With nine packs and six pairs that may grow to form more, Oregon's gray wolf population is increasing at a healthy pace.
SALEM — With nine known packs and six “start-up pairs” identified, Oregon’s gray wolves are continuing to increase and are spreading from the northeast corner of the state, the state’s wolf program coordinator reported to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission Friday.
Wildlife biologist Russ Morgan said Oregon’s wolves are increasing at a pace identical to their recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains.
“From a conservation perspective this is very much a measure of success,” Morgan said.
The 2014 shows Oregon has a minimum of 77 wolves, including 26 known pups, in nine packs. More importantly, eight of those packs contained breeding pairs, meaning they had at least two pups that survived to the end of the year.
The numbers mean ODFW now moves into what’s known as Phase 2 of the Oregon Wolf Plan, the hard-fought compromise that governs wolf conservation and management in the state. It also means the agency can propose removing wolves from the state’s endangered species list. That’s likely to be a lengthy public process. More immediately, Phase 2 gives ranchers the right to shoot wolves caught in the act of biting, killing or chasing livestock.
State delisting would eliminate endangered species status for wolves in the eastern third of the state. Wolves in the rest of Oregon — all areas west of state Highways 395, 78 and 95 — remain covered under the federal Endangered Species Act, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal jurisdiction includes the Southwest Oregon Cascades now inhabited by the well-traveled OR-7 and his mate and pups.
Oregon’s true wolf population is unknown but is certainly higher than 77, Morgan said. The state tracks wolves from signals emitted by radio collars, but only 33 wolves have been collared in a decade of work. Many of those collars have failed, or the wolves have died or been killed, leaving researchers with only 13 collared wolves at year’s end. Three radio-collared wolves dispersed out of state in 2014, Morgan said. One was killed in Idaho, one was killed in Montana, and the third is living in Washington, Morgan said.
In his remarks to the wildlife commission and in an interview, Morgan said five of the six pairs living outside designated packs are known to be male-female pairs, which could produce pups and expand to pack status.
“These pairs are very important, they really represent an increasing population,” Morgan said.
In comments to the commission, representatives of three hunting organizations said the state should continue following the wolf plan guidelines.
“Certainly the population growth has caused some issues, but we strongly support staying the course with your plan,” said Dave Wiley, representing the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Stephanie Taylor of Portland, who said she has an environmental science degree and hopes to become a wolf biologist, said it is “premature” to allow ranchers to take lethal measures against wolves.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said the population increase means it is time to “think about the maximum number of wolves that will be acceptable.”
Rosa said the OCA is working on a idea to help fund endangered species programs with a self-imposed fee assessed to ranchers. “It would be unprecedented for our organization,” he said.
The OCA has previously said it expects more attacks on livestock this year if wolves remain on the endangered species list.
Conservation groups oppose delisting Oregon wolves too soon. Oregon Wild, a key player in formulating the wolf plan, said the wolf count represents “great progress” but does not represent biological recovery. Conservation director Doug Heiken has said the state needs to see better geographical distribution of wolves as well. He said that will happen over time if wolves are not prematurely delisted and “persecuted.”