Friday, March 4, 2016

OSP investigating pair of wolf poaching cases

Oregon State Police are still investigating two cases of wolf poaching in Eastern Oregon dating back to last year.
EO Media Group
Published on March 2, 2016
Photo courtesy USFWS, William Campbell
Oregon State Police are investigating two cases of wolf poaching in Eastern Oregon. Photo courtesy USFWS, William Campbell Oregon State Police are investigating two cases of wolf poaching in Eastern Oregon

Poachers shot and killed three wolves last year in Eastern Oregon. In one of those cases, a Baker City man turned himself in and pleaded guilty.

The other two incidents, however, remain unsolved. What’s more, they weren’t mentioned by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife or Oregon State Police until after ODFW published its 2015 wolf report on Monday.

The news riled some conservationists, including Steve Pedery, conservation director with Oregon Wild, who said it appeared ODFW was trying to tamp down the controversy.

“It really adds to the cynicism of a lot of folks in the conservation community who feel ODFW is hell-bent on getting out of their responsibility to protect these animals,” Pedery said.

Russ Morgan, ODFW wolf coordinator, said the department is following up on the shot wolves, but state police are in charge of handling those investigations.

“It’s just the way they’re being investigated,” Morgan said. “It’s not out of any attempt to not be forthcoming.”

The first case of poaching came on Sept. 7, 2015, two months before the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to remove gray wolves from the state endangered species list. OR-34, a wolf from the Walla Walla pack, was shot on private property within the pack’s home range.

One month later, Brennon Witty of Baker City shot OR-22 in Grant County after he said he confused the wolf with a coyote. OR-22 had previously wandered into the area after dispersing from the Umatilla River pack. Witty was fined $1,000, ordered to pay restitution and forfeited his rifle to the state.

Finally, on Dec. 23, OR-31 of the Mount Emily pack was killed on public land near the boundary of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. By then, wolves had been taken off the state endangered species list. Sgt. Tim Brown, with the OSP Fish and Wildlife Division in Pendleton, is investigating the two open cases. He said they are not related, and both happened in remote areas with limited access.

“We’re trying to investigate as thoroughly as we can, and protect any clues we have,” Brown said. “We have leads we’re following. Some of that stuff just takes time.”

Brown said OSP typically doesn’t issue releases on these cases unless police think the public can provide additional information. Since these two wolves were found in such isolated country, he said they didn’t feel it was necessary. By no means were they trying to deceive the public, he said.

“As isolated as they were, the individuals who shot those wolves in both these cases are likely the only ones who know about it,” Brown said.

Pedery, though, said it sends the wrong message to keep quiet about poaching cases while publicizing every incident of livestock predation — especially as the legislature is considering whether to affirm the state’s decision to delist wolves.

“I think for anyone looking at how the last few months have gone down, it should be disturbing that these two poachings were buried down in this report,” he said.

The 2015 wolf report highlighted a 34 percent population increase in Oregon, reaching a minimum of 110 wolves by the end of the year. The number of wolf attacks on livestock confirmed by ODFW actually decreased for the second year in a row.

ODFW also found a new pack of wolves in southern Umatilla and Morrow counties, located in the Heppner unit. Morgan said they made the discovery on Jan. 18, and biologists will try to catch and collar at least one of the five wolves to learn more about them.

“They’re in some pretty remote area,” Morgan said. “Undoubtedly, the adults dispersed from other packs. That’s how this works.”

The pack hasn’t yet been named. Morgan said they were spotted west of Battle Mountain.