Playing a waiting game with Wallowa wolves

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board September 30, 2011 05:29 pm

We’ve begun to reconsider our optimism about the prospect that wolves will return to some of their former habitat in Oregon in anything resembling a peaceful manner.

Based on the exploits this year of the Imnaha wolf pack — until recently the biggest of Oregon’s three packs — our earlier sense of hope is being replaced by skepticism.

Last week the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which manages wolves in far Eastern Oregon, announced that its agents would kill two of the four remaining Imnaha wolves. One of the targeted wolves is the pack’s alpha, or breeding, male.

ODFW killed two other Imnaha wolves in May.

Russ Morgan, the agency’s wolf coordinator, acknowledged that paring the Imnaha pack to two wolves — the alpha female and her pup — could spell the end of the Imnaha group as a viable pack.

In each case, ODFW issued the kill order after officials confirmed that Imnaha wolves had killed cattle in Wallowa County.

Oregon’s wolf management plan authorizes the agency to kill wolves that repeatedly attack livestock.

But the wolf plan also lists as one of its main goals the establishment of at least four breeding packs in this region.

The question is whether the state can achieve that goal while simultaneously complying with the wolf plan’s livestock-protection measures.

Considering that the Imnaha pack has dwindled from more than a dozen wolves to, potentially, as few as two in just a couple years, we’re not confident that ODFW, at least in the Wallowa Valley, can answer “yes.”

It may be, just as skeptics have argued for more than a decade, that Oregon lacks the sheer acreage of suitable habitat that has allowed wolves to multiply rapidly in Idaho and Montana.

On the positive side, the shrinking of the Imnaha pack is not due solely, or even mainly, to wolves attacking livestock.

Several Imnaha wolves have left the pack and moved elsewhere. Most recently, a 2 1/2-year-old male wolf migrated south into Baker County earlier this month.

Perhaps some of these dispersing wolves will either settle in a part of the state where they won’t be as prone to killing cattle, or they’ll stay west of the line formed by Highways 95, 78 and 395, where wolves remain an endangered species managed by the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fortunately, neither of Oregon’s two other packs — the Wenaha and Walla Walla, both in the northern Blue Mountains — has been implicated in livestock attacks.

In the meantime, we urge ODFW to grant the two Imnaha wolves a pardon, albeit only a temporary one (although the wolves might be dead when you read this). There’s less pressure to kill wolves now that the Oregon Legislature has set up a program to compensate ranchers for confirmed wolf kills.

However, if the dwindling Imnaha pack continues to prey on livestock, as it did during each of the past two springs and Septembers, and if most of the attacks continue to be on private property, then we would urge ODFW to concede that it’s not feasible to have a pack in the area where the Imnaha pack has roamed.

For now, though, we’d prefer that ODFW focus on keeping wolves out of trouble rather than killing them.