Wolves: Welcome in Oregon?
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
When a wild gray wolf wandered into Baker County from Idaho 3 years ago, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service treated the animal the way the FBI might deal with a big, bad criminal.
They snared the wolf, a two-year-old female, with a net.
Then they packed her in a truck and drove her back to Idaho.
Today, federal officials would do neither of those things.
The next wolf that migrates to Oregon will roam free unless it threatens livestock.
Now the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission wants to know what Oregonians think not only about the federal agency's change in strategy, but about the entire issue of wolves in the West.
It is appropriate that state officials chose to visit Baker City in their quest to learn whether Oregonians consider the howl of a wolf a welcome symbol of wilderness, or the death knell for herds of livestock and big game.
At least two of the three gray wolves known to have entered Oregon over the past 3 years padded their way through portions of Baker County.
One of those wolves was found dead along Interstate 84 just a few miles south of Baker City in May 2000.
Officials believe that wolf was hit by a car.
The wolf, an adult male that weighed about 100 pounds, came to Oregon from Idaho, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves in the 1990s.
The wolf found beside the freeway was wearing the radio-transmitter collar that federal workers attached to it as part of the Fish and Wildlife's wolf study in Idaho.
Earlier, in February and March of 1999, federal officials tracked the signal from the collar fitted to a two-year-old female wolf that also left an Idaho pack.
Radio signals first placed that wolf near Pleasant Valley, about 10 miles southeast of Baker City.
The female wolf later roamed into Grant County, where, in late March of 1999, workers captured the animal by snaring it in a net.
They returned that wolf to Idaho.
In October 2000, a wolf was found shot to death near Ukiah. Although that animal was not wearing a collar, officials believe it, too, came to Oregon from Idaho.
No one has been charged with shooting the wolf.
In the ensuing two years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has received about 60 reports from people who claim to have seen either a wolf or wolf tracks in Eastern Oregon.
None of those reports has been confirmed, said Mark Henjum, a wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's La Grande office.
Henjum said the federal government will not trap any wolves that stray into Oregon in the future.
As long as wolves stay away from livestock, "(federal officials) plan to leave them alone," he said.
However, if a wolf does threaten or kill livestock, officials will monitor the situation and possibly kill the offending wolf (or wolves) if problems persist, Henjum said.
According to Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, the agency killed six wolves in Idaho in 2001 after livestock owners reported losing animals.
The agency confirmed that wolves killed 10 cattle, 16 sheep and one dog in Idaho during 2001.
Concerns about wolves' eating habits were prime topics during a 2000 public hearing conducted by the Baker County Board of Commissioners.
During that meeting, several county residents, most of them ranchers or hunters (or both), said they oppose the reintroduction of wolves to Oregon, whether it's endorsed by the federal government or happens naturally as with the three recent wolf visits.
Ranchers, who already lose livestock every year to cougars and coyotes, said they don't want to have to worry about another predator with a taste for sheep and cattle.
Hunters fear wolves would decimate elk and deer herds that already are dwindling in parts of Eastern Oregon, a decline due in part to predation by cougars, coyotes and bears, according to biologists.
Environmental groups, on the other hand, are urging the federal government to allow wolves to repopulate Oregon.
A protected predator
The gray wolf is protected by both the Oregon and the federal endangered species acts, with the federal law superseding the state version, Henjum said.
That means it's illegal to harm or harass a wolf in Oregon, even if it is attacking livestock, he said.
In that sense, wolves are treated much differently from all other predators, Henjum said.
Coyotes, for example, are not managed as a game animal in Oregon anyone with a hunting license can legally shoot any number of coyotes.
Cougars and black bears are game animals, but ranchers can legally kill a cougar or bear that threatens or attacks livestock, Henjum said.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to reintroduce gray wolves in Wyoming and Montana as well as in Idaho, the agency has no such plan for Oregon, Henjum said.
Nor do Oregon wildlife officials believe this state is a viable candidate for a wolf reintroduction program, he said.
The main reason, Henjum said, is that the potential for conflicts between livestock and wolves is much greater in Oregon than in Idaho.
"We have very good wolf habitat in Oregon," he said. "We have good deer and elk populations, and the kind of terrain wolves can deal with."
But most of that habitat, on private as well as public land, also is open to livestock grazing, Henjum said.
"It's kind of a set up for conflicts with livestock in a lot of areas," he said.
Besides the Baker City meeting, the Fish and Wildlife Commission has scheduled one Wednesday, Nov. 13, in La Grande in Room 309 of Hoke Hall on the Eastern Oregon University campus, and Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Malheur National Forest office at 431 Patterson Bridge Road in John Day.
More information about gray wolves is available on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's web site, www.dfw.state.or.us.