After spending the night with the weed crew, I leave the workers at the river and backpack up the creek. My destination is the citadel of basic science in the park, the Taylor Ranch Wilderness Field Station, an inholding, or piece of private land, owned by the University of Idaho. Hints of autumn stud the trail. A large wildflower called blazing star flounces its lemon-yellow blossoms. Shrubs have turned red, and the blue berries on the elderberry bushes are reduced to bright seeds in copious bear scat. There is a whiff of smoke, like leaves burning, and the haze of sun. In mid-August the wildfires pestering the Frank Church Wilderness are too far away to be worrisome, but a month afterward parts of this trail will be aflame, as a lightning-sparked fire leaps the Middle Fork and ascends to the Crags.
I cover seven miles in good time. The landscape opens up. Three creeks converge on what looks like a golf course but is actually the irrigated greenery of the Taylor Ranch pasture and the adjacent airstrip. An old hay rake stands in the pasture, and mules graze near some rustic cabins. Tucked out of sight, a satellite dish beams data and e-mail from various research projects.
The language of the Wilderness Act describes man as a "visitor who does not remain"; Jim and Holly Akenson, wildlife biologists with an exemption, live at the property year-round. Their commitment to wilderness is as fervent as any I have come across, but it pays tribute to the historical presence of human beings, from the original residents, whom the pioneers called Sheep Eaters, to the gold miners of the late 19th century, to the ranchers who strung telephone wire along the creeks in the 20th century, to big-game hunters who used Taylor Ranch as a base before the university acquired it and turned it into a biological field station.
Taylor Ranch lies at the heart of what its Web site describes as "a large intact ecosystem" bearing "a full complement of native large carnivores, including gray wolf, cougar, black bear, lynx, bobcat, coyote, wolverine, fisher, and otter." Jim and Holly Akenson have spent two decades tracking and observing the critters in their natural state. The Akensons' research style is now being overshadowed by more abstract kinds of studies, which hinge on remote sensing and computer modeling of ecological and environmental processes.
Big Creek and the upper tributaries of the Middle Fork provide the best spawning habitat remaining in Idaho for the severely depleted Pacific salmon. The silver, or coho, salmon were declared extinct in the Snake River, and the annual returns of sockeye salmon can be counted in the single digits. The chinook, or king, salmon, which are being supplemented by hatchery stocks, come back to the Salmon River system in the tens of thousands, whereas they used to run in the millions. Downstream dams are the major barrier, external forces exerting their influence hundreds of miles from the wilderness.
If salmon are going to be restored to the rivers of the Northwest, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act, scientists will have to understand where the fish do best. Spawning habitat seems to be optimal in parts of the Frank Church Wilderness, and if these conditions can be described and quantified, they might be offered as a prescription for ailing salmon elsewhere.
A biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on a project to tag juvenile chinook salmon at Big Creek with microchips that are scanned like supermarket bar codes when the little fish pass detectors in the stream. That allows researchers to trace individual salmon during the first critical year before they head downstream 750 miles to the Pacific Ocean. The information can then be uploaded from the creek to the Internet, for real-time remote tracking.
Such work wouldn't be permitted outside the boundaries of the ranch. Ed Krumpe, a professor of wilderness management at the University of Idaho, says: "The Forest Service has a paranoia about doing science in wilderness. The FS policy is to do it elsewhere if you can. If you want to study a particular animal, they say, there's probably some other population elsewhere. If you want to contact people in the wilderness, say, do a survey of fly fishermen, they're negative. . . . It's a purist argument. You err on the side of wilderness so that you don't screw something up. Is it clear that there should be this prohibition?"
When I speak with Holly Akenson, she too is impatient with the logistical obstacles. In her opinion the biological information buried in the Frank is so precious that it should be mined for the whole nation. The value of wilderness, she says almost defiantly, "is to do research to better humanity."
My travels in the Frank end on the doorstep of an animal I never saw—the gray wolf.
Ten years ago central Idaho had no wolves except for the occasional transient. The animals had all been extirpated decades earlier. In 1995 and '96 a total of 35 wolves were artificially introduced to the Frank, where they were least likely to run afoul of people. Since then, the local wolf population has grown tenfold. Judging from aerial surveys, sporadic reports by hunters and ranchers, and signals from the few animals wearing radio collars, state wildlife biologists think there are now more than 500 wolves here. The packs have spread beyond the wilderness boundary and also beyond the National Forest buffer zones.
"This central Idaho system is much bigger than Yellowstone for wolves," Dick Wenger, a Forest Service biologist, tells me. "We're up to 40 recognized packs, plus another 15, inside the wilderness areas. The Frank is fully occupied by wolf packs, but it's the least studied because of logistics."
Technically the state is respon-sible for managing wildlife, while the Forest Service manages only the wildlife habitat. Idaho wants to control the burgeoning wolves because the animals, though ranked as an endangered species, may have begun to make a dent in the elk population within the Frank and also in some of the cattle herds outside. The losses bother local hunters and ranchers.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has proposed using helicopters to help study the wolf population in the Frank. After locating and chasing down a pack, an aerial sharpshooter would anesthetize an animal with a dart gun. Then the helicopter would land, and a biologist would fit a radio collar onto the drugged wolf. Thereafter the pack's movements and territory would be on the map, just as the packs outside the wilderness are monitored.
Whatever the pros and cons of the operation, it can't go forward without Forest Service permission. Although the agency can't prohibit the state from flying over, it can deny the helicopters permission to land. Ken Wotring says that the Frank "doesn't need collared wolves." He argues that the number of packs is beside the point as long as the wolves are doing well. Wenger wonders whether the state could research wolf behavior just as efficiently by studying the packs outside the wilderness.
Steve Nadeau, a biologist who manages the large-carnivore pro-gram for the Idaho department, ticks off reasons why helicopters ought to be used. "To get in there [on the ground] and place radios on wolves is at times overwhelming," he says. "When we get a hot, fresh report, we fly in to an airstrip or hike in with horses. But it's difficult. You've got six traps and a hundred pounds in your pack. By the time you find the wolves, you've got only a day left before you're out of food.
"We're up there anyway doing our big-game counts," he adds. "The helicopters would have less impact than if we used horses. We might land 10 times in a winter. The tracks in the snow would blow away. Nobody's there to see them anyway. Does the tree falling in the forest make a sound when no one's there?"
The more Nadeau protests, the more I am reminded of the original intentions of the Wilderness Act. Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and other 20th-century preservationists were believers in science, but they would have relished the state's predicament. To them, it was proper to be humbled by what isn't known about the wilderness. In the true scale of nature, wilderness was big and fierce, and people were weak and small.
"It's such a huge chunk of land," Nadeau says in frustration. "Are there things going on in there that are different from in the roaded forests? We don't know. We should be trying to find out."