Russ Morgan, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf coordinator, poses with Oregonís first radio-collared wolf as it recovers from anesthesia used during the collaring effort. While old-timers say Oregonís native wolves were just slightly larger than a coyote, with males weighing about 80 pounds, there are reports on the Internet of wolves in Idaho weighing over 170 pounds, said Rod Childers, a rancher near Enterprise and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemenís Association. ODFW photo
As wolves continue to re-establish themselves in Oregon, a debate simmers over whether they are similar to the animals wiped out following state-sponsored hunts that ended in the 1940s.
Many ranchers and critics of wolf revival say they’re bigger and nastier than the ones that once roamed the state. Supporters of wolves and those behind their reintroduction say those claims are overblown and are used to vilify the predator.
As a rancher near Dayville, about 120 miles east of Bend, Harry Stangel, 66, doesn’t want to see wolf packs return to Central Oregon. He says the wolves are an exotic species.
“It’s a Canadian wolf,” he said. “It’s not the wolf that (was) indigenous to Oregon and Idaho.”
Oregon paid a bounty on wolves to spur the eradication of the native animal, which was troublesome for livestock growers. That practice ended in the 1940s.
Federal wildlife managers reintroduced wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, using wolves from the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, said Ed Bangs, who oversaw the reintroduction effort for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until retiring last summer. While the progenitors of the wolves that have spread into Oregon over the last four years are “Canadian” wolves, he said, they don’t have the diabolical characteristics claimed by their critics.
“We’ve been hearing this for 20 years,” he said. “... It’s about people, it’s not really about wolves.”
Question of size
While old-timers say Oregon’s native wolves were just slightly larger than a coyote, with males weighing about 80 pounds, there are reports on the Internet of wolves in Idaho weighing over 170 pounds, said Rod Childers, a rancher near Enterprise and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
“They are bigger, and they are going to demand more food,” he said.
That food is deer, elk and, possibly, cattle.
Bangs, who lives in Helena, Mont., said examinations of skulls from modern wolves and ancient wolves from Oregon show that today’s wolves in the West are bigger, but only by a matter of millimeters when it comes to the head size. That supports the scientific phenomenon of animals that live farther from the equator being larger than those close to it, because larger bodies hold heat better than smaller bodies. He said there are only a few samples of wolves from before they were wiped out in Oregon.
“In the old days people were much more interested in killing than weighing them or studying them,” Bangs said.
For the reintroduction, the Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, he said. Those wolves were closely studied, as were the wolves in packs around Idaho, Montana and Oregon that have grown since.
“All I know is we’ve weighed a couple of thousand of them and we’ve never had one that weighed over 145 pounds,” Bangs said, “Even with a belly full of meat.”
Articles from January 1910 editions of The Bend Bulletin report from the Prineville Review about a large gray wolf killed for a $117.50 bounty after it continually attacked yearlings on the Crooked River near Prineville. The wolf was said to be “the largest ever seen in this part of the country, weighing about 120 pounds.” One of the articles referred to the “large brute” as a timber wolf.
While there are still questions about whether wolves should be called timber wolves, tundra wolves or prairie wolves, Bangs said those names don’t divide subspecies.
“They are all just gray wolves, but people call them names based on where they live,” Bangs said. “Wolves were here long before there was a Canada or United States or Alaska — so they are just wolves.”
There are smaller wolves, with females weighing about 70 pounds and males about 80, found in Mexico, Bangs said. Federal wildlife managers reintroduced these wolves to Arizona and New Mexico in the late 1990s, but none have wandered into the Northwest.
Along with being bigger, Stangel, the Dayville rancher, says the wolves moving back into Oregon are more bloodthirsty than the state’s long-gone native wolves.
For evidence he points to wolf attacks in Eastern Oregon, like the string of attacks that left nearly 30 sheep dead near Baker City in 2009.
“They killed them for the hell of it,” he said.
While such attacks may seem like instances where wolves are killing more animals than they’ll eat, the “surplus” killing doesn’t show the wolves are meaner, said John Stephenson, Fish and Wildlife Service wolf coordinator for Oregon.
Domestic animals, particularly sheep, aren’t able to defend themselves. So attacks by wolves, cougars and domestic dogs can lead to high body counts, he said. While it can seem like wolves may be killing more meat than they’ll eat, people who find the dead domestic animals often run the wolves off before they finish eating or prevent them from returning to the kill.
“I don’t think they are (killing) for fun,” Stephenson said.
Other rumors following wolves as they spread into Oregon are that they cluster in larger packs, carry deadly tapeworms and that there are more of them than reported.
Stephenson said all wolves look to form packs. Bangs said some do carry a tapeworm, but people are much more likely to acquire one from a domestic dog than a wolf. Stephenson said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s estimate of a couple dozen wolves in the state is based on what it can verify.
Stangel said he doesn’t trust state and federal information about wolves.
“The government absolutely lies,” he said.
As with many issues that become political, those on opposite sides of the wolf revival issue are searching for facts and figures to support their arguments, Bangs said. While many ranchers and wolf critics show photos of massive wolves, conservation and environmental groups favoring wolves bring up studies that show wolves bring a balance to ecosystems and other benefits.
Those studies are backed by science, argues Sean Stevens, for Oregon Wild. He said wolf critics are looking for anything to make the animals now in Oregon seem different from those that were here before.
“The more they can make it seem they are a different animal, the more it can seem that they don’t belong,” he said.
The disagreements about wolves often lead back to their interaction with livestock and how people should respond if wolves, which are still protected by state and federal laws in most of Oregon, do kill cattle and sheep.
“There is a reason pioneers got rid of wolves,” Bangs said. “They can be a real pain in the (butt) sometimes.”