Two gray wolves were found dead of 'unnatural' causes in Wallowa County, where wolves are highly controversial. (The Associated Press)
The agency on Wednesday announced two adult wolves, one of them wearing a state tracking collar, were found dead on August 24.
Wolves are an endangered species in Oregon, and killing them is illegal except under special circumstances outlined in the Oregon Wolf Plan.
The state police announcement listed the cause of death as unknown, but state police spokesman Bill Fugate told The Oregonian/Oregonlive the wolves' manner of death "does not appear to be natural."
Asked whether the wolves were poached, Fugate said, "It's definitely being considered."
In Wallowa County, where wolves are protected under the state endangered species act but not the federal act, poaching a wolf can bring a year in jail and a fine of up to $6,250.
The wolves, a mating male and female known as the Sled Springs pair, had been raising pups born this spring. Wolf biologist Roblyn Brown of the state fish and wildlife department said it is unknown whether the pups are still alive.
Fugate declined to elaborate on the circumstances of the wolves' death, but noted their bodies were found on public land north of Enterprise. It's likely there were witnesses to the crime, he said.
"The evidence points toward humans being in the area at the time of the wolves' death," he said.
State officials discovered the wolves' bodies after the female's tracking collar emitted a signal indicating she was dead. State police and wildlife officials followed the signal to find two bodies lying 50 yards apart.
Police are asking anyone with information about the wolves' deaths to contact Senior Trooper Kreg Coggins at 541-426-3049, or to call the poaching tipster hotline at 1-800-452-788. Tipsters can also email TIP@state.or.us.
The deaths underscore mounting tensions as the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission considers removing wolves from the state's endangered species list. The losses bring Oregon's wolf population down to 79 known individuals, a number that has steadily increased since the first lone wanderer crossed the Idaho border into Oregon in 1999.
Conservationists called for legal action if poachers are deemed responsible.
Amaroq Weiss, a wolf organizer the Center for Biological Diversity, said she was saddened by the "highly suspicious" deaths. "We hope that if this is indeed the act of a misguided individual or individuals, they are quickly caught and brought to justice," Weiss said.
The Sled Springs pair was one of six established pairs or packs in Wallowa County, a rural ranching community where wolves remain controversial. Bumper stickers bearing the slogan "shoot, shovel and shut up" along with an illustration of a wolf in a hunting scope's crosshairs are commonplace.
Many ranchers see the predators as a threat to their livestock, and have pushed the state to remove endangered species protections that outlaw killing wolves except in special circumstances. Ranchers argue they need more freedom to take lethal action to prevent wolves from killing their livestock.
Last week, the state wildlife agency announced the Mount Emily pack near La Grand recently killed two sheep. The sheep kills are the pack's fifth attack on livestock or domestic animals this year, and could result in lethal action from the state.
Since wolves established themselves in Oregon, state officials have killed four in response to chronic attacks on livestock. Several wolves have been killed by poachers, but police have made no arrests.
In Washington, where wolves are also endangered, a man this week was fined $100 for chasing a wolf with his car, then shooting and killing the animal. Wildlife advocates argued the sentence was too lenient.
The Oregon wildlife commission is expected to consider next month whether wolves should remain listed as endangered in Oregon.
The Oregon Wolf Plan still would govern who can kill wolves, and under what circumstances.