on June 09, 2015
on June 09, 2015
WALLOWA COUNTY – After years of relative quiet, Oregon's war over wolves is returning as two milestones converge, leaving protections for the small but growing population wide open to change.Such an opportunity to rewrite wolf management might not come again for years and has the predators' advocates and enemies staking their ground in both conversations.
Conservationists argue 77 known wolves is nowhere near enough to consider loosening protections, while ranchers insist wolves have hurt their bottom line enough to justify giving them more leeway to kill wolves to protect their cattle.
For three years straight, at least four breeding pairs have survived the winter. Under the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, once that happens the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission can consider delisting. The commission could make that decision as early as this fall.
The plan also calls for an update every five years, with interested parties free to petition the state for changes. "I'm expecting a lot of requests," said Russ Morgan, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's wolf coordinator.
Wolves' return to Oregon
When Lori Schaafsma hears a howl in the night, she fears rising the next morning to find a dead calf or steer among the 105 head of cattle she and her husband, Tom, keep on 230 acres near Joseph. "When I hear that howling in the timber, I know it's their mating season," said Schaafsma, 53. "We've been living with it day to day."Wally Sykes recalls his first wolf encounter with fonder memories. The Joseph retiree lives within earshot of the Imnaha pack, and for him their cries are a symbol of a righted historical wrong.
"They committed, in my mind, a sin when they eradicated wolves and created a deeply imbalanced and unnatural environment," said Sykes, 69. "Now things are returning to normal, and ranchers' management practices are going to adjust."
Wolves once roamed Oregon in far greater numbers. Their extermination was swift and government-sanctioned, with residents collecting bounties for their carcasses. By the mid-1900s, Oregon's wolves were gone.
The state stayed wolf-free until 1999, when a loner from Idaho's reintroduced population crossed the border into northeastern Oregon. Several more sightings in the ensuing years triggered a rancorous debate about how state wildlife managers should respond if wolves established permanent territory.
A 1999 poll found more than 70 percent of Oregonians supported the wolves' return. But in the state's northeastern corner, where the animals were establishing their presence, attitudes were hostile.
The region's abundant wilderness makes it good wolf territory, but predators are also viewed as a threat to ranchers' livelihood. More than 38,000 cattle speckle the Zumwalt Prairie's rolling hills and graze on leased land in the surrounding federal forest. Beef is a multimillion-dollar industry in Wallowa County alone, pulling in $669 million statewide.
"The wolf has affected everybody," Joseph rancher Ramona Phillips said as she stood on the grassland where her cattle would turn out for the summer. Phillips, who helps lead the group Oregon Wolf Education, is among the state's most vocal anti-wolf activists.
Recognizing that wolves were likely to establish a breeding presence, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife convened a task force to craft the 2005 Oregon Wolf Plan.
The plan is supposed to balance conservation with social and economic values. It forbids residents from killing wolves except in special circumstances, but allows wildlife officials to kill those that repeatedly prey on livestock. It establishes population milestones with increasingly relaxed protections. The stated goal is to remove wolves from the state's endangered species list.
The federal endangered species act still protects wolves west of highways 78, 95 and 395, but most of Oregon's wolves live outside that boundary in Wallowa, Union, Umatilla and Baker counties.
In 2008, three years after the plan took affect, wildlife biologists discovered the first wolf pups born in Oregon. Since then, their numbers have grown to include 77 known wolves from nine packs.
"To me that proves the wolf plan did work," said Morgan of ODFW. "We used to have no wolves, and now we're at this point where we're talking about a potential delisting. To me that's a success story."
Increase protections, or loosen them?
Commissioners have asked ODFW staff to recommend one of three actions: Keep wolves listed, delist them in the eastern part of the state, or delist them statewide.The state won't update the wolf plan until commissioners decide on the listing, but already conservationists and ranchers are angling to tip the rules in their favor.
Wolf advocates argue the relatively low rate of wolf-on-cattle attacks that Oregon ranchers experienced during the plan's first decade proves nonlethal management is working. They say the state's plan should put more emphasis on preventing conflicts between wolves and ranchers while reserving lethal force as a last resort.
"The last three years have shown that there's no rush to pick up the gun and put out the trap," said Rob Klavins, who leads conservation group Oregon Wild's work in northeastern Oregon.
Oregon Wild also plans to ask the state to more clearly define which preventive tactics ranchers must try before they can kill a wolf.
Ranchers receive payouts from the Oregon Department of Agriculture for cattle killed by wolves if they have taken measures to ward off attacks. At the very least, the agency recommends they clean up cow carcasses to avoid luring scavengers. The state has also invested in noisemaking machines and flagging to deter wolves, and paid range riders who patrol pastures.
As Oregon's wolf population has grown, attacks on cattle have remained uncommon. Last year, with 64 known wolves living in Oregon, ODFW investigated livestock deaths 34 times and found wolves culpable in 11 instances.
Government statistics show 60,000 cattle and calves died in Oregon in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Illness, birthing complications and the weather are by far the top causes of cattle deaths nationwide. Predators cause far fewer deaths, and within that category, coyotes kill 15 times more cattle than wolves do. "Not killing wolves won't decimate the livestock industry," Klavins said. "They're accepting the losses to other things, but then these couple of wolf depredations are a big deal."
The Oregon Cattlemen's Association questions those statistics. Todd Nash, the group's wolf liaison, argues the rate of wolf attacks on livestock could be more than twice the number Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials cite. "I've kidded before it'd be easier to get O.J. Simpson convicted than to get ODFW to confirm a wolf kill," Nash said.
Citing concerns of bias from an agency in charge of both conserving wolves and conducting investigations that could result in wolves' death, the cattlemen's association wants the plan to designate another agency to lead livestock death investigations.
Getting a confirmed kill is important for ranchers. In addition a payout for the rancher, each confirmed kill moves wildlife officials one step closer to killing a wolf. After two strikes on a grazing allotment in the part of the state where wolves are not federally protected, ODFW could consider killing a wolf.
The cattlemen also want ODFW to cap the number of wolves Oregon can sustain. Oregon's wolf plan doesn't establish a target, but calls for at least seven breeding pairs for three straight years before protections reach their lowest level.
Scientists estimate Oregon has enough good habitat to support 1,450 wolves when human pressures are taken into account.
What science tells us
Politics aside, it's clear wolves play an important role in the wild. Without them, as Oregon State University ecologist and wolf expert William Ripple puts it, "the ecosystem unravels." Scientists frequently cite the ecological benefits reaped after wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park.
The wolves began preying on moose, elk, deer and other grazing animals, which kept their numbers down and altered their behavior. That prevented overgrazing and allowed native plants such as willows and aspen to regrow. With those plants' return, beavers had more food and materials to build dams. And the dams recharge aquifers, providing an important water source during drought.
Scientists call it a trophic cascade. "The predators affect the prey, which affect the plants," Ripple said. "Therefore, the predators indirectly help the plants."
Researchers aren't sure how many wolves Oregon would need to achieve those benefits.
Groups representing the state's hunters point toward those ecological successes as concerns. Having fewer deer and elk makes their sport more difficult. Oregon Outdoor Council chairman Stan Steele said the group supports delisting and is tracking the conversation about wolves in Oregon.
"Wolves are going to survive very well, and I think thrive in Oregon," Steele said. "Not unlike deer and not unlike elk, they need to be a managed population."
Research also indicates coyotes thrive when wolves struggle. But ranchers point out a key difference between wolves and coyotes. "If a coyote comes in, we can take care of it," Phillips said. "Why is it different, that wolves can come in and eat my neighbors' cattle?"
Looking down the road
In the near term, a decision to remove wolves' state-protection listing would change little about Oregon's management practices. But a delisting would open the possibility of hunting wolves in the coming years – a practice forbidden for Oregon's endangered animals.The Oregon Wolf Plan allows hunting as a tool to reduce conflict with livestock once the wolf population reaches at least seven breeding pairs for three straight years. That milestone could come as early as 2017.
The plan doesn't make room for sport hunting, which could be approved only by the Legislature or the fish and wildlife commission. "Delisting doesn't mean the doors come open and the agency can do whatever it feels like," ODFW's Morgan said. "We still have a plan, and the plan dictates our decisions."
With or without a delisting, Morgan said Oregon wolf territory will continue to expand south and west. Celebrity wolf OR-7 and his mate are denning up for their second litter in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National forest, a lone adult has been hanging out near the California border and state wildlife managers regularly receive unconfirmed reports from other parts of the state.
Wildlife experts say it's only a matter of time before wolves establish a presence in the Mount Hood National Forest, and perhaps even the coast range. By the time ODFW reopens the wolf plan for a 2020 update, Morgan said, there could be more than 200 wolves in Oregon.
-- Kelly House