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Oregon’s wolves: still facing a firing squad?

Environmental groups won a reprieve from a court, but a new federal measure and Oregon law still have the animals in the crosshairs.

By Daniel Jack Chasan

They’re not going to ice the Imnaha wolf pack’s alpha male after all — at least, not yet. Last week, the conservation groups Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, and Center for Biological Diversity got the Oregon Court of Appeals to temporarily stay enforcement the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s order to kill two of the Imnaha pack’s four remaining wolves, including the alpha male. State trackers evidently shot at but missed one of the wolves the day before the court issued its stay.

The two wolves showed up on Oregon’s hit list in late September, after a calf was killed on private land near Joseph. The three groups have asked the court for a permanent stay, arguing that the portion of the state wolf management plan that permits killing conflicts with the state’s endangered species act. The temporary stay will keep the state from killing the wolves before the court has had time to consider the broader issue.

(Gray wolves won some and lost some last week The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed letting Wyoming manage wolves in most of the state as predators that can be shot on sight.)

Thanks to a rider on April’s federal budget extension law, Oregon wolves east of highways 395, 78 and 95 — like Washington wolves east of Highway 97 (and 17 and 395) — lost their federal protection. Wolves east of those highways are still listed as endangered under Oregon state law, however, and they are managed under the state plan. The plan lets the state kill wolves after two “depradations,” within an ill-defined “area” whether or not the wolves in the gun sights are the right wolves. The state doesn’t have to kill the wolves, though, and it can’t reach for its firearms until unspecified non-lethal measures have been tried. Under this system, two eastern Oregon wolves were killed in 2009, and two more would have been killed last year if the three groups currently seeking the stay hadn’t gone to court.

There were some 21 wolves in Oregon last year. This year, the confirmed number has dropped to 14. The management plan’s “recovery” goal is at least seven breeding pairs for at least three years running. At least four breeding pairs should be in northeastern Oregon.

The Imnaha pack, which spends at least part of its time in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, was the state’s first known breeding population in the years since the last Oregon wolf bounty was paid in 1947. Imnaha wolves have been extensively collared and photographed — you can see them on YouTube — and the alpha male has become kind of a lupine pin-up. Aerial photographs showed at least 10 Imnaha wolves last year. If the pack gets whittled down to two wolves, it will probably cease to exist.

So why the determination to whack half of the remaining pack? The wolves travel between the Eagle Cap and the Nature Conservancy’s expansive Zumwalt Prairie preserve. In between, they pass through ranch country. They encounter sheep and cattle. Sometimes, they partake. One can say that this is not the largest of the many problems facing ranchers in 2011, just as one can say that tiny wolf packs pose no significant danger to deer or elk, both of which are basically in oversupply. But in Oregon as elsewhere, some ranchers and some elk hunters don’t see it that way. Wolves push an emotional button, and killing predators is a vote-getting “red” issue throughout the west.

Oregon Wild’s conservation director, Steve Pedery, says that, across the West, anger about wolves is largely about groups wanting to mobilize supporters “The science is all running close to 100% in the other direction.” (The conservation groups’ motion for a stay notes that in 2006, “there were approximately 65,000 cattle and calf deaths in Oregon. Of those deaths, approximately 61,000 (nearly 94%) were from non-predator causes. . . . Of the 4,500 cattle and calf deaths attributed to predators, 2,300 were attributed to coyotes, 1,500 were attributed to mountain lions, and the rest are unknown. In 2011, there have been less than 20 confirmed cattle deaths attributed to wolves in Oregon.”) He says that “my organization was founded by elk hunters” concerned about the disappearance of habitat. The habitat is still disappearing, but some organized hunters now fixate on the largely-imaginary threat of predation.

(Some people still hear echoes of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf: Just recently, an Idaho elk hunter killed a wolf in what or may not have been self defense.)

If a wolf does kill an Oregon calf or sheep, the rancher can be compensated for verified wolf kills, but proving a wolf kill can be cumbersome, and protecting one’s livestock allegedly trickier than wolf advocates fear. A blog on the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association web site recalls that a year ago last spring, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife “said they would issue ‘caught in the act’ permits to producers that had confirmed kills or to producers that had verified wolf activity on their property. These permits only allowed the permit holder or their agents to shoot a wolf that they saw biting an animal, not chasing, only biting or wounding the livestock. A person could get struck by lightning first.”

Actual livestock kills may only represent the tip of the iceberg. Grazing and browsing animals act differently with wolves around. In Yellowstone, the return of wolves has famously led to the return of streamside vegetation, because the presence of predators has kept the park’s elk herds from dining leisurely on the banks. Scientists have suggested that a lack of wolves has let Olympic Peninsula elk denude the river banks so much that the resulting erosion has changed the shapes of the rivers. Some elk hunters don’t want wolves around, because predators will
make the elk skittish and harder to find. The same behavioral changes take place out on the range. Cattle or sheep always looking over their shoulders may exhibit more stress and less weight gain, which translates into less profit for the ranchers. Compensation programs cover kills, but don’t account for weight not gained.

Evidence suggests that a vast majority of Oregon citizens favors restoring wolves. But, of course, a vast majority of Oregon citizens lives in the Willamette Valley, far from the wof packs and sheep ranches of the east. Not everyone in Eastern Oregon wants wolves exterminated, of course. But wolves clearly don’t have the same nominal constituency on the east side of the mountains that they have on the west. Why have the western majority’s representatives been willing to OK the proposals that reduce protection for wolves? Pedery suggests that they routinely trade concessions on environmental issues that affect land east of the Cascades for concessions on other issues more important to constitutencies in the west. “Everyone had high hopes that Oregon would [at least] do a better job than Idaho,” he says, but “our fish and wildlife agency is really at the mercy of the legislature.”

Washington’s own draft wolf management plan may be imperfect, Pedery says, but it’s a whole lot better than what they have south of the Columbia River. (The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission held another hearing on the draft plan last week. The commission is scheduled to vote on it in December) But he thinks that “this kill order for the imnaha pack has really been a catalyzing moment” for conservationists in Oregon.

Pedery says he and a lot of other people have been following the progress of a collared wolf who has been making his way west toward the highway beyond which he’ll once again get federal protection. Just 100 miles to go. They’re rooting for him.

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