Wolves expanding in numbers, territories

January 30, 2013 10:01 am

Wolves already have spread throughout Northeastern Oregon, and to California

The great debate over wolves in Oregon ranges from those who wanted them artificially introduced to demanding they be shot on sight.

Exit Interstate 84 in La Grande and head northeast on state highway 82. You will see a direct dichotomy in two different billboards. The first promotes wildlife from wolves to coyotes to bald eagles. The second billboard shows a wolf baring his teeth. An anti-wolf sign adorns a fence in Elgin.

In October 2010, while stakeholders attended a wildlife commission meeting in Bend discussing possible revisions to Oregon’s wolf management plan, a radio-collared Wenaha pack wolf was found shot dead in Jarboe Meadows on the Umatilla National Forest outside Elgin.

Another wolf was found dead in March 2012 in a private pasture in Cove. A necropsy discovered that the male wolf was shot and that he had been a member of the Imnaha pack.

Groups and individuals came together to offer rewards for information leading to the conviction of the poachers. Both cases remain unsolved.

Dispersal is a natural process for young adult wolves seeking out new territory and sometimes a mate.

Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the state, said it’s common for wolves to disperse from their packs to keep populations going.

“It’s like humans,” said Morgan “If we do a good job, our young leave home when they become adults.”

The Imnaha pack wolf found in Cove was a mountain pass away from his home range. Several of his siblings dispersed much farther.

In 2011, four collared wolves from the Imnaha pack are known to have dispersed far from Wallowa County. OR-5, a female, was last tracked to the north in Washington early that winter. OR-3, a young adult male, was photographed on a game camera outside of Fossil in July and was last reported in Central Oregon. OR-9 swam the Snake River and was shot during Idaho’s hunting season. And OR-7, perhaps Oregon’s most famous wolf, gained national acclaim when he traveled the entire length of the state to take up residence in northern California.

In December 2012, OR-16, a Walla Walla pack male wolf accidentally trapped outside of Elgin by USDA Wildlife Services on private land, was last tracked via his GPS collar to Idaho.

Per the wolf plan, Oregon biologists are tasked to provide the wildlife commission with a year-end count of breeding pairs, their packs and any other documented wolves. In early January 2013, Morgan had a count of 53 wolves, seven confirmed packs and at least five breeding pairs.

Morgan isn’t tied to a literal Dec. 31 deadline, but has some wiggle room to get year-end counts before the March wildlife commission meeting. With the Imnaha, Snake River, Wenaha, Walla Walla and Umatilla packs boasting at least two pups per pack, the clock starts to delist wolves from the Oregon Endangered Species Act.

The wolf plan requires that the state maintain four breeding pairs for three years to complete the first stage of delisting. The plan requires seven breeding pairs for the state to consider taking wolves off the list. When that happens, rules will change for producers protecting their livestock. It also opens up the possibility for a controlled hunt of wolves.

2012 was the first year wolf packs were documented in Umatilla County. It was also the first year they were blamed for livestock loss in the county.

Morgan said the Umatilla pack’s territory includes the Umatilla Reservation, a sovereign nation outside the state’s authority and the dictate of the wolf plan.

“We have a good relationship with the Umatilla Tribe. They are writing an approach on how they will deal with wolves and how the confederation interacts with the state,” said Morgan.

Carl Scheeler, the tribe’s lead wildlife biologist, said the Umatilla pack spends a fair amount of time on the reservation and the alpha male was recently caught on a trail camera his department uses to monitor wolf activity.

Scheeler said the tribe’s initial preference is to use nonlethal methods to deter wolf/livestock interaction.

“We removed bone piles and attractants so they didn’t create problems,” said Scheeler.

He said the reservation’s landscape of mixed forest and grasslands is going to provide challenges to find dead livestock and prove wolf-caused kills. On the other hand, it’s home to mule deer, whitetail deer and Rocky Mountain elk.

“It’s very possible they can co-exist with ranching — there’s plenty of food for them,” said Scheeler.

Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife is working with the tribe and its landscape, said Scheeler, to determine what nonlethal techniques are most effective.

The tribe has been involved with wolf recovery since before the state wrapped itself around the idea that it needed a plan to deal with dispersing wolves from the east.

Scheeler said the Umatilla tribe advocated for a proactive plan and coordinated closely with the Nez Perce.

“We’ve been involved since the first wolf came in (B-45). We called a meeting to instigate action when the state wasn’t willing and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was standing in the wings. We needed a proactive plan how to deal with wolves coming into Oregon. Stepping into the cold water of wolf management it was an education,” said Scheeler.

Ken Hall represented the tribe on the wolf plan committee, said Scheeler, and when a compensation committee was formed in Umatilla County, Scheeler was asked to serve as a member.

“The tribe welcomes the natural recovery of the wolf, but they recognize the need to balance it with other economic and social issues and health and human safety issues,” said Scheeler. “It’s safe to say that in any population of people there are those on both sides of the continuum and tribes are no different. Some think wolves are the worst thing to ever impact wildlife and livestock, and then I have tribal members that are passionate and consider them sacred.”