March 10–HAILEY — A wolf is blamed for killing a colt in a rural canyon west of Hailey.
Now, three weeks later, each side in Idaho’s longstanding wolf debate blames the other for spinning the situation out of control. An anti-wolf group has claimed that the colt’s owners were threatened after they requested help when the wolf allegedly returned and attacked two of their dogs 10 days later.
That group, Idaho For Wildlife, has helped assemble a squad of “highly trained, long-range tactical hunters” in the area to mount high ridges and glass the valley for a glimpse of the predator amongst the tall sagebrush tufts.
Between hunting expeditions, Idaho For Wildlife’s Steve Alder said, the cadre serves as “protection” for colt owners Kevin and Jennifer Swigert against local wolf advocates, whom he calls the “crazies.”
The Swigerts declined to be interviewed and denied a Times-News reporter’s request to visit them.
The family does not “feel safe at all,” said Alder, of Lewiston. “Hunters are on the ground, we have protection for the Swigerts, shots have been fired, wolves have been missed. And the hunt goes on.”
Many on the other side aren’t convinced a wolf killed the colt, despite a federal necropsy confirming the kill. They also say the body was moved.
Moreover, they’re skeptical about the threats the Swigerts are said to have received. Rather, they say, this is posturing from the same group that organized a controversial wolf-killing derby in Salmon last December.
“I think it’s touching a deeper nerve,” Bellevue wolf tracker Natalie Ertz said. “People are coming out of the woodwork. There are people setting hunting camp at the Swigerts’, and on the other side there are people asking questions. I think it’s beyond a passing article or issue.”
All sides agree that the Hailey situation is a microcosm of the larger problem — each side slinging death threats. Several people told the Times-News they’re receiving death threats more frequently but would never make such threats.
And both sides wish it weren’t this way.
But it is. Recent online death threats against Idaho legislators considering wolf legislation were turned over to the Idaho State Police by Todd Grimm, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services.
“It’s bad enough these brain-dead ignorants ignore the facts, but with no means to mail to them, you can’t find out where they live to throw a f—- bomb through their window,” a commenter threatened on a website.
Those threats were made by Pete Braun, a Michigan wolf activist, who defended his actions by saying the “vile” people who kill wolves don’t deserve the special treatment they are given. He said his threats were paraphrasing a “standup comedy bit,” but he did not back down from their intent.
“It may be a little harsh, but these people don’t want anyone to know what they really do out in the woods,” he wrote in an email. “And God forbid anyone should expose them or call them out, they get all pissed and retaliate. They also don’t even know the difference between an actual threat and a remark just wanting ill-will to befall them. Which just goes to show how incredibly ignorant these people are.”
Making death threats against legislators is against the law. “There’s a whole lot of crazy going on,” Grimm said.
A Killing and Confirmation
The Swigerts emailed Idaho For Wildlife that they’ve “had hundreds of encounters with wolves” and have taken steps to “protect our dogs, horses, sheep, goats and ourselves from the insidious assault by an ever-present predator.” The couple’s pet coyote is expected to alert the dogs when a wolf is in the area, according to prior news reports.
In January, the Swigerts said four wolves surrounded several of their dogs, but Jennifer scared them off with gunfire from an AR-15. On the morning of Feb. 13, they found the colt, JR Luna Azul, dead. It was “isolated against an outer fence just 100 feet from the barn.”
Ten days later, the Swigerts wrote, the wolf returned and attacked two of their Border Collies in daylight about 300 yards from Jennifer. The dogs fought the wolf off but sustained injuries to their necks and legs, the couple wrote. Kevin chased the wolf to no avail, they wrote.
The Swigerts contacted Grimm, and USDA agents were sent to investigate. Investigator Sam Kocherhans found wolf tracks, hair, blood and signs of struggle consistent with wolf depredation. Grimm said USDA agents flew over the area three times hoping to kill the wolf but did not see it.
Hunters suspect the wolf has left the area, but they will continue to pursue it, Alder said. More marksmen arrive each day, and a hunter from Oregon with a team of dogs designed for wolf killing was set to arrive Friday, he said.
“(The dogs) are going to be used for live, well, not bait, but he uses his dogs as a decoy,” Alder said. “I mean this is an amazing fellow who kills about 200 coyotes a year.”
Worse than the threat of the wolf, though, are the threats of radical environmentalists, Alder said. He wouldn’t say if the Swigerts received death threats for alerting the USDA of the wolf, but said they felt uncomfortable enough to request guards from his group.
Many other Hailey residents have had wolf encounters, he said, but didn’t report them for fear of retribution from pro-wolf locals. Those fears are justified by earlier death threats, including toward the recent wolf derby organizers, he said.
Being pro-wolf “is a religion, and it is this way. It’s terrorism and it’s real,” he said.
“That’s not at all the environment that we are in,” said Garrick Dutcher, who works with the Sun Valley-based non-profit Living with Wolves. Dutcher said he is skeptical about the situation, but said an investigation should be done to see if there are threats against the Swigerts.
“There is no place for that kind of behavior in this issue,” he said.
Dutcher and Ertz said they have received threats from anti-wolf people. Ertz has received troubling comments on videos she’s made of USDA agents killing wolves from the air. But Dutcher said he didn’t want to discuss it and fuel the debate — he wants to “move past these ugly times.”
Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, said she is familiar with threats but never heard of a reaction quite like the one in Hailey. She said she would like to see a peaceful resolution.
“We have never been engaged in anything like that, but it goes both ways,” Stone said. “In fact, I’ve had personal threats myself from people on the other side and have for years. It’s an ugly part (of the debate). Unfortunately, the Internet makes it easy for people to be anonymous and be ugly.”
Ron Gillett, a Wood River Valley native who now lives in Stanley, claims he is the best-known wolf hater in Idaho.
“I was a wolf hater before hating wolves was popular,” said the former chairman of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition.
Gillett said he has had numerous threats on his life but ignores them.
“I didn’t sit around worrying about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t then, and I wouldn’t today, but there are some kooks out there. And I will tell you that the kooks are on the side of the wolf lovers.”
The threats are more frightening to those not expecting them. Jen Larson, owner of the Savage Grill in Salmon, received death threats in December after she offered a discount to derby wolf hunters who dined in her grill — the same discount she offers to other hunters and anglers.
More than a dozen threats came in from around the nation and from as far as Iceland, she said.
“People were calling here and texting me and emailing me telling me that they were going to kill my kids and kill my family and blow my building up and to hang myself with a noose from our sign,” Larson said. “It was horrible. The longest week of my life.”
That must stop, said Gillett. “I don’t care whether it is their side or our side, if someone threatens someone else with a bomb like four state legislators … if they catch whoever is saying that, throw their ass in jail for 30 years and don’t let them out early.”
Threatening lawmakers or judges is a misdemeanor, but empty threats against citizens fall into a gray area, said Grant Loebs, Twin Falls County prosecutor. Those making threats aren’t breaking the law unless they are “doing something to bring it about,” he said. Regardless, such threats are taken seriously, investigated and prosecuted if necessary, he added.
Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey said the Swigerts have not reported any threats to his office, so he isn’t investigating the situation.
Breaking the Cycle
Rather than gather arms to defend against threats after an unsavory wolf encounter, those living in wolf country should prevent depredations on livestock and other animals, Stone said.
Living with predators is part of life in Idaho, and “wolves aren’t any different,” she said. “But reacting in this way is very, very different, and it escalates it somehow … it triggers this reaction that is much more significant …”
The threat-laden discourse is an emotional cycle, similar to the cycle after a wolf is killed for killing livestock only to create an opportunity for a new wolf to do the same, she said.
Prevention would benefit both sides, Stone said. From May through October, she helps run the Wood River Wolf Project, which provides training and equipment for those who want to protect their livestock with non-lethal deterrents.
“With non-lethal methods, there is great opportunity for avoiding livestock losses or mitigating them to almost nothing,” Stone said.
Ertz agreed that prevention is preferable and decried the public funding of aerial wolf killing by the USDA. Grimm said he did not have an estimate of the cost of the flyovers in Hailey.
“They have their horses right at the mouth of this really wild draw,” she said of the Swigerts. “That’s where my questions start. It is their choice to raise horses out there, and it is their choice to leave them out in the wilderness of south-central Idaho. Do we as taxpayers really want to fund their personal choices?”
Dutcher said the killing of wolves does not address the problem anyway. They will simply repopulate the area, he said. Living with Wolves is working on a non-lethal deterrent program but will implement it in other states where “they aren’t determined to reduce the wolf numbers.”
“The real wolf is somewhere between these battlelines,” Dutcher said. “We don’t want to feed that rhetoric. We want to try to work toward solutions.”