By Sandy Compton
It’s 6:30 in the morning in the Stanley Basin and we are glassing a freshly whitened valley surrounded by sage hills. Air temperature is 20 ° F. The small herd of elk we just passed breath steam in the cold air, and snow is drifting out of the sky even as clouds rise to reveal the newly glazed Sawtooths. Way out, a brown critter moves disjointedly across a meadow. I want it to be a wolf, as do the half-dozen folks with me, but it morphs into a Sandhill Crane.
A Sandhill Crane? In winter? In Stanley Basin? Showing through the inch of fresh snow at my feet are tiny yellow flowers, thousands of them in this big meadow where we are wolf hunting, and they remind me that it’s not December or even March. It’s late May. But, for the 2010 Idaho Conservation League gathering at Redfish Lake Lodge, winter has made an unexpected guest appearance.
Nobody will freeze to death at the conference, but instead of lounging in t-shirts and shorts, we huddle at the fireplace in the main dining room of the Lodge dressed in polypro, fleece and Smartwool. I am personally glad to have brought my ski parka and gloves, donned for this wolf-seeking expedition in the magnificent upper Salmon drainage in central Idaho.
Carter Niemeyer is our guide this morning; a tall, blond, man in a blue Cabela’s jacket who speaks “Western,” that mixture of dropped g’s and contractions and who, when properly inspired, can howl like a wolf. He’s often inspired. He has been working among wolves for decades. His laid-back speech belies his education, influence and passion. He has taught about wolves in Europe and Kyrgyzstan, and now works as a volunteer wolf-watcher for Idaho Fish and Game.
Carter is part of the program for this year’s 26th gathering of the ICL at Redfish Lake. I’m a first-timer at this event, but the traditional soft opening of Redfish Lake Lodge on the weekend before Memorial Day has been, for a couple of decades, this convention. ICL Exec Rick Johnson of Boise (and Washington, D.C., where he spends way too much time, he says), tells a story about earlier Wild Idahos, during which he and others from ICL showed up early to clear the cobwebs and sweep the mouse droppings out of the cabins along Redfish Lake. This year’s gathering is a bit more urbane than that, regardless of the weather.
Phil Hough and I are here as executive director and program coordinator of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, respectively. My friend Gary Payton has come, also, as a representative of Friends of Pend d’ Oreille Bay Trail, and like us, to rub elbows with the experienced wilderness makers of Idaho. ICL has been “Idaho’s voice for clean water, clean air, and wilderness” for 37 years, and we are here to learn from and network with 70 or 80 other folks from all over the West.
It is comforting, first of all, to know by proximity to these people that we are not alone in wilderness advocacy, as individuals or as a group. There are hundreds of years of expertise and enthusiasm in this room, so much so that it seems to heat the place up a couple of degrees, which is good, because the fireplace works well only within about 15 feet of itself. We take turns defrosting to beetle-killed lodgepole as presenters keep our brains and hearts warm by sharing their knowledge and passion about wilderness and the wild things that live there – and not there – and how we are all tied together.
We witness miracles in the field and in the conference hall. Carter shows us two sets of wolf tracks in a snowy road, made by the left-overs of a pack, most of which were killed late last year for predation on livestock. Looking into the Kelly Creek hills, he says, “There’ll be a new litter up there this year.” Two hours later, Republican Congressman Micheal Simpson and Democrat Walt Minnick sit right in front of us and admit to working together with the two Idaho Senators to introduce the White Clouds-Boulder wilderness bill. It seems that this morning, there is hope in the hills and hope on the Hill, for wolves and wilderness here in the great state of Idaho.
If it can cross the aisle at the House of Representatives, it can cross a border, I think. And, here in the Scotchman Peaks, as we move this project of ours further toward our goal of Wilderness designation, we work across a border.
We’re done now, all gone home. Or at least our separate ways. I write this from my brother’s kitchen table in Nampa. Rick Johnson is winging his way toward Washington, D.C. to talk up another ICL project. Phil and Gary are back in Sandpoint with new connections in mind and heart to continue what we are doing to save the planet.
That might seem an overwhelmingly big goal, and I often think it’s arrogant of us humans to think we can do such a thing. But, if we can save little parts of it, a wolf here, 88,000 acres there, as individuals and members of great groups like the Idaho Conservation League and Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, we just might be able to save ourselves, too.