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December 2007

The Wolf Watchers: Researching Wolves In Idaho

Inside Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, humans and wolves learn to co-exist.

Disappointed, we walked slowly back to camp, hoping for a final glimpse. As we crested the grassy swell where the alpha male had appeared, four tawny, marmot-sized animals scrambled for cover just 15 yards to our right. “Pups,” Jim whispered. For all his decades of experience, he looked as excited as a first-year biology student. Remarkably, we had passed by the den several times, but hadn’t noticed a telltale mound of dirt. Not wishing to disturb the pack any more, we dropped below the ridge to return to camp.

Arriving at our tents, we encountered the perfect epilogue: Plainly visible on a tent flap were two dusty paw prints with the distinctive four-toes-and-claw-pattern of Canis lupus. We concluded that a wolf, perhaps the elusive alpha male, had visited our empty camp and sat back on its haunches to shadowbox the tent. Despite the mysterious calling card, we all slept well that night. The wolves of Idaho, we realized, were conducting some research of their own.

Research in the Rough

Jim and Holly Akenson have managed the University of Idaho’s Taylor Ranch Field Station, a 65-acre enclave in the middle of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, for more than a decade. Located on the south bank of Big Creek, the largest tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the ranch is an ideal base for students, interns, and scientists seeking a wilderness setting for their research. This past summer, the ranch hosted projects investigating the habitat and behavior of prairie rattlesnakes, Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout. In May, a dozen high school students from McCall, ID, arrived at the ranch to spend several days assisting the Akensons with their research, including several hikes to track and locate wolves and cougars. This summer’s active research season allowed the ranch to live up to its nickname as “American’s wildest classroom.”

Measured from the nearest road, Taylor Ranch is the most remote permanently inhabited residence in the lower 48 states. The shortest approach routes are a 32-mile jaunt along Big Creek from the west, or a 42-mile trek from the southeast (hiked by the author). Most scientists, supplies, and mail arrive by air, landing on a narrow airstrip maintained by a mule team. Several other grass landing strips lie within six miles of the station. The privately-owned research facility is located at the junction of several hiking trails, but does not provide lodging for recreational visitors. Find out more at

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