Packs spreading out throughout region

September 20, 2013 10:00 am

A remote camera caught an image of three pups from the newly formed Mt. Emily pack in July. To qualify as a breeding pair, two pups must survive until Dec. 31. (ODFW photo)
A remote camera caught an image of three pups from the newly formed Mt. Emily pack in July. To qualify as a breeding pair, two pups must survive until Dec. 31. (ODFW photo)

State says sightings, information show wolves moving into Mt. Emily Wildlife Unit 

Wolves continue to disperse across Northeast Oregon, establishing territories in Wallowa, Umatilla and Union counties. The state’s newest documented pack roams the Mt. Emily wildlife unit, which reaches from La Grande to Pendleton.

In recent months, wildlife biologists investigated scores of wolf sightings from the outskirts of La Grande to Summerville to the Pumpkin Ridge area outside of Elgin until enough evidence was gathered to confirm a pair was using the area as part of its home range and not merely passing through. According to Russ Morgan, state wolf biologist, the pack has been in the high country for several months. A few months ago it was photographed on a motion detection camera.

“This summer the Mt. Emily pack has primarily been in the forested, northern part of the unit, but from the bits and pieces of information we received last spring they were down lower,” Morgan said. “A landowner got an image of them in the Pumpkin Ridge area last spring. So what we’re seeing is expected seasonal distribution. Where they were in the spring is not necessarily where they are in the summer and where they are going to be in the winter is unknown.”

So far, none of the Mt. Emily wolves have been collared, so biologists have had to use other information to track them. As with each of the other packs, Morgan said he intends to trap and collar a member of this newest pack when conditions are right. A wolf should be bigger than 50 pounds to be able manage a collar and biologists stay away from setting traps in the winter because the wolves’ feet can freeze.

Wolves around Elgin have been a reality for several years. Besides countless reported sightings, in 2010 a collared wolf from the Wenaha pack, which uses territory in both Union and Wallowa counties, was found shot dead in Jarboe Meadows. Last year, a wolf from the Walla Walla pack was caught in a coyote trap outside of Elgin on private land. When he was discovered, he was collared and safely released. That wolf, OR-16, dispersed to Idaho and was killed by a hunter.

This year, parvovirus killed two members of the Wenaha pack — a yearling and later one of this spring’s pups. Morgan said two females from the pack gave birth in different parts of their range, but all of the pups in one of the litters died. 

“Clearly two females pupped and one litter failed,” Morgan said. “We don’t know if it was the same male but it likely is the same male.”

Besides illness, Morgan said wolves kill each other. 

“As packs get closer and closer together, it creates strife and packs can have conflict between each other,” he said. “Sometimes those conflicts are significant and wolves are often their own limiting factor.”

The Wenaha pack, the longest documented in the state and first recognized in 2006, has had two breeding males. 

“The best we can tell there was a change in alpha males in the Wenaha pack. That’s a good example of how dynamic these packs are,” Morgan said.

Morgan said as habitats have filled and populations grow, wolves will continue to spread throughout the state.

“Now we see more packs and we will continue to see them across Northeast Oregon. It remains to be seen when they will show up in the Cascades and the rest of state,” Morgan said.

To be clear, there are many reports of wolves across the state, but they are elusive and quite active at night, so confirming sightings isn’t easy. Two collared wolves from the Imnaha Pack dispersed farther into the state two years ago. OR-7 has a GPS collar and telemetry information indicates he has roamed between Northern California and Southern Oregon since December 2011. OR-3, whose collar signal can only be picked up with a radio receiver, was last documented in Crook County outside of Prineville, also in 2011.

Morgan said the Minam pack is another resident pack that has established itself primarily in Union County but so far prefers to live in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency responsible for managing wolves in Eastern Oregon where they are federally delisted but still under state protection, collared a member of the Minam pack last summer. This summer it was determined both packs had pups, but to qualify as a breeding pack, two pups must survive until the end of December.

“What we are seeing in the Mt. Emily pack is a new start-up similar to what we’ve seen other places, but they are not officially a breeding pair until we see surviving young in the winter,” Morgan said. “All kinds of things can change. They had pups and as far as we know they still do. The important factor is how many pups become adults.”

Morgan said though wolves are populating the forested regions of Northeast Oregon and he expects them to continue to disperse, he sees the Grande Ronde Valley as a boundary and doubts that wolves will establish it as a home base.

“I don’t expect them to live and function in the valley, though they travel through and can get close to the rural and wildland interface,” he said. “Most of the time they are going to be in wilder lands. Wolves, like any other wild animal, shouldn’t be used to being around people.”