Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Where wolves thrive and prosper

Gary Lewis 
On a frosty morning when the road over the Cascades was blanketed in ice, I made my way to Salem to listen to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and testimony for and against the delisting of wolves. 

There are 81 wolves confirmed in 15 packs in Oregon. And we know pups were born in at least nine packs. With litters of four to seven for each female with young, it’s safe to say there are at least 100 Canadian grays in Oregon. 

Russ Morgan, the wolf program coordinator, presented the science in favor of removing the wolf from Endangered Species Act listing, of moving from phase 1 of Oregon’s Wolf Plan into phase 2.
At the end of the 11-hour session, the commission voted to delist the wolf. The wolf is considered established in Oregon. Though Morgan showed a map that identified locations of known packs and individuals, a lot of people in the testimony that followed showed a marked ignorance of geography. 

Many who testified in opposition to delisting gave their home addresses in Portland and said the wolves were all in Northeast Oregon when Morgan showed there are wolves in Klamath County and Jackson County. There is known wolf activity in the Winema National Forest near Chiloquin and in the Cascades between Keno (west of Klamath Falls) and Medford. We call that Southern Oregon. 

To get there, wolves had to travel from the Imnaha and the Snake River watersheds through Central Oregon, into the Cascades. Wolves crossed the very highway I drove from Bend to Salem.
We know this because some of the relocating wolves are collared. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife calls them “collared dispersers,” and their movements help us understand what types of habitat wolves are attracted to. 

ODFW has documented dispersal of 19 collared wolves, some of which (42 percent) left for Washington or Idaho, and the rest changed addresses in Oregon, moving an average of 100 miles. But wolves don’t move in a straight line. In fact, the map showing each of the collared wolves’ movements resembled unraveled balls of colored yarn with wolves moving this and that way. Like anyone looking for a new place to live, they check out a lot of neighborhoods. 

Well-traveled roads seem to create boundaries and deterrents, but wolves frequent lightly traveled roads. The way they travel in the mountains is about efficiency, tending to move through valley bottoms, and, when on ridge tops, they use existing game trails. It makes sense, because that’s what deer and elk do. 

Wolves can be said to be a “passage species” much like salmon, which pass through available habitat as they move from place to place. The picture given was of a salmon that transitions through the mouth of the Columbia River. It needs that habitat to move from the ocean to its home spawning ground 300 miles upriver. 

A good example is the wolf known as OR-25, which was a yearling when he left the Imnaha. He passed through the Columbia Basin and the Blue Mountains and into the Cascades. In the mountains again, he stayed on the east slope, passing near Mount Bachelor. He is said to have moved through the Cascades in about five nights to take up residence in northern Klamath County. 

It’s important to remember we can track GPS-collared wolves, but in some cases there are other wolves with them. What are they looking for? 

Prey selection varies (deer, elk, cattle, sheep), but wolves demonstrate a preference for elk. Morgan showed several overlays including human population density, forest cover, a wolf potential range map and an elk distribution map. Morgan made the point that wolves seek out timbered country with elk herds. The average wolf, it is said, needs about 35 deer and elk per year. 

Besides fewer elk and deer, what can we expect as wolves continue to grow in numbers? According to Morgan’s report, wolves occupy 31.6 percent of potential habitat in the east management zone (west of Highway 395) and are found in 2.7 percent of the available range in the west management zone. 

And what of OR-25? He killed a calf and injured two other beeves in the last week of October at a ranch near Chiloquin. These are thought to be the first attacks on livestock outside of Northeast Oregon since the 1940s. 

With delisting, very little is expected to change immediately, but management will eventually be handed over to ODFW biologists. 

At this time, the ESA delisting process for any species applies to the whole state — it’s all or nothing. The commission will ask the Legislature to allow for ESA delisting of other species in portions of the state in the future. And the commission supports increasing the maximum penalty for killing a wolf. Currently the penalty is $6,250 and a year in jail.