A public hearing April 21 in Klamath Falls begins what is certain to be a contentious rehash of wolves’ impact on livestock and wild prey.
By Eric Mortenson
Oregon’s wolf management plan is up for public review as the ODFW Commission once again attempts to balance the restoration of an apex predator with the havoc they can cause in rural areas.
The commission will take comments on a draft conservation and management plan during an April 21 meeting in Klamath Falls, and will repeat the process May 19 in Portland. The commission eventually will adopt a five-year management plan; no date is set yet.
Russ Morgan, ODFW’s wolf program manager, said the draft management plan builds on what wildlife biologists have learned over the years. When the first management plan was adopted in 2005, there were no documented wolves in Oregon. The first pups were discovered in 2008, and by the end of 2011 there were 29 confirmed wolves in Oregon. The state documented 64 wolves at the end of 2013, and a minimum of 112 by the end of 2016, including 11 packs and eight breeding pairs.
Morgan said the plan couples state data with “tons of research” that’s been done on wolves in Oregon and elsewhere over the years.
“This plan still maintains a very active conservation approach, it doesn’t change in that regard,” Morgan said.
Oregon classifies wolves as a “special status game animal.” The draft plan allows ODFW to authorize hunters and trappers to kill wolves in two specific “controlled take” situations: Chronic livestock depredation in a localized area, and declines in wild ungulate populations, principally deer and elk. The draft plan does not allow a general hunting season, a prohibition that would hold for five years after the plan is adopted.
“I can’t predict what will happen to wolf management years and years out, but during this planning cycle, absolutely not,” Morgan said of a possible sport hunting season on wolves.
Livestock producers and wildlife activists don’t like aspects of the draft plan.
The Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said it makes it harder for ranchers to protect their animals because it increases the number of confirmed attacks required before allowing lethal control of wolves.
The draft plan requires three confirmed depredations or one confirmed and four “probable” attacks within a 12 month period. The previous standard was two confirmed depredations or one confirmed and three attempted attacks, with no time period set.
The groups also believe ODFW should continue collaring wolves, and should set a population cap for wolves in Oregon. Without a benchmark, “we will not be able to tell when wolves have reached their natural carrying capacity” in the state, the Farm Bureau said in a statement.
Cattlemen also want local biologists to make the call on lethal control of wolves, not department administrators in Salem. Todd Nash, the association’s wolf policy chair, said ranchers’ views aren’t reflected in the draft plan.
“It doesn’t look like we were even in the room, and that’s really disappointing,” he said.
Some activists, however, believe ODFW is moving too quickly to relax conservation safeguards, including the decision in 2015 to take wolves off the state endangered species list. Among other things, they point to the annual wolf count figures released this past week as proof the population is fragile. The minimum count of 112 wolves at the end of 2016 was only two more than in 2015, after years of sharp growth. Even ODFW described the population gain as “weak.”
The department said a combination of factors probably contributed to the modest increase. At least seven wolves were killed in 2016, including four members of the Imnaha Pack shot by ODFW for repeated livestock attacks. Blood samples taken from captured wolves indicated many animals were exposed to recent or severe parvovirus infections, which can take a toll on pups. Finally, bad winter weather hampered efforts to count wolves. Wildlife officials stress the annual population figure is a minimum number, and believe the state has considerably more wolves.
Nonetheless, Nick Cady, legal director for the Eugene-based group Cascadia Wildlands, said wolves aren’t the “exponentially growing and undefeatable species” that opponents sometimes describe.
“One hard winter and there’s no growth,” he said.
Cady said wolf recovery faces numerous hurdles. Anti-predator bills pop up in the Legislature on a regular basis and ODFW is deferential to hunting interests that provide budget money through license sales, he said. The state appears headed to a wolf management approach that allows hunting while doing “basic level monitoring so they don’t go extinct, which I think wolves are not ready for.”
Cascadia Wildlands opposes killing wolves if deer and elk populations drop. Cady said proper habitat is a greater factor in ungulate populations than wolves. The group also opposes draft plan provisions that allow USDA Wildlife Services to conduct livestock depredation investigations. Cady said the agency is too quick to blame wolves for every attack.
Wildlife Services came under intense criticism this spring when it killed an Oregon wolf with an M-44 cyanide poison trap set to kill coyotes. Soon after, a dog in Idaho died and a teenage boy was injured when they encountered an M-44. Wildlife Service subsequently announced it would not use the devices in six Eastern Oregon counties where the majority of the state’s wolves live.
“Given their track record, they shouldn’t be involved in predator management in Oregon in any capacity,” Cady said.
Past wolf hearings have become displays of the state’s urban-rural divide. Wildlife activists from Portland and Eugene, and from out of state, tend to celebrate the presence of wolves restored to the landscape. Cattle ranchers and other rural residents tend to testify about the expense of defensive measures and the grisly results of livestock attacks.
As the draft wolf plan authors put it, “people with the most positive attitudes about wolves have been those with the least experience with them. People who live in areas with wolves have more negative attitudes toward wolves than the general public, and negative attitudes are further amplified by wolf predation of livestock.
“In Oregon, it is expected that an increasing and expanding population of wolves will result in more, not less, conflict in the future,” the plan concludes.
The plan says the impact of wolves on deer and elk is mixed, and is complicated by the presence and feeding habits of cougars, bears, coyotes and bobcats.
When hunting elk, “wolves continually test prey to identify weak individuals” they can single out for attack. Such “near constant hunting pressure” could change the habitat use, vigilance, movement rates and migration patterns of elk, according to the report. The fitness and reproductive potential of elk could be expected to decline in such cases.
Wolves don’t eat mule deer that often, but their presence could force cougars into steeper terrain where they’d be more likely to encounter mule deer, according to the report.
The second public meeting is Friday, May 19, at the Embassy Suites hotel near the Portland Airport.