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Vic Coggins, Enterprise Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife district biologist, spent much of his career studying Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and their habitat in Northeast Oregon.
Enterprise’s lead wildlife biologist will retire after 45 years of service
On a cloudy December morning Vic Coggins awaits a clearing in the weather to capture wild sheep one more time.
By the end of the year Enterprise’s lead wildlife biologist will retire from 45 years’ service to the state of Oregon.
Reintroducing Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and monitoring them has been a big part of Coggins’ career. He started with the Enterprise Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s district office in 1967, and by 1971 the state was attempting to transplant wild sheep at the Hells Canyon Dam.
Coggins said he believes interaction with domestic sheep, which he says carry bacteria, was the reason the wild sheep died out at the dam.
“It’s been studied and studied and there’s not any doubt in the science,” said Coggins.
He said in his retirement he plans to write a series of articles on the various diseases that can affect wild sheep.
Domestic sheep are no longer grazed in Hells Canyon and subsequent reintroductions restored wild sheep to Wallowa County.
One of the reintroduction areas was the Lostine Canyon. Coggins said the state made an agreement with a landowner six miles from the town of Lostine. Twenty sheep, five rams and 15 ewes of various ages, were brought in from Jasper Park in Alberta, Canada.
“They stayed there that winter and established a summer range in the Wallowas,” said Coggins.
Eventually, the state bought the 1,000-acre tract and it is now a wildlife refuge, open to the public.
Coggins’ bighorn capture this month takes place, appropriately enough, near Big Sheep Ridge. The district has developed a system where an 8-foot-tall fenced corral is baited to bring in the sheep. They are then shuffled back and forth between two corrals as their health is assessed.
Biologists blindfold the trapped sheep, take blood samples, throat, ear and nasal swabs to check for disease.
Reintroductions on the lower Imnaha River and the Salmon River in Idaho have been successful, said Coggins, and sheep have come in from not only Alberta, but British Columbia, Washington, Montana and Colorado.
Researching critters and their habitat is some of the most fascinating work of a biologist. Coggins said Oregon State University students were cleaning out old wildlife files when they found journals listing surveys conducted between 1939 and 1941. No sheep were found in that time-frame, but there had been sightings through the late ’30s, and a wild sheep refuge is denoted on an old map of the Wallowa Mountain high country.
“Today, Oregon is home to 600 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep,” said Coggins.
Rocky Mountain goats are another species thoroughly researched. They were brought into the Wallowas in the 1950s, said Coggins, and there was some debate whether it was an introduction or a reintroduction.
“They were not considered native, but exhaustive research, archeology and literature proved they had been here.”
Now 800 Rocky Mountain goats are in the Cascades, the Blues and the Wallowas, said Coggins.
The Enterprise District not only has an immense diversity of wildlife, but also of landscape, from the high elevations of the Eagle Cap Wilderness to the Snake River in Hells Canyon. It would be inconceivable for a biologist to ever get bored.
Coggins can be found one day checking elk hunters in the Chesnimnus wildlife unit in the northern part of the county, looking for wolves on the Zumwalt Prairie the next, or on a jet boat doing a mule deer study.
One of the rarest species he saw was in the form of the hide. A trapper brought in the skin of a juvenile female lynx caught on Fence Creek in the early years of his career. A resident population has not been proven in modern times, but Coggins said they are known to travel great distances.
Two years ago, researcher Audrey Magoun caught three different wolverines on game cameras she stationed in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Earlier this month, wolverine tracks were discovered in the northern part of Wallowa County as well.
“They are starting to move back,” said Coggins. “The Seven Devils range is a natural corridor from McCall, Idaho, which is only 30 air miles from the county border.”
Elk and whitetail deer populations have increased in the last 40 years and Coggins and crew do surveys from the air to track their numbers. Cougar populations have also been restored from very low levels, said Coggins.
Coggins said he first came to work in Wallowa County in the summers of 1965 and 1966 as a college student and in April 1967 he was hired as a full-time fisheries biologist. By September, he was the district’s assistant biologist.
He grew up in the Rogue Valley and had all kinds of wild pets including raccoons, skunks, lizards and snakes. Like many budding wildlife biologists, he trapped and spent a lot of his time in the woods.
Forty-five years is a good, long career, and biologists keep detailed journals of their work. From that wealth of information, Coggins plans to not only write articles about bighorn sheep and the threat of disease, but he’s got a book planned and a new office being built outside his home.
But first, he’s going on the Christmas Bird Count in Troy Dec. 29, a final field trip before he “hangs it up.”
On Feb. 16, a celebration of his work will be held at the Wallowa County Fairgrounds’ Cloverleaf Hall.
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