Sunday, October 29, 2006
McCALL, Idaho -- Wolf researcher Jim Akenson is riding a mule on an icy mountain trail in central Idaho when he comes upon a dead cougar. Suddenly, a pack of wolves materializes and begins howling.
For one terrifying moment, the 48-year-old biologist thinks his startled mules are going to stampede and carry him off a 200-foot cliff into Big Creek.
"We could not turn around," says Akenson, describing that tense winter episode four years ago in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. "It is the most precarious condition you can imagine, with wolves howling around you."
The crisis ends quickly. Akenson's saddle mule, Daisy, gives the carcass an indifferent sniff, steps over it and proceeds down the trail. Cricket and Rocky, his pack mules, follow, paying the wolves no heed.
Akenson shrugs it off as part of life in the Idaho wilderness.
"There are circumstances when you could be in trouble with wolves," he muses. "But I think they are very rare."
Akenson and his biologist wife, Holly, 48, are in the ninth year of a University of Idaho-sponsored research project on wolf and cougar interaction. They live and work at the Taylor Ranch Field Station, deep inside the largest block of contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. The ranch is 34 miles from the nearest road and is believed to be the most remote year-round human habitation in the nation, outside Alaska.
It is hoped their research will deepen the understanding of wolf behavior, as the predators flourish in Idaho and move into Oregon, where they are feared mainly for the damage they can do to livestock. And as wolves limit the territory of a burgeoning cougar population, that could have deep impact in Oregon, where cougars have rebounded to 5,000 individuals.
But the work of this couple is carried out as remotely as the animals they observe.
A bush plane delivers mail and groceries once a week. Their three-room log cabin's amenities include running water, wood heat, a flush toilet and a hydropower unit that provides electricity for lights, computers and a satellite TV. They have no telephone, but they keep in touch with the outside world via Internet e-mail and an FM-band "backcountry radio."
Their closest neighbors are bighorn sheep, moose, elk, deer and three roving packs of Canadian gray wolves.
"They wake us up at night," Holly Akenson says of the serenading wolves.
It's a curiously techno-primitive life that two years ago permitted Jim Akenson to watch the Super Bowl on TV while keeping an eye on seven wolves on a mountain ridge above the cabin.
"I was thinking, 'I bet there aren't very many viewers who are watching the Super Bowl and a pack of wolves at the same time,' " he says.
"It's the opportunity to work hands-on with these animals that's like an addiction," says Akenson, explaining why they stay here.
"For me, it's the immersion in the natural world," adds Holly Akenson. "That day-to-day personal, being part of the natural world, is something you rarely find."
An estimated 750 Canadian gray wolves now roam Idaho in 59 packs, their numbers up from 35 wolves in 1996, say the Akensons. Oregon officially has no gray wolves, but the biologists are certain the predators have crossed the state boundary.
"I saw wolf scat on the Minam River when I was bowhunting in there a year ago," says Jim Akenson, referring to a stream in northeastern Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness. "There was no question that's what it was."
Oregonians have little to worry about, the Akensons say. In thousands of days in the field, they've never been threatened by wolves they were researching . But there are precautions:
They can't allow Mica, their 11-year-old golden retriever, to roam unaccompanied. Wolves generally hunt in packs of eight to 12 and almost certainly would make short work of the dog, says Holly Akenson.
And they don't let their horses graze in large pastures. Horses instinctively flee wolves.
"The chase is what gets them excited," Holly Akenson says of wolves. "If the stock are confined, we think they are less likely to attack."
Mules are better adapted to social interaction with wolves, the Akensons say. "Mules look at a wolf and say to themselves, 'Do I need to stomp it?' " says Jim Akenson. "Our mules love to chase bears, too."
Wolves probably will reduce the number of Oregon's cougars, now estimated at around 5,000, they say.
"When there is a pack around, cougars are not comfortable around their kills or raising kittens," says Jim Akenson. "A lot of times a big cougar will kill a wolf, but the pack phenomenon changes the table."
A male cougar's territory averages about 150 square miles, compared with about 45 square miles for a female cougar, say the Akensons. But a typical wolf pack roams across 500 square miles.
The presence of wolves hasn't caused Idaho's elk numbers to drop significantly, they say. But when wolves are around, elk become more wary. They avoid meadows where wolves might see them. That frustrates human hunters, who sometimes mistakenly believe the elk herds are vanishing, he says.
Another change: An elk that gets spooked in wolf country typically plunges into a river or mountain lake, because wolves are at a disadvantage in water, say the Akensons. "That is something you didn't see before wolves."
Wolves occasionally frighten people when they are merely being curious, say the Akensons. Case in point: When Jim Akenson tied up his mules and returned to examine the dead cougar near Big Creek, he was startled to discover that it had died in a fight with another cougar. It hadn't been attacked by the wolf pack, as he first thought.
The wolves merely heard the battle and stopped by to see what was going on, he says. And when he came along, they started howling.
Still, wolves may have been a factor in the cougar's fate, says Jim Akenson. Wolves put the big cats under more stress, and that often causes strife within cougar populations.
"Cougars get jammed into a smaller place with fewer resources" when wolves move in, says Akenson. "So they fight."