By Katy Nesbitt
The (La Grande) Observer
In 2013, Oregon wolf numbers increased to 64 documented wolves in eight known packs, a 33 percent increase over the previous year.
Greater numbers also means increased territory and dispersal of young, adult wolves traveling as far as Idaho, Heppner and even Mount Hood.
Over the winter, photographs of tracks and collection of scat were gathered in the Prairie Creek and Alder Slope neighborhoods of the Wallowa Valley. Russ Morgan, the agency's wolf biologist said, more data are needed to determine if wolves are settling into the valley or if they are just passing through.
Northeast Oregon's wolves have made some fascinating movements lately, not just in the Wallowa Valley, but around the region.
A collared Snake River pack member known as OR-18 traveled along the perimeter of the valley, then west and south. Collar information detailed his failed attempts to cross Interstate 84.
"Within 14 days this wolf, from its natal pack, traveled through the Chesnimnus Unit to the Wenaha Unit then went south," Morgan said. "He was really moving like a disperser does. Then he got to the freeway and didn't cross andndash; he tried to cross from Meacham to La Grande. At that point he went north around the Grande Ronde Valley and quickly back over to Lostine."
Most recent collar information indicates OR-18 left Lostine and is heading south again. At the end of 2013, the Snake River pack had nine members.
Three years ago, an Imnaha wolf pack member, OR-7, successfully crossed I-84. His collar data indicates that he traveled as far south as Northern California and this winter appears to have made a home along the Klamath and Jackson county line.
"Wolves are genetically predisposed to dispersal," Morgan said. "It's likely they don't know what's driving them, like why kids grow up and go to college. It's an adaptive way to spread genes."
A track found on Mount Hood in early December has gotten a lot of statewide interest. Morgan said he would need a lot more evidence to determine if a wolf has set up residence on Oregon's highest peak.
"The closer a wolf gets to the west side, the more people are interested," Morgan said. "I was stunned to the response that a wolf was there. It doesn't mean there is a wolf on Mount Hood now or recently. It means that's where a wolf was. One of our biologists tracked it for miles."
A wolf that captured a lot of attention in Wallowa County over the last four years is OR-4, the alpha male or "breeding male" of the Imnaha pack. A couple weeks ago, he left the pack's home range and traveled north to the Washington line, but returned to the pack's more typical territory after a few days.
His mate, OR-2, originally a collared wolf from Idaho, has not been seen since late summer, Morgan said.
It appears that in her absence, OR-4 has paired up with a new female.
"You can tell when wolves are paired, and he is clearly paired," Morgan said.
OR-4 has been collared by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife four times, so biologists have had ample opportunity to observe him up close. He's approximately 8 or 9 years old now, which Morgan said is pretty old for a wild wolf.
"The most significant thing of all of the Imnaha pack happenings is we are finally seeing enough information from a long-term pack," Morgan said. "We are watching these packs age and a changing of the guard. Like the idea he's got another mate is a natural dynamic."
The Wenaha pack has shown similar changes since Morgan first detected their tracks in November 2006. That pack has not only had a change of alpha male, but last year there were two breeding females.
"Two females pupped, one lost all of her pups and only one survived of the other litter," Morgan said.
Two packs have established themselves in Union County. The Mount Emily pack has four members and a new pack, not officially named, was documented in the Catherine Creek/Keating area and has five members. DNA collected from two of the wolves determined their origin to be from the Imnaha pack, Morgan said.
Morgan's annual report said that 19 percent of documented wolves are wearing collars.
"I think it's important for people to understand that only a portion have collars and wolves can be anywhere in Oregon," he said.
Morgan has been the state's wolf biologist since 2006. He said a lot of wolf management is about information management.
"Wolves are fairly simple and relatively predictable. Most of the time those characteristics would make them easy to manage," he said. "The difficulty with wolves is misinformation. I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with setting the facts straight."