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OR: Only a matter of time before wolves settle in Central Oregon

By MICHAEL KOHN The Bulletin

Wolf packs have established themselves in all points of the compass from Central Oregon, and it’s probably only a matter of time before one settles in the Deschutes National Forest, according to wildlife biologists.

With packs as close as Warm Springs Indian Reservation to the north and the Umpqua National Forest to the west, the areas between are almost certain to be filled in with at least one wolf pack, said Bend-based John Stephenson, the lead wolf biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon.

“It’s surprising that they haven’t settled in this area yet. But now there’s a critical mass of wolves around us so we expect it’s only a matter of time before they establish themselves in the Deschutes (National Forest),” said Stephenson, who has been researching wolves in Central Oregon for 15 years.

Stephenson and other experts say “dispersing wolves” periodically travel through Central Oregon, but none stay for too long. A dispersing wolf is typically a young wolf that leaves its natal pack in search of a mate.

Corey Heath, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said one or two wolf sightings are reported every week, but many are false reports that end up being large dogs or coyotes.

When a sighting is reported, ODFW enters the location of each into a database. One-off sightings are typically not pursued for confirmation unless there are special circumstances. But biologists will respond if multiple sightings are reported in an area within a short amount of time. Hanging trail cameras is one way to monitor an area, said Heath.

“We wait for a focal point to develop because transient wolves go through an area, and they could be 50 miles away by the following day,” said Heath. “If we get repeated sightings, that’s when we know there is something going on in that area.”

Gray wolves once ranged across Oregon, but their numbers plummeted in the 19th and 20th centuries due to clashes with ranchers. A deliberate campaign to eradicate wolves from the state was successful by the 1940s. Wolves returned to the state in the 2000s, having ranged over from Idaho.

A 2018 survey documented a statewide population of at least 137 wolves, including 16 packs and 15 breeding pairs. That’s up from 64 wolves and eight packs documented in a 2013 survey.

A pack is defined as a group of four or more wolves traveling together in winter. A breeding pair is an adult male and female with at least two pups that survived until the end of the year.

But as the number of wolves increases, so does the number of wolf attacks on livestock. ODFW confirmed 28 head of livestock were either killed or injured by wolves last year, compared to 17 in 2017.

Last year the Oregon Department of Agriculture awarded grants of $160,890 to 10 counties. The funds were used for direct payment of confirmed depredations and missing livestock to ranchers. Some funds were also allocated for nonlethal preventative measures, such as fencing to keep livestock safe from wolves, or the use of alarms or scare devices.

The nearest pack to Bend is the White River Pack, located southeast of Mount Hood. Wolves from this pack were photographed with trail cameras located on remote parts of the Warm Indian Springs Reservation.

To the south of Bend, the Rogue Pack is located in an area that straddles Jackson and Klamath counties. To the west of Bend, the Indigo Pack is located in the Umpqua Forest.

Heath said it’s not clear why a pack has not established itself in Central Oregon, but he believes that is likely to occur.

“I think at some point it could happen. They are territorial in nature. In the future, packs will develop in areas that don’t already have wolves. As those habitats fill in, wolves will be here to stay,” said Heath.

While wolves have yet to make a permanent presence around Bend, there has been a number of cougar sightings, especially around the Deschutes River Canyon south of Bend. In May, a cougar had wandered well into town, getting close to Bend’s Fred Meyer. Heath said cougars and wolves can exist on the same range, but because they travel in packs, wolves can crowd out a solitary cougar.

Wolf sightings have occurred in both forested areas of Central Oregon, as well as the more open range areas. Stephenson says a number of the sightings have occurred south of La Pine, near Chemult and Crescent.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has plans to do winter snow track surveys in the upcoming months as it’s easier to track the wolves in snow compared to the bare forest floor, said Stephenson. He will be keeping his eyes on the Indigo Pack.

“That pack had four pups this year, and some of those will disperse,” he said.