The wolf as political animal: A story older than Oregon itself

Written by Katy Nesbitt, The Observer January 30, 2013 09:46 am

Wolves have played a unique role in the human psyche throughout history, and the argument continues whether the two should share the landscape.

Hunkering yards away from human campfires, living, in part, off discarded scraps, the more docile members of ancient wolf packs became the ancestors of domestic dogs.

Their gregarious nature and pack structure that resembles a family, are familiar to people and even, to some, endearing.

On the flip-side, their brutal-seeming dinner table manners, eating prey sometimes while it is still alive, has stricken fear in the hearts of their human neighbors — vilifying them as agents of the devil. Their violent reputation inspired fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs.”

Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “When you find out what it is that frightens people so much about wolves, let me know.”

Stone has spent her career studying, working with and educating about wolves.

Love them or hate them, the reality remains that wolves are hunters and don’t discern between wild game and livestock — it all eats the same.

European settlers viewed wolves in a much different way than did the indigenous peoples of North America. As hunters, the natives may have been in competition with wolves for game, but they also revered them.

Si Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe said, “The wolf is my brother.”

But much of the world has fought against wolves to the point of their extirpation, or totally abolishment, in much of Europe and most of the lower 48 U.S. states.

According to Stanley P. Young and Edward A. Goldman’s “The Wolves of North America,” expensive control measures, including government bounties paid to people who kill wolves, date back at least to ancient Greece.

“Intolerable depredations by wolves finally led to the federal appropriations to control predatory animals in the United States,” said Young and Goldman.

It was true in Oregon. Predators became such a pressing issue that territory members came together in Champoeg, a former Willamette Valley town, for what have become known as “the wolf meetings.”

Young and Goldman wrote “…efforts to destroy the wolf in this country were instrumental in formation of the Oregon Territory. The ‘wolf meetings’ of Oregon, officially the formal sessions of the Oregon Wolf Organization, drew pioneer leaders of the Northwest together as did no other objective.”

With wolves and wolf eradication as the drawing card, meeting organizers were successful in assembling significant numbers of settlers to discuss formation of a civil government in the region.

These discussions culminated with the creation of Oregon as the 33rd state on Feb. 14, 1859.

Wolf bounty records provide some indirect data on the distribution and abundance of wolves both before and after statehood.

The first wolf bounty in Oregon was established in 1843 during the Oregon Wolf Association meetings. The bounty for a large wolf was set at $3 and was paid from “subscriptions” to the association.

The Oregon State Game Commission began offering a $20 wolf bounty in 1913 in addition to the regular $5 paid by the state at the time. During the period of Oct. 1, 1913, through May 10, 1914, payments were made on 30 wolves in Oregon: Douglas County, 10; Crook County, 6; Clackamas County, 6; Linn County, 6; and Lane County, 1.

During the period 1913-1946, 393 wolves were presented for payment in Oregon (Olterman and Verts 1972). Many of these wolves were taken prior to the mid-1930s and no more than two wolves per year were bountied after 1937.

Vernon Bailey wrote the first major work on Oregon mammals in 1936, titled “The Mammals and Life Zones of Oregon.” He said wolves were present in most timbered areas of Oregon. He said wolves were most common in the western portion of Oregon, from the western foothills of the Cascade Range to the Coast.

This observation may have been influenced by the distribution of the human population rather than directly related to abundance of wolves. Information regarding wolves from other locations in Oregon where good habitat existed might not have been available.

The last record of a wolf submitted for bounty in Oregon was in 1946, for a wolf killed in the Umpqua National Forest in southwest Oregon.

For more than 50 years Oregonians lived without the presence of wolves despite many landmarks around the state bearing wolf in their names.

Wolf sightings in the intermittent years were primarily in northern states that share a border with Canada, where wolves continued to thrive. With the 1973 passage of the federal Endangered Species Act, wolves were granted protection.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wolves began to successfully recolonize northwestern Montana in the early 1980s. By 1995, six packs lived in northwestern Montana.

In 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves from southwestern Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park (31 wolves) and central Idaho (35 wolves). By 1999 more than 141 wolves were living in Idaho. 

That year a female wolf from Idaho, known as B-45, showed up in Baker County.

B-45, which was wearing a radio collar that allowed biologists to track the animal’s movements, was eventually captured by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 1999 near the Middle Fork of the John Day River, in Grant County, and returned to Idaho.

Two other wolves that made their way into Oregon not long after were found dead. In May 2000 a radio-collared male wolf from Idaho was hit and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 84 near Baker City, and in October 2000 an un-collared male wolf was found shot between Ukiah and Pendleton. Genetic analysis determined the un-collared wolf was also from Idaho.

The arrival of wolves sparked intense interest throughout the state as Oregonians debated the possibility of wolves dispersing into Oregon from Idaho and establishing a permanent population.

Views ranged from concern about the effects of wolves on livestock and native ungulates such as deer and elk, to support for the return of a native species. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association in 2002 petitioned the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to have the wolf removed from state protection. The same year, conservation groups filed a petition with the Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt certain specific conservation measures for the wolf.

Both the petitions were rejected by the commission.

Wolves have been classified as endangered in Oregon under the Oregon Endangered Species Act since it was established by the Oregon Legislature in 1987, and continue to be listed as endangered.

When the Oregon Legislature enacted the Oregon ESA in 1987, it grandfathered onto the Oregon list all species native to Oregon that were then listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. State law generally does not allow “take” (i.e., killing or obtaining possession or control according to the state of Oregon definition of wolves).

Wallowa County convened a Wolf Summit in Enterprise in February 2000.

This meeting brought parties of interest together to share information about wolf presence in Oregon.