Editor's Note: For more than half a century, the wolf was an animal of Oregon’s past rather than its present.
That changed in February 1999, when an adult female wolf from Idaho, where the federal government had reintroduced wolves four years earlier, crossed the border and entered Oregon.
As wildlife biologists had predicted, that wolf, which was captured and returned to Idaho in March 1999, was merely a vanguard.
Today, Oregon is home to five wolf packs and an estimated 48 wolves.
The return of wolves precipitated a debate that continues unabated. There are multiple issues: Can wolves co-exist with cattle and sheep? Should livestock owners be able to kill wolves that harass or attack their animals? How will wolves affect populations of deer, elk and other big game animals? When should wolves in Northeastern Oregon, which are no longer protected by the federal endangered species act, also be removed from Oregon’s endangered species list?
In a six-part series that starts today and continues through Jan. 25 in both the Baker City Herald and The Observer in La Grande, we’ll look as far back as 1843, and well into the future, to put into perspective what has become one of Oregon’s major natural resource issues of the 21st century.
By Katy Nesbitt
The (La Grande) Observer
The years following World War II spawned industrialization, increased access to education, advances in technology, and the free time to consider societal issues such as peace, civil rights, and environmentalism.
America’s farming became mechanized and more people were living in suburbia when issues of clean water, air, protecting the environment, and wildlife species went from being a fringe movement to the forefront of concern with the passage of new protection laws.
The Endangered Species Act was one of the laws that came out of the early 1970s concern for the environment and an awareness that certain species were in peril while others had almost disappeared.
Wolves in the West, for instance.
In 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a study to determine how, when, and where to bring wolves back to the West’s wildest places.
In 1995 and 1996, under President Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, 66 wolves were captured in Canada and transported into the U.S. The wolves were brought to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho where three wilderness areas come together; the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48.
The protests began long before the wolves were brought into the country, and almost two decades later, the debate continues.
Carter Niemeyer, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who helped capture some of those wolves released in the U.S., thinks the controversy may be even more widespread today than it was 20 years ago.
Niemeyer grew up on a farm in Iowa. As a kid, the wild animals he didn’t make into pets he trapped for their pelts. Later he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in wildlife biology and made his way to Montana to work as a government trapper.
More than halfway through a career of trapping everything from eagles to grizzly bears, he became involved in a project designed not to remove problem animals from farms and ranches, but to capture and transport wild animals — including those Canadian wolves — from one country to another.
When asked what changed his philosophy on animal control, Niemeyer had two answers. The first was, “I matured.”
The other: “It’s one thing to control animals, it’s another to eliminate a species.”
In most states wolves had disappeared because they posed a threat, mainly to livestock, but in some respects, it was because they were despised. Wolves were shot, trapped, and eventually poisoned off the landscape. A few remained in Minnesota, and rare sightings were reported in other northern states such as Michigan, Montana, and Idaho.
The Fish and Wildlife Service study determined that as far as the open spaces of the western states were concerned, viable packs had re-established themselves only in northwest Montana by the mid-1990s. Along with that burgeoning population it was determined two other experimental groups were needed to create a viable population in the region.
Initially, the goal was 30 packs and 300 individual wolves.
As the years wore on, wolf supporters pushed for increases in those numbers.
When wolves were finally taken off the endangered species list in 2011 their documented numbers neared 2,000 in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
But wolves are dispersing animals by nature and it was inevitable they would not only leave the wilderness areas where they were transplanted, but also the states themselves.
Idaho and Oregon share a unique border: Hells Canyon and the Snake River that carved it. The Seven Devils Range can be seen from most high points in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, bordered by its own mountain range, the Wallowas, and the largest wilderness in the state, the 364,000-acre Eagle Cap.
So much wild country for wildlife — yet rivers, mountain ranges, and grazing pastures don’t mean the same thing to a wolf who can travel up to 100 miles a day looking for food or new territory.
When the federal government announced its decision to insert wolves into central Idaho, that state’s Legislature passed a law prohibiting the reintroduction.
Jim Holyan, wildlife biologist for the Nez Perce Tribe, based in Lapwai, Idaho, near the Seven Devils, said, “Idaho didn’t want anything to do with wolves.”
But the tribe had expertise and interest in wolves and offered to do the work the state refused to do. Their management plan was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service and for the past 17 years, Curt Mack, Holyan, and others have trapped and monitored almost 600 wolves.
By 2016, the federal government will eliminate the tribe’s funding for wolf monitoring and reporting and wolves will be deemed “recovered.”
Once the wolf’s federal protected status was downgraded in 2011, the state of Idaho was willing to step in and manage a compensation fund that reimburses ranchers for wolf-caused losses, allows lethal removal of problem wolves, and manages controlled hunts.
Unlike Oregon, Idaho does not have a state endangered species act; protection for species listed as such are under the management of the federal government.
However, protected plant and animal species significantly affect Idaho producers, so the governor created the Office for Species Conservation, headed by Dustin Miller.
“Our most important job is to work with landowners and public land users so they stay profitable while conserving the resources,” said Miller. “We use scientifically based solutions with benefits to listed species while keeping people in business.”
Miller said the state refused to work during the reintroduction because, “It felt the feds crammed wolves down our throat.”
Miller said under Idaho code, livestock owners and their employees can kill wolves that have exhibited behavior suggesting they might attack livestock. A confirmed livestock kill allows a wolf to be shot on site where livestock is present.
“The burden of proof is on the producer,” said Miller.
At the end of 2011, 746 wolves and 101 packs were documented from the Canadian border, south to the Snake River Plain, and from the Washington and Oregon borders east to the Montana and Wyoming borders. Only the southern part of the state is uninhabited by wolves. Holyan said that is probably due to the lack of game.
Of the 296 wolves killed in 2011, 200 were legally hunted or trapped, 63 were lethally controlled, 11 were killed or suspected to have been killed illegally, and seven died from other human causes (vehicles or non-target).
Wolf dispersal from central Idaho into Oregon was predicted well before the reintroduction; it’s the animal’s nature to find new territory.
“Wolves are fabulous dispersers and can be wherever they want, they don’t know to stop at the border,” Holyan said.
Within four years of wolves’ reintroduction in Idaho, a female collared wolf made her way to Baker County, Oregon, which borders Idaho. Within a year, two more wolves were found dead in Oregon, and residents, both for and against wolves, came together to craft a plan to both conserve and manage them.
In 2006 the Wenaha pack was documented in northwest Wallowa County and by 2009 the alpha male and female of the Imnaha pack were collared and their movements closely monitored.