By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Here's the official story: Wolves are extinct in Oregon.
Rob Hill isn't an official.
But he knows wolves.
And he's certain he's seen them.
In Baker County, on May 5 and May 12, to be specific.
At the confluence of North Pine and Pine creeks, about 10 miles northeast of Halfway, to be more specific still.
Hill is hardly the only person who says he has recently glimpsed a wolf in or near Baker County, said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's (ODFW) Baker City office.
During the past two years, in fact, Keister has typed into his computer 13 purported wolf sightings.
andquot;Those are just the ones I heard,andquot; Keister said. andquot;There's probably more.andquot;
John Stephenson, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bend, said he catalogued about 80 alleged wolf sightings in Oregon in 2003 and 2004.
Those reports were scattered across the state, he said, from the Coast to the Cascades to Hells Canyon.
The largest cluster of sightings, though, came from Northeastern Oregon, Stephenson said.
A wolf sighting, of course, does not necessarily equal a wolf.
In fact, Stephenson, who has interviewed many eyewitnesses, believes most people who think they saw a wolf probably didn't.
andquot;The vast majority are pretty clearly misidentifications,andquot; he said. andquot;But a few are pretty credible.andquot;
andquot;I think that some of them are probably a wolf,andquot; he said. andquot;Which ones, I don't know. But not every one, I know that.andquot;
Hill's two sightings, however, are pretty persuasive, both Keister and Stephenson said.
Hill's credibility is buoyed by this fact: He lived for 15 years in Alaska, where an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 wolves roam.
He's also an experienced outdoorsman, and since June 2004 he has worked as the wildlife manager for the Pine Valley Ranch near Halfway.
andquot;I've seen wolves before,andquot; Hill said.
But never in Oregon, until May 5.
Hill said he was driving on Highway 86 near the North Pine Creek Road junction that morning when an Idaho Power Co. employee told him about seeing a pair of wolves in the area.
Soon after, Hill spotted the animals, one light-colored, the other black, at a distance of about 180 yards.
andquot;I do know they were wolves,andquot; Hill said.
He thinks he saw the same pair of wolves a week later, although at a much longer range.
Hill said he also has talked with several Panhandle residents this year who told him they had seen animals they believed were wolves, near Fish Lake and on the Pine Valley Ranch.
andquot;I'm convinced they're around,andquot; Hill said.
So is Keister, based on reports such as Hill's.
andquot;That's about as credible as you can have without a dead wolf,andquot; Keister said.
Stephenson, who interviewed Hill, said the flurry of sightings from the Halfway country intrigued him.
andquot;That's certainly a place where you'd expect to see wolves, since it's right across the border from Idaho,andquot; Stephenson said.
Federal biologists released 35 wolves in Idaho in the mid 1990s, and the state's wolf population has since grown to approximately 500.
Biologists have confirmed that at least two wolves migrated from Idaho to Oregon, one in 1999, the other in 2000. Another wolf was found in 2000, but its origin remains unknown.
Stephenson said he searched the Halfway area this spring, after Hill's sightings, but didn't find any evidence of wolves.
A freeway encounter
Like Hill, Terry LaMont is familiar with wolves.
Well, timber wolf-German shepherd hybrids, anyway.
LaMont, who lives in La Grande and teaches music at Brooklyn Elementary School in Baker City, said he raised hybrids in the 1980s.
And he said he has commuted between La Grande and Baker City on Interstate 84 for a dozen years, so he's seen plenty of coyotes, the wild animal most often mistaken for a wolf even though an average wolf outweighs an average coyote by about 90 pounds.
LaMont said the animal he watched run across the freeway on Sept. 28 was no coyote.
He said he was driving toward Baker City about 7:20 a.m. when the animal crossed the road from east to west near the Clover Creek overpass, about six miles north of North Powder.
andquot;Then it stopped and looked back at me,andquot; LaMont said. andquot;It was about 40 to 50 feet away. It was way too big to be a coyote.andquot;
Stephenson has heard that tale before.
andquot;If I had a dollar for every time I'd be a rich man,andquot; he said.
Stephenson concedes that it's difficult, at relatively close range, to mistake a coyote for a wolf.
But he thinks the animals many people report are actually dogs or dog-wolf hybrids of the sort LaMont once raised rather than wild wolves.
Both dogs and hybrids can grow as large as, or even larger than, actual wolves, Stephenson said.
andquot;People often forget about that,andquot; he said.
But although Keister thinks wolves occasionally saunter through Baker County, he doesn't believe the animals have established packs here.
Not yet, anyway.
andquot;We could have a wolf pack here any time,andquot; Keister said. andquot;I just don't think you could keep that a secret, though.andquot;
Even the three lone wolves that tramped through Eastern Oregon over the past 6 years couldn't conceal themselves very well.
Those three wolves spurred Oregon's current interest in the big canines.
It started in February 1999, when federal wildlife officials confirmed that a female wolf from a pack in Idaho, where officials had released 35 wolves earlier in the decade, had migrated west across the border into Baker County.
For the next few weeks biologists went airborne to track the wolf, homing in on the radio signal emitted by the collar they had fitted to the wolf before they released it in Idaho.
In March federal officials trapped the wolf in Grant County and flew the animal back to Idaho.
In 2000 a second wolf, also from an Idaho pack, was hit by a car and killed along Interstate 84 a few miles east of Baker City.
Later that year a dead wolf, which had been shot, was found near Ukiah. Officials don't know where that wolf came from because it, unlike the other two wolves, was not wearing a radio collar.
Those three cases, combined with the several credible sighting reports since 2000, have convinced Keister that wolves visit Eastern Oregon, at least occasionally.
In fact he admits that he's surprised the animals have not yet established a pack or two here.
In any case, Keister said he has not seen any evidence that there's a local wolf pack.
Nor has Stephenson.
If a pack was living in Baker County, both Keister and Stephenson said they would expect to see wolves during winter around the several sites where ODFW feeds deer and elk, the main food sources for wolves.
andquot;That seems like a real likely spot,andquot; Stephenson said.
But ODFW employees who work at the feed sites haven't seen a single wolf, Keister said.
Nor have he and other biologists spotted a wolf when they fly over the region in late winter and early spring, counting big game herds.
Again, a wolf pack almost certainly would stay close to those herds, which to wolves constitute a moving feast.
In addition, Keister said, were adult wolves breeding in Eastern Oregon, they would have to stay near their dens during the spring and summer, and while their pups were still dependent on the adults for food.
It stands to reason, he said, that these homebody wolves would be seen more often than a lone wolf, which can roam across hundreds of miles searching for food or, more likely, a mate.