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Wolf packs grow in the Pacific Northwest

By Callie Simmons

The iconic howls that echoed through the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest are slowly making a comeback. Wolves are a predator symbolic of the American West.

By 1974, wolves were almost completely eradicated from the lower 48 states by means of trapping, shooting and poison, according to a National Geographic article titled “War on Wolves.”

Researchers and wolf advocates fear new legislation passed in Wyoming that may threaten the re-introduction of wolves in Oregon and stem the growing population in the western United States.

Wyoming passed a law in September identifying wolves as predators, permitting them to be hunted. In most areas it is known as The Wyoming Wolf Management Strategy. The organization Defenders of Wildlife responded by calling it “an unjust slaughtering of thousands of vital predators.”

The Cattle Ranchers Association now has the ability to shoot wolves and “protect their means of life and the way they put food on the table for their families.” As the population of wolves fluctuates, the hostility and lawsuits increase dramatically between these opposing groups.

Researchers are most familiar with one wolf in particular — OR7, who made his way across Oregon in fall 2011. According to a report by Oregon Fish and Wildlife, OR7 was the first wolf confirmed west of the Cascades since the last bounty was collected in 1947.

In addition to OR7, a few packs located near the Wallowa National Forest have led the Oregon Game Commission, scientists, ranchers and outfitters to work closely in order to create a proactive wolf management plan based on sound science and non-lethal depredation deterrents. In the past year experts have struggled with proposed legislation that would enable the state to manage wolves more liberally and allow wolves to be killed humanly when a domestic issue arises.

Cristina Eisenberg, who recently earned her doctorate at Oregon State University, researched the dependence of wolves in food webs.

“The powerful effects of wolves in places such as Yellowstone National Park are well documented,” Eisenberg said. “I wanted to better understand how context might influence the effects of wolves on whole food webs.”

“Wyoming’s recent legislation [is] unlikely to affect Oregon’s Wolf population,” Eisenberg said when asked if the recent legislation passed in Wyoming would affect Oregon’s wolves. “For scientists to identify measurable effects of wolf presence, a sufficiently large population of wolves needs to be present.”

Scientists and researchers in Oregon remain concerned about the welfare of wolf packs in the Wyoming wilderness.

Professors William Ripple and Robert Beschta at OSU’s College of Forestry researched whether wolves played a role in the increased growth of aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park when the wolves were first introduced to the park in 1995 through 1996.

“The only factor we can find coinciding with the failure to grow above the reach of elk, over the period of a decade, is the removal of wolves,” Ripple explained in a documentary for Oregon Wild. “. . . The only factor explaining the aspen taking off is the return of wolves to the park.”

Eisenberg traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada to investigate a trophic cascade, or food web, described in her book “The Wolf’s Tooth.”

“We know that wolves can affect elk by killing them, certainly, but also by scaring them,” she wrote. “These dynamics in turn change elk feeding behavior, reducing some of the pressure they put on aspen, one of their favorite foods.”

More wolves mean less game for hunters and more risk for ranchers. Wolves killed fewer than 25 Oregon cows in 2011. In a recent article published by the Oregon’s Cattlemen’s Association, Terri Morse describes what the presence of wolves in Wallowa County means to its ranchers.

“[We] wake up each morning with a bit of a sinking and with a dampened enthusiasm,” Morse wrote. “Has the wolf visited our ranch in the night? What sort of ravaging, what sort of ripping of flesh and gutting, might we get to try and accept this morning? And how will we be able to swallow the pain of failing? The failing to protect the gentle animals that depend on us.”

Ranchers in Wyoming have also lost livestock to wolves. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wolves killed 38 sheep and 54 cows in Wyoming in 2006 — which would make wolves responsible for less than 1 percent of all sheep and cattle lost that year.

Oregon Cattlemen’s Wolf Committee Chair, Rod Childers, said in an article on the OCA website that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf Plan has led to “unjust killings” of livestock.

“The Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the plan over the objections of those who will be most affected,” Childers said.

Rather than giving choices to protect our property, it takes them away, putting ranchers at great risk of social, economic and physical loss. It is not fair, it is not balanced and any flexibility is biased toward preservation of wolves.”

In response to the accusations, Defenders became the first organization to offer federal funding to give ranchers compensation for lost livestock.

“At heart, wolf conservation is a human problem,” said Ed Bangs, former director of the Gray Wolf Recovery Program, for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.