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OR: Biologists on wolf watch in S. Oregon

Tom Collom, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Klamath Falls district biologist, camped in a large field northwest of Fort Klamath. Each hour or so he emerged from the tent to listen for the telltale beep.

For the Capital Press

FORT KLAMATH, Ore. — Blaring sounds of a car horn rattled the nighttime calm. Beacons of light sporadically swept across otherwise invisible fields. A massive bonfire torched flames into the blackness.

Every 20 or 30 minutes Tom Collom pulled what looks like an old-fashioned television antenna and radio from his pickup, then slowly revolved it toward the forests flanking the eastern edge of the Sky Lakes Wilderness. He was listening for a beeping sound from the VHF collar placed around a 2-year-old female wolf, dubbed OR-54, on Oct. 7.

Appropriately, it was Friday the 13th, but this was no horror flick.

Collom, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Klamath Falls district biologist, spent Friday and Saturday nights camped in a large field northwest of Fort Klamath. Each hour or so he emerged from the large wall tent, one heated with a wood stove, into the sub-freezing night and early morning to listen for the telltale beep. Periodically, but irregularly, he honked the pickup’s horn, scanned the strobe light and fed the fire. A lantern was kept on all night to illuminate the tent, another way of broadcasting a human presence.

It’s all part of an effort to disrupt the patterns of wolves seen and heard on recent days and nights in the Wood River Valley, where upwards of 35,000 cattle graze each summer.

“We’ll see if we can alter their behavior a bit,” Collom explains of non-lethal measures being taken to prevent wolves from killing and eating cattle and, he hopes, keep them from feeling comfortable because of human presence in the Wood River Valley. “We’re here to intercept them and, hopefully, put a little pressure on them.”

Later Friday night and early Saturday, Collom heard a wolf howling “so I fired three rounds of cracker shells and the howling stopped.” Cracker shells are fired into the air and travel about 100 yards before noisily exploding. “It’s pretty loud,” he said. “The folks in Fort Klamath probably heard them.”

Efforts to put on pressure started after Mike Moore, an assistant Klamath Falls-based ODF&W biologist, last Wednesday viewed eight wolves in nearby cattle pastures, possibly lured by the unburied carcasses of two cows that had died of natural causes. Then, during his Thursday night vigil, when he awakened from a pre-dawn nap, the monitor that tracks and downloads the pack’s movements showed OR-54 and the pack had passed within 200 yards of the tent.

A year ago this month, four cattle grazing on the Nicholson Ranch not far from the campsite shared by Moore, Collom and John Stephenson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, were attacked and eaten alive by wolves that biologists believe were part of the Rogue Pack, a growing band of nine wolves that includes 54’s father, the legendary OR-7.

On Oct. 7, crews from ODFW and USFWS trapped a two year-old, 80-pound female. After being sedated, biologists took DNA and blood samples and named her OR-54. After being fitted with a VHF collar, which biologists will allow them to monitor the Rogue pack’s movement, she was released. But Collom and Stephenson have experienced problems picking up signals from her collar.

“We’ve got issues with that collar,” Collom said Monday, noting it is working only when OR-54 is with a quarter-mile. “We definitely have a problem.”

Earlier Monday morning, while trying to find a signal for OR-54, Stephenson saw the collared wolf with another about the same time the device began signaling. When he fired three cracker shells to scare them away, he spotted four more wolves.

Stephenson, who spent Monday and Tuesday nights with Jeanne Spaur, another federal biologist, said he and Collom will meet to determine if the overnight vigils will continue.

“We’ll continue until tonight and then we’ll reassess,” Collum said Monday. “We’ll see what tonight brings but we’ll probably keep at it. We’ve definitely altered their behavior.”