By Richard Cockle, The Oregonian
JOSEPH — As state biologists combed northeastern Oregon’s rugged mountains Wednesday to kill two gray wolves in the Imnaha pack, conservation groups challenged the kill order in court and called on Gov. John Kitzhaber to intercede.
Late in the day, the Oregon Court of Appeals granted their request to temporarily halt the hunt, The Associated Press reported.
Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild contend that efforts by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove the pack’s alpha male and a younger wolf would leave only a female wolf and one pup born this year to fend for themselves this winter.
“They are proposing to take out the leader of the pack, which will, in my best estimate, render the pack unviable,” said Josh Laughlin, spokesman for the Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands. “Oregonians are not going to stand for that.”
The kill order came Sept. 23 after data from the alpha male’s GPS collar confirmed he was at the scene where Joseph area rancher Todd Nash’s calf was killed, said Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the state wildlife agency. Nash operates the 550-cow Marr Flat Cattle Co. near Joseph and claims to have lost dozens of cattle to wolves over the past few years.
The Imnaha pack, which numbered 16 wolves last December, has steadily lost ground since last winter in the area around Joseph — to 10 or 11 wolves in March and eight by June. Some have gone to Baker County and Wheeler County. Others have trotted back to Idaho and into Washington state. It’s not clear where the others have gone.
State wildlife biologists say the abrupt shrinkage of Oregon’s oldest and until recently biggest wolf pack doesn’t suggest Oregon’s wolves are diminishing, only that they’re spreading across the state, possibly to start new packs elsewhere.
Laughlin said that theory is speculative and accused the state department of caving to pressure from livestock groups and ranchers to rid the region of wolves.
Steve Pedery, spokesman for Oregon Wild in Portland, suggested the pack might be scattering to avoid getting shot.
The department killed two Imnaha pack wolves earlier this year in Wallowa County in response to livestock losses. A kill order for an additional wolf was drawn up this past spring but never executed.
In 2009, the department ordered two young wolves killed in Baker County in the first authorized hunt of its kind in Oregon after they killed 27 sheep, a goat and a calf on two ranches. An order to remove two Imnaha pack wolves last year was halted by a court challenge from the same conservation groups opposing the latest kill order.
Laughlin questioned why the department has targeted a young wolf in addition to the alpha male when no evidence exists that it took part in killing Nash’s calf.
Dennehy said biologists believe the entire pack was involved in killing and eating the calf. “That is based on how quickly the carcass was consumed and the evidence at the scene,” she said.
Laughlin said the groups last week asked the governor to stop the hunt, but were turned down. They delivered another request Wednesday, but received no immediate answer.
Wolf numbers in Oregon now officially stand at 14, with four in the Imnaha pack; four in the Walla Walla pack, which recently grew with the addition of two pups; four in the Wenaha pack; one in the Mount Emily Unit between La Grande and Pendleton; and one in Wheeler County near Fossil.