Barely a half hour after leaving the Orofino Airport, the receiver begins to register steady beeps.
Locked on the frequency broadcast by the radio collar of a wolf far below, it grows louder, then quieter as the plane moves closer, then farther away from the animal.
Nez Perce Tribe wildlife biologist Curt Mack signals pilot Brian Elfers to bank the Cessna over the rugged uplands surrounding Kelly Creek. The steady beep of the wolf’s collar begins to reverberate in the headphones with the intensity of a car with a souped-up sound system.
Mack flashes a thumbs up and notes the location on a GPS, or global positioning system unit in the cockpit and the light plane banks south toward the Selway. That was good.
“That’s only the second time I’ve found her in the same location,” Mack says. The wolf below, a female released in 1995, is paired with another wolf that doesn’t carry an active radio collar.
A week earlier, Mack and another biologist had hiked into the Selway River country after several flights had shown a pair of radio-collared wolves lingering close to the same general area, a sign they had probably denned there. The biologists were able to confirm the first litter of wolf pups in 80 years in Idaho.
At least it was the first litter since government trapper Leo Twitchell dug out the last known litter. Twitchell’s report goes back to 1916 and was part of the campaign to eradicate the wolf from the West.
Mack’s searches by ground and air have a far different purpose. The Nez Perce Tribe is a lead player with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in efforts to restore wolves to the Idaho wilderness.
Last year the Fish and Wildlife Service released 15 wolves along the main Salmon River west of North Fork, Idaho, and along the Salmon’s Middle Fork.
Last January, Fish and Wildlife brought another 20 wolves south from Canada for release along the Middle Fork. Four wolves are known to have died since.
Mack finds keeping track of 31 wolves spread across 13 million miles challenge enough.
He spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the air with Orofino Aviation keeping tabs on the eight pairs of wolves that have formed since the releases.
“We’re just trying to build up enough data so we can go in on the ground to determine whether reproduction has taken place or not,” Mack said.
As the plane crosses the Lochsa, then the rocky peaks that break like ocean waves against the spine of the Bitterroot Mountains, the difficulties of finding even radio-carrying wolves become clear. The Selway pair’s collars announce their presence in the same area where Mack had spotted them by air before, and in the general locale of the den.
The pairs are easy targets because they roam less than the lone wolves or those simply traveling with companions. But trying to pinpoint a location, even with the beeps loud and clear, is nearly impossible.
The plane makes several circles over the area, but nearly a mile above the terrain and only slightly slower than the cruising speed of 160 mph.
The tribe’s responsibility is keeping track of as many of the wolves as possible. Its main mission is to determine whether they’ve produced pups. Once there are 10 breeding pairs, and 10 packs roaming the central Idaho wolf recovery area, federal officials plan to drop protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Although Fish and Wildlife Service officials estimated that might take until 2002, the number of pairs formed so far suggests it could happen much sooner, Mack said.
The flight carried Mack from Orofino to Kelly Creek, then south through the Selway to the end of the Bitterroots and east to the Bighole National Battlefield near Wisdom, Mont., where another pair has settled in. Heading west again, Mack directs Elfers back into Idaho near North Fork, then over the majestic Bighorn Crags and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, then across the Chamberlain Basin, which held another pair.
Turning north, the plane crossed back over the Salmon, then Elk City, Kooskia, Kamiah then back to Orofino.
“I’m afraid we didn’t do so well,” Mack said at the end of 4-1/2 hours in the air. “We only found 10 of the 31.”
He spent another two days in the air trying to relocate pairs and find the other wolves.
It usually takes a couple of flights to round them all up. The single animals travel so much the flying can only say where they are at any given time. Antennas bolted to the plane’s wing struts can pick up the signal from a collar from 8-10 miles.
Mack tries to fly the circuit at 10,500 feet, high enough to catch signals and low enough to keep the brain supplied with enough oxygen in the unpressurized cabins of small planes.
“After about two hours at 11,000 feet, your thinking starts to get mushy and you can’t concentrate,” Mack said.
Back at the office, Mack will relay information about the wolves to the Fish and Wildlife Service and dozens of others who want to know where the wolves are. Or at least where they were.
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