Call of the Wild

Discussing the fate of Oregon’s wolf conservation plan.

September 2, 2010

In case you slept through your alarm this morning, at 8:00 a.m. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials began taking local public comments on the state’s fledgling Wolf Conservation and Management Plan out in Hillsboro.

In place since 2005, the plan, which is currently undergoing a mandated 5-year review, was the state’s first-ever attempts at crafting legislation meant to ensure that people and wolves could try and live together.

From the wolf’s perspective, the plan is working. While still considered an endangered species, their numbers are increasing—a confirmed 20 wolves now call Oregon home. But out in the Eastern Oregon counties where the animals are roaming free once again, it’s been an uneasy truce. In the wake of six confirmed wolf attacks on calves last spring, a vocal coalition of ranchers and cattlemen would prefer to see Oregon return to the days when wolves were shot on sight, just as they were when the animals were eradicated from the state in the 1940s.

To get caught up on the issue yesterday I spoke to Oregon Wild’s Roadless Wildlands Advocate, Rob Klavins, who had just returned from a field trip to Wallowa County in which his group not only went in search of the controversial creatures, but also spent time speaking to residents whose daily lives are directly affected by the wolf’s return.

Where can you find wolves in the state?
There are two packs and two breeding pairs of wolves. The first is the Imnaha pack. There territory is in the Hell’s Canyon area to the east of Joseph and Enterprise. And the are 14 wolves in that pack, including 4 pups. That’s the pack that made the news this year for killing six calves. And then there’s the Wenaha pack, that’s north of Elgin in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. There are six wolves in that pack, including at least two pups. It’s pretty likely that there are some individual wolves running around in the Central Cascades looking to start a pack.

How does the state currently deal with conflict stemming from these animals?
In 2005, after a yearlong process of intense negotiations between stakeholders, including the tribes, conservation groups, hunting groups, and the livestock industry, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife came up with the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. Non-lethal techniques were prioritized within the plan, so that when there was conflict [with ranchers] we first tried to haze the wolves away. Oregon’s plan also sets recovery numbers that are minimum, but doesn’t cap the numbers. It doesn’t say, for example, once wolf numbers get over 500, we’re going to kill every single one, to keep it at 500. It’s a weak, but functional plan.

When can wolves be killed?
Last year, in the spring, we had a pair of wolves that killed some livestock in the Keating Valley—they had been attracted by a 2-acre carcass pit and they killed some sheep. ODFW worked with the rancher to eliminate the carcass pit, and to haze the wolves away. But unfortunately, the wolves came back and killed more livestock. ODFW came back and authorized the killing of those two wolves. Though we were saddened by [their deaths], it demonstrated that the plan gave ODFW more than enough tools to take care of ‘problem’ wolves. But because of that, the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, and the Farm Bureau went directly to Salem and said, we don’t have enough tools to deal with ‘problem’ wolves; we need to be able to kill any wolf that we see is threatening or harassing livestock. And that’s really problematic when that happens, you can’t actually enforce poaching laws—basically so long as you say, ‘I shot that wolf because he was threatening my livestock,’ you can shoot any wolf you want.

The state is seeking public comments on the plan through September. What’s the biggest change that you would like to see made?
Wolf recovery numbers are way too low. [Recovery amounts to having] four breeding pairs, for three consecutive years, in Eastern Oregon, and the same for Western Oregon. That’s a pretty low number before you delist them as an endangered species. Once they hit that point we can consider delisting and moving into the next phase of the wolf plan, which has looser restriction on killing them. Wolves can also be killed on public lands. Public lands are for all Oregonians, and most Oregonians value native wildlife, so the idea of a ‘problem’ wolf on public lands, that doesn’t sit well.

On the flipside of the issue, what business do a bunch of city slickers from Portland have trying to dictate policy that’s going to affect a rancher’s livelihood?
ODFW doesn’t work for the livestock industry. They work for all Oregonians. And Oregonians value wildlife. That’s their charge to conserve and manage wildlife for all Oregonians. People who value wildlife because they like to hunt, or because they just like to take pictures of them or know that they are out there, [or want to go] hiking and hear the howl of a wolf have just as much say in wildlife management as somebody who runs cattle on public lands that are supposed to be managed by the benefit of all.

Have you found any examples here of wolves and cattle ranchers that are able to successfully coexist?
Just because you are a rancher doesn’t mean that you are anti-wildlife and anti-wolf, or that you don’t like wolves. There’s a lot of those folks who understand holistic ecosystem management, why taking care of an entire ecosystem matters. We’ve got ranchers who are putting bells on their cattle; we have a Range Rider program being funded by conservation groups and the government, so that there’s someone out there riding with the cattle where the Imnaha Wolf Pack is, trying to prevent conflict. ODFW has worked with the ranchers to clean up the carcass pits, because when there weren’t predator issues, they were just leaving these big piles of dead carcasses [which can attract wolves]. That being said, there’s a lot of resistance to change. So, we’re hoping that cooler heads will prevail and we’ll start working proactively to learn to live with predators without resulting to bullets.

You just led a group of Oregon Wild members on a Wolf Rendezvous trip to the Wallowas. What did you hope to accomplish?
We thought it was important for people to see the landscape that [the wolves] are in and to give people a chance to hear different sides of the issue. We met with people who are familiar with the livestock industry; we met with scientists out there; we met with business owners out there who are actually very excited about wolves coming back, because they see a great opportunity for ecotourism. Hopefully, we demonstrated that a lot of people are interested in wolves, and interested in seeing where wolves are, assuming we decide to keep having them around.

Outside of economics, what are the other benefits to having wolves return to the ecosystem?
We don’t know exactly what the changes will be when wolves return in the numbers that they should. But we can look to places like Yellowstone. Some of the most prominent predator biologists are here in Oregon, and at Oregon State University, [that have studied Yellowstone]. They found all sorts of impacts that they never expected, the aspen were healthier; there were more beavers; there were more frogs; there were more songbirds. It really should mean a healthier ecosystem. And then there’s just the existence value. People in Oregon value the environment, they value wildlife, and having that species out there—it’s been 60 years since we had wolves in Oregon. Looking out 60 years, I think we’re more likely to say, ‘Thank goodness we saved all the native species that live here, and that we have wolves on the landscape,’—not, ‘Man, I wished 60 years ago we would have made it easier to kill wolves.’

ODFW will accept public comments through Sept. 30, including in-person comments at the Sept. 2 and Sept. 30 Commission meetings. To comment, e-mail ODFW[email protected]

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