What price for wolves?
I’m a wolf lover. The first time I heard one howl sent a much-needed chill down my spine. Over an elk carcass, I watched wolves play tug-of-war with a massive grizzly. In mid-stream of the Lamar River, one morning, I observed a pack bouncing off the back of a bucking bull elk. Visual images I’ll carry to my grave.
Yes, I’ve heard the talk -–- wolves are keeping the ungulates away from the riparian areas, allowing the vegetation to re-grow, benefitting everything from
beavers and mink to fish and songbirds. For decades, I’ve made annual trips to Yellowstone and have seen this myself.
It doesn’t take a PH.D in biology to figure it all out. Before Europeans set foot on this continent, wolves were pretty much the sole guardians of the landscape –-- keeping forage and disease in balance with the great herds. Our Creator likely put in a little overtime building such an efficient culling machine.
As an avid elk lover, with a basic grasp of how adaptation works, it’s not difficult to understand what Aldo Leupold intended when he suggested the very beauty, regal stature and swiftness of the elk, deer and pronghorn were “carved by the fang of the wolf.”
The attributes I treasure most about our beloved elk would be absent were it not for the constant pressure by predators.
Yellowstone and the pre-European prairies needed the wolf. But, I wonder if Northeast Oregon in the 21st century does.
Today, we have farms and ranches, cattle and sheep, and lots of people laced throughout our landscapes.
As much as a wolf can travel in one day, we really don’t have a wilderness large enough to keep them away from our assets and let them do the good deeds they once did. Now, hunters are keeping the game herds in check.
And, what about the wolves themselves ---- will they ever be happy here? It seems every time they get hungry, someone is poking darts in their hides, swooping over them with copters and outright killing them.
In wolf culture, every time you remove an alpha member it tends to disrupt the whole order of the pack. “Our” wolves really aren’t wolves, they’ve been reduced to skulking beasts –-- dodging bullets, highways and angry people. And does it look to get any better?
Aside from the loss of livestock and great stress to local landowners, what troubles me the most about the wolf program is the cost of forcing wolves into our society. Range riders, wolf coordinators, copter pilots and forensic labs don’t work for free. And a good deal of this money is coming from the “wildlife fund” in one way or another. The mere handful of wolves we have in Wallowa County has already cost nearly a million dollars. Wow, what else could we have done with that money?
Do the math. Considering the wolf that traveled to California, it’s reasonable to assume that every county in our state will have wolves someday. Nothing is in their way. If the couple of packs in Wallowa County have already cost a million dollars, and they haven’t yet reached their preferred population level, how much will it cost when all Oregon counties have wolves at target levels? And where will that money come from?
Today, Oregon wildlife programs are suffering severe neglect. It’s a bit sad in a way, but much of the limited money is spent on game species, because the support is there –-- mostly from hunters (oddly, $28,000 of 2012’s hunting fees will be spent on the wolf program). Non-game species are slipping through the cracks. In just this fiscal year alone, over $64,000 of the already meager non-game dollars will be spent on our couple of wolf packs. Songbirds, our beautiful raptors and a myriad of other species will all suffer the funding sacrifices for a couple dozen canines.
What would a million dollars do for the enormous weed problem we have on our range and timber lands? Most hunters, ranchers and politicians don’t realize it, but the severe loss of forage to both game and livestock, from such blights as cheat grass, medusahead, star thistle and knapweed, makes wolf depredation pale in comparison. One million dollars could purchase a lot of herbicide or control research.
In truth, most pro-wolf people in our state will never see an Oregon wolf. Yet, in a good day’s travel they could be on the banks of the Lamar, enjoying wolves as I have. They’d see wolves as they should be seen –-- as an asset to the ecosystem.
Have these people crunched the numbers and do they really understand the sacrifices their interests are forcing on other species?
Yes, people are in the way of the wolf’s prosperity. But whose daughter, grandson, husband or aunt do you want out of the way?
Jim Ward photographs and writes about the wildlife of Northeast Oregon.