.
“She stopped, looked at me for a second and then split. The size of her tracks was incredible,” he said.
Wildlife biologists say gray wolves have roamed North Idaho’s wilderness for at least six years. One has even been tracked in the Clearwater National Forest near Orofino.
The Panhandle wolf sightings make the battle over relocating the beasts to central Idaho seem all the stranger.
If wolves are already making inroads here, why fly 15 of them down from Canada to drop into the wilderness of central Idaho.
“The idea is to help the wolf populations recover more quickly and get them off the Endangered Species list,” said Ted Koch, a Boisebased wolf recovery biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The quicker they recover, the quicker we can delist them. That’s the object.”
It’s not a goal shared by lawmakers. Legislators tried this week to stop the transplant into central Idaho, as did U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho. Their efforts were futile. Four wolves were released Saturday afternoon.
The public knows little about the wolf sightings in Idaho’s Panhandle.
Some biologists say it might be best to leave it that way after the uproar to stop the relocation program.
Some people fear land use restrictions will follow the wolves. Koch says that won’t happen in the Panhandle or central Idaho. He points to wolf management in Montana as an example.
“We have yet to restrict access to one square inch of land in northwest Montana because of the wolves,” he said. “All we have to do to recover wolves is not kill them. It’s almost that easy.”
Tell that to North Idaho residents who have seen gates go up to protect grizzly bear habitat and areas restricted because of the endangered woodland caribou.
“I suspect we have had many more wolf sightings than have been reported,” said Suzanne Audet, a North Idaho wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I’m sure there are a number of people who don’t want us to know they (wolves) are out there and are reluctant to report them.”
Audet said people are afraid wolves mean more forest management plans.
“Actually they are one of the easy species to manage,” she said. “As long as you leave them alone and don’t shoot them, they don’t require any strict habitat.”
Tim Layser, a U.S. Forest Service biologist at Priest Lake, thinks the wolves have found their way from Canada and Montana into the Selkirk Mountains.
He can’t estimate how many, but is fairly sure the wolves have not formed a pack or started breeding in the Selkirks. Not yet. Layser said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a pack established in the next couple of years.
“They (wolves) do exist up here,” he said. “But I don’t think it will mean any change in what we are doing right now.”
In Montana and elsewhere in Idaho, ranchers are worried wolves will start attacking livestock. That’s not expected to be a problem in the Panhandle where there are only a few smaller cattle ranches.
Layser has had 12 reports of wolves the last 12 months. Some sightings were likely just coyotes, he said, but three reports were confirmed as wolves.
From the description Wise gave and tracks left behind, Layser is certain the hunter encountered a wolf.
By examining tracks, Fish and Wildlife biologists also confirmed the presence of a wolf north of Bonners Ferry.
A crew of gas line workers saw the wolf dragging away a road-killed deer.
A dead radio-collared wolf from a western Montana pack was also found last year near Newport, Wash.
“There is strong evidence of lone wolves present in North Idaho,” said Koch. “Local folks say they have seen them wandering around for years.”
Several residents turned over a video of what they thought were wolves on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. The footage was shot from so far away, though, it was impossible to identify the animals.
Layser also found a report from 1986 in which a couple said they saw several wolves on the ice at Priest Lake.
“There are a lot of things we don’t know yet, like if wolves are just moving through, how long they stay or how many there are,” said Layser. “But in all likelihood they are here.”
During hunting season, ranger districts in the area distribute fliers picturing the gray wolf and a coyote.
Layser said they want hunters to know the difference and report any wolf sightings.
The coyote and wolf are very different, but many do mistake them, he said. When a call does come in, Layser said he or a Fish and Wildlife biologist try to go to the area. They check for tracks, hair and droppings that will confirm a wolf’s presence. Biologists also interview those who make the reports and quiz them on what they saw.
Wolf sightings to Layser’s office have increased in the last five years from one report in one year to 12.
“It could be activity is picking up or we are just hearing about it more. I don’t know.”
Historically, the wolf did roam in North Idaho. As in other parts of the country it was trapped and killed off as a nusiance animal, Audet said.
Enough sightings occurred in the Selkirks and Sullivan Lake Ranger District in Washington to start some monitoring last year. Personnel changes in the Fish and Wildlife Service halted that project.
This year Layser hopes to set up remote cameras, triggered by movement and body heat to get a picture of a wolf.
“Maybe we will come up with something, maybe we won’t. You never know.”
After the relocation project is complete in central Idaho, Koch said he may jump-start the monitoring program in North Idaho and possibly radio collar some of the animals.
That will give biologist a better idea of how many wolves are actually in the area and where they are going.
“For now we will have to keep taking reports from the public and follow-up with biologists,” he said.