With his dogs in the lead, Kurt McCormack uses a GPS collar to hunt for an Imnaha wolf. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
JOSEPH — Kurt McCormack travels up the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road on a hot, July morning in his pickup, with a horse trailer in tow. He’s headed to the hills to look for signs of wolves among cattle grazing summer pasture.
Each morning, McCormack and dozens of ranchers in the Imnaha wolf pack territory receive a text message regarding the whereabouts of the only Imnaha wolf with a working GPS collar. On days when he receives a text, McCormack uses the information to try and narrow down where the collared wolf is. If he’s concerned about wolves near cattle, he calls the ranchers and lets them know.
A number of Imnaha wolves have been collared, including the breeding male, OR-4. He is hard on collars; he’s been collared three times and his current GPS device isn’t working. If McCormack is within a line of sight of him, anywhere from a half mile to 20 depending on the terrain, he can pick up the collar’s VHF signal.
The original breeding female was the first Imnaha wolf to be collared. OR-2 is presumed dead; her collar quit emitting signals last year and, according to wolf biologist Russ Morgan, it appears OR-4 has mated with a different female this year.
Several other collared wolves dispersed from the area including OR-3, last known to be in Crook County; OR-5 and OR-8 were killed in Idaho; and OR-7, who left Wallowa County in 2011, and was discovered with a mate and a litter of pups on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest this spring.
Collaring wolves is expensive and time consuming, yet provides two important functions — it gives Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife the ability to communicate with ranchers when wolves are near livestock and to track the movement of dispersing wolves. This information can help biologists understand where wolves are breeding as well as what habitat they prefer.
Two major obstacles for wolf dispersal in Oregon are Interstate 84 and Interstate 5. Collar information from OR-18, a Snake River wolf who went on a walkabout last winter, indicated that he tried, and failed, to cross I-84 at several points. Instead he ended up crossing into Idaho and made it to the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana before being killed by a poacher in May. OR-7, the best-documented wandering Oregon wolf, successfully crossed I-84, but collar data indicates that he’s hasn’t found a good opportunity to cross I-5.
McCormack starts the day by riding his horse into Forest Service managed grazing land along a single-track trail. He stops to inspect scat that looks relatively fresh. He also looks for scat and prints, but the receiver and antenna he carries don’t work well in canyons.
“The signal can bounce from ridge to ridge making it difficult to know exactly where the collared wolf is,” said McCormack.
If he finds something interesting, he takes a picture with a camera that doubles as a GPS unit.
Riding through as many as four different herds, he also notes how content the cows are – if they appear distressed, he lets the rancher know. This day all of the cows are paired with calves and appear content. “Those look like happy girls.”
McCormack and his horse make several stream crossings, but at one point logs have been placed in the creek for ATV riders and the horse is spooked. He dismounts and leads the horse through the creek, but upon his return finds another route that the horse finds less intimidating.
This remote part of the Wallowa-Whitman is quiet except for the occasional low of the cows, a retardant plane flying overhead, and the startling crash of rocks from the opposite canyon wall.
For the full story, see Friday's issue of The Observer