July 6, 2006, Pioneer Mountains, Idaho

It isn’t yet dawn. The birds are starting to make their declarations, and the wind is gently flapping the sides of my tent. My breaths cloud the air in front of me, and I can see nothing outside the screen yet. The last two days have been mostly filled with rain, and my back is sore from driving. When I finally hiked into this valley yesterday afternoon the sky was gloriously welcoming. I am wondering if the welcome will be rescinded today.

Something walks by my tent, gently disturbing the gravel. It is the slightest of sounds, like the barest wisp of cloud passing low to the ground on an overcast day. I hold my breath listening for something more but hear nothing. A moment later there is a splashing in the stream. Then it is gone.

I wait for more footsteps, another splash, a sniff or snort, but the only thing I hear is the flapping of the tent and the arguing of birds. Whatever it was it has moved along in silence without telling me or anyone else where it was going.

Imperceptibly, the sky is beginning take on color.


I chose to hike into Surprise Valley, because I liked the name and wondered what the surprise was – not a bad reason. Unlike most of the roadless areas I visited, it wasn’t too difficult to find good trail information about the Pioneer Mountains of south-central Idaho. The Pioneers, the White Clouds, the Boulders and the Smoky Mountains are part of a large stretch of mostly unprotected mountains that surround the Sawtooth Wilderness east of Boise.

The Pioneer Mountains form the end of a twenty-five mile wide peninsula of mountains that juts out into the vast potato growing plains of southern Idaho. Within this stretch of mountains are places that would rival Yellowstone National Park if they had fewer cattle. Surprise Valley sits in one of these areas. It is a secluded patch of mountain that is just over a sky-rending ridge from Copper Basin, an eight-mile long, four-mile wide valley reminiscent of Yellowstone’s Lamar valley. Copper Basin is one of the places in the menagerie of mountains around the Sawtooths where re-introduced wolf populations recently made a comeback. Just as Lamar Valley was the perfect place to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone, when the wolves wandered into Copper Basin they must have realized that this was an ideal hunting ground – a place where elk herds would naturally come down out of the mountains and congregate in the open. Wolves are also known to only persist for a long period of time in areas with low road densities, basically less than one mile of road per square mile.  The majority of the mountainous regions in central Idaho have road densities of less than one. To put that number in perspective, urban areas can have road densities of over six miles of road per square mile. Even compared to other forest areas, central Idaho has relatively few roads – with the exception of the border area near Canada, most of the Cascades Mountains in Washington state have more than two miles of road per square mile.

So when the Copper Basin wolf pack migrated in from another reintroduction area in 2003, they probably thought they had found a good thing. The pack beat the odds and established itself within a couple years, but the biggest battle they had to face was not the battle to find prey, but the battle for acceptance by the ranchers of their right to exist in that high mountainous country. In 2005 the Copper Basin pack lost that fight when a rancher found a dead calf and attributed its death to the wolves. Soon afterwards Wildlife Services shot five of the six adult wolves in the pack from an airplane. That left the pack with one adult and six pups. In 2007, the pack was down to three adults. In 2008, there was one more confirmed cattle kill by the wolves and the last three adults were shot.

The Forest Service currently allows over six thousand head of cattle to be grazed in Copper Basin. The grazing allotments here go all the way to the rockline, and the Forest Service hasn’t re-evaluated these cattle leases in over forty years. Between 2005 and 2008 the forest service reported seventeen “confirmed/probable” cattle kills by wolves in Copper Basin. Supporters of wolf protection rightly note that cattle frequently die on the range and are scavenged by wolves, which can make it difficult to assess actual wolf kills. In this case, the forest service had collared several individuals in order to confirm that the wolves were in fact preying on cattle. In response to the seventeen cattle deaths, twenty-two adult wolves were shot by Wildlife Services. It is a sad math – a math that reflects the way we normally account for differences between our needs and the needs of wildlife.

Much of this was on my mind as I hiked the trail to Surprise Valley. The trail starts out as a steep switchback that climbs out of Fall Creek valley and into a narrow canyon that rapidly closes in around a low Aspen forest. I hadn’t studied any topographical maps too closely, because I wanted to find out what the surprise was by experience rather than by reading. Just when it seemed to me as though the little canyon should be about to end in a shut out or box canyon, I came over a short ridge and found myself on the edge of a huge meadow buzzing with insects and hanging precipitously over a drop down to the larger valley below. The meadow is surrounded by ragged, sawtooth-shaped peaks, and a broad valley winds its way from there up the high ridge to the south that ends in a blue alpine lake just a few hundred yards short of the divide.

Standing on the edge of that lake I thought about how difficult it is for our country to make public decisions about wilderness issues.  As I looked down the valley in front of me, I tried to imagine what it was like to travel through these mountains in the days of Lewis and Clark when there were wolves and grizzly bears everywhere. The pioneers that followed hunted the wolves and bears relentlessly until both species faced extinction in the lower 48 states. Today many people, including some people who live in those areas, favor the idea of returning these predators to the wild. Yet the basic conflicts between the predators and people remain the same.

When I was standing there, the wolves on the other side of the ridge had already been shot, though I didn’t know it at the time. Unlike the animal that passed my tent before dawn, the Copper Basin wolf pack’s coming and going had been well-documented and professionally orchestrated.

Copper Basin aside, the wolf population in Idaho as a whole still appears to be increasing every year. Between 2001 and 2006 the estimated number of wolves in the state had increased from 261 to 663. By 2008 another 140 wolves have been added to the estimate. From a biologist’s perspective I know that the recovery numbers are good. Yet even knowing this, as I recall looking out over a valley that the Copper Basin wolves may have peeked into, I can’t help but compare this with so many other similar outcomes where the needs of people outweigh the needs of wildlife. Surprise Valley and the larger Fall Creek Valley below it are the only valleys in the Pioneers where cattle are excluded, and so the wolves that wandered into Copper Basin found themselves in an area where they were forced to compete directly with the needs of people. It is a losing proposition for the wolves, and the fate of the Copper Basin pack still saddens me.

Surprise Valley, Idaho Roadless Area | Photo by Nelson Guda © 2019
Surprise Valley, Idaho Roadless Area | Photo by Nelson Guda © 2019