The third and final episode of Ray’s latest series, Survival with Ray Mears, will be aired this Sunday 2nd May at 19:00 on ITV1. You can pre-order your copy of the Survival with Ray Mears DVD from Woodlore now.
In this final episode, Ray and his wildlife crew of Shane Moore and Isaac Babcock turn their attentions to tracking wolves in Idaho’s stunning Sawtooth Mountains. Several wild wolf packs roam this vast and breathtaking wilderness; however, Ray has just ten days to track them before they are taken off the state’s endangered species list, where they could then be hunted.
Wolves are notoriously secretive animals, which makes searching for them extremely difficult. It takes all of Ray’s unique skills as a tracker to even get close to a sighting.
Ray says: “I think this is possibly going to be one of the toughest things that I’ve ever done. Very soon, wolves will be taken off the endangered species list in Idaho. So this could be my last chance to track wolves here.”
Based at a rustic lodge in the town of Stanley, Ray begins his quest by hiking into the small river valleys that drain into the crystal clear Salmon River. It’s tough terrain, and at 7,000 feet above sea level, the winter’s snows are just retreating above the valleys.
Ray says: “The thing that concerns me is the changing seasons. The ground conditions are changing hourly – not just day by day. One minute it can be snowing, the next minute it can be sunny. For tracking it’s going to be really challenging. This is a truly vast landscape, so I need a good strategy. What I want to do first is locate the wolf’s prey – so I’m looking for elk tracks or possibly moose. Where there’s prey, there’ll be predators.”
Ray’s tracking soon leads him to some elk tracks. Elk are principle prey for wolves, and Ray works out they are following the line of the snow melt. Suspecting that elk will lead him to the wolves, Ray and the team track down the herd and head for a meadow near the river.
Ray soon spots that one of the elk is lame, which he knows make it a likely target for wolves. Sure enough, he soon finds the tracks of a wolf nearby. Ray has yet to find a wolf but while hunting he gets the sense he may be close.
Ray says: “I do believe in a kind of sixth sense. Maybe it’s my subconscious reading signs before I can work them out more rationally. But I can imagine wolves prowling up there – their presence alone intimidating the elk into moving to just where they want them. So the question is, ‘Where are they now?’”
Seeking advice from wolf ecologist Curt Mack, Ray hears that Idaho’s wolf population was rescued from the brink of eradication in 1995, by an ambitious reintroduction programme. Thirty-five wolves were released back into the wild and there are now approximately 850 across the state. Ray asks Curt how it felt to release the wolves back into the wild.
Curt says: “I think it was a little bittersweet. We’d worked very hard for that one moment and we were in awe. We all kind of looked at each other. And the big question in all of our minds was, ‘What now? What’s going to happen?’”
Ironically, the reintroduction has been so successful that the animals are soon to lose their protected status. The day Ray is due to finish filming is the same day wolf hunting becomes legal.
Wolves hunt in packs and are such efficient killing machines that they have been demonised throughout history. But do they deserve such a bad reputation?
One of Idaho’s biggest livestock farmers, John Falkner tells Ray that he respects the wolf, but his first priority is to protect his flock. Wolves do occasionally attack sheep, but Ray questions how a wolf can be expected to differentiate between them and other prey.
Ray says: “It disturbs me that in just seven days time, wolves will no longer be a protected species here. Biologists believe that wolves are programmed to kill surplus prey. Farming sheep puts hundreds of prey animals in one spot. So, it’s hardly surprising that the wolf’s instincts take over.”
At dawn the following day the team get a sighting at the meadow. There are a small group of wolves but they’re not hunting elk, they’re after rodents that are emerging from the snow.
Ray says: “There’s a wolf, fantastic! Absolutely fantastic. It’s quite extraordinary to be seeing such a shy animal out in the open like this, so near the town. And actually there are two of them. Just a few years ago this was an impossible sight because there were no wolves in Idaho. A wonderful thing to see such an amazing creature, loose in the wild, living as it should. Wonderful!”
He then notices that one of the wolves is limping. Ray wants to find the whole pack and follows the tracks of the limping wolf in the hope that it will lead to a den. He finds blood in the trail, and wonders if there has been an injury or a kill.
Ray meets local hunter Brett Wooley, who tells him that he was very against the reintroduction programme. Ray is deeply concerned to hear his views.
Ray says: “I knew wolves would be hard to find, but I didn’t expect to find that people are their biggest problem. It seems that as soon as wolves come off the endangered species list, people will be lining up to shoot them. Now I’m even more determined to find the rest of the pack before it’s too late.”
Eventually, the team find the entire pack of about 12 wolves, that follow the lead of a silver backed alpha male. They discover that the alpha male is feeding on an old elk carcass that has recently thawed. Through the night, the alpha male and a young female wolf make several journeys up and down a steep cliff to where the den might be, presumably providing food for a breeding female.
The following morning Isaac is devastated to discover the young female lying dead in the snow. The cause of death is unknown, although the team believe there is a possibility she may have been poisoned.
Isaac says: “We’ve got real bad news. We just stumbled upon a dead wolf. It’s laying there in the snow. And I don’t know what to make of it. This isn’t good. It’s that younger female. She hasn’t been dead very long. Sorry old girl.”
On hearing the news Ray is visibly affected and becomes tearful.
He says: “I’m quite moved actually that this wolf will no longer leave tracks that I can follow. And I suppose you’re not supposed to get emotionally involved when you’re tracking animals for films but you do. Very special indeed.”
Worried that the rest of the pack might have eaten from the same source and have suffered the same fate, Ray leads the team on an urgent search.
They search all the ‘wolf highways’ they know of, with a fine tooth comb and after several agonising hours, find a single fresh wolf print. Finally they have evidence that at least one wolf is still alive.
After yet more searching they achieve another sighting of the wolves once again preying on rodents. Thankfully, the alpha male is alive too. It’s a huge relief for Ray and the whole team; an emotive finale that brings home the fragility of life, even for a top predator.