Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

ENTERPRISE — If anyone was born to his profession, it was Vic Coggins. The title of his recently published book, “Memoirs of a Backcountry Bio,” is apt for a man at home either on horseback or in a Super Cub plane documenting Northeastern Oregon’s ample wildlife.

Since his retirement in January 2013 from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Coggins referred to journals he kept as a kid and as a professional.

He also used ODFW records dating back to the 19th century and the writings of Lapwei, Idaho, missionary Henry Spalding as well as Al Josephy, a late 20th century chronicler of Nez Perce Tribe history, and Vernon Bailey, author of the 1936 Oregon wildlife digest, “Mammals and Live Zones of Oregon.”

Coggins had help from his wife, Vicki, to sort through a lifetime of photographs for the coffee table size, 234-page volume. He also had a lot of commiserating with fellow wildlife memoirist Jim Akenson, who wrote “7003 Days” with his wife, Holly, documenting their 21 years at the University of Idaho’s Taylor Ranch in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho.

Born and raised outside of Medford, Coggins grew up hunting and trapping the fields and forests around his home, mostly by horseback.

As an Oregon State University wildlife student he got a seasonal job doing spawning ground surveys in the Wallowa Mountains. By 1967 he was a full-time biologist at the Enterprise ODFW office and his wife and first of three children became permanent residents of Wallowa County.

For 34 of his 45 years with the agency, Coggins served as the Enterprise District’s lead wildlife biologist.

From their home on Alder Slope outside Enterprise, Vic and Vicki Coggins talked about the process of writing and self-publishing the memoir as their dogs dozed on their beds by the wood stove. A plate of Vicki’s signature cookies sat on the coffee table.

Much of Vic Coggins’ writing was accomplished a few yards from the family room in a studio with a view of the Eagle Cap range and decorated with heads of animals he hunted in Africa and the pelt of a wolf he shot in Alaska during a moose hunt.

The memoir begins with the wildlife and horseback adventures of his youth followed by species-specific chapters of his decades tracking Wallowa County wildlife. The book isn’t just anecdotal; it is filled with data from his journals on whitetail and mule deer, elk, mountain goats and Coggins’ beloved wild sheep and their successful reintroduction to the Wallowas.

Employing the no-nonsense style that nearly got him fired several times, Coggins drives home several points, including insisting that elk, bison, mountain goats and wild sheep were native to Wallowa County, that wild sheep are dangerously at risk to disease when exposed to domestic sheep, and that wolves came from Idaho to Oregon on their own four legs despite conspiracy theories claiming they were brought over the state line in pickup trucks.

As for the argument whether elk were native, Coggins writes that remnant populations lived in the Minam River and Wenaha River drainages, safe from the guns of settlers who relied on game for food, even when elk were brought to Wallowa County from Jackson, Wyoming, in 1912. He also found a 1910 reference to a road crew’s diet of primarily elk meat; further proving elk had not died out before the Rocky Mountain elk were brought to the county.

“There is so much misinformation whether they are native or not,” Coggins said.

While he found archaeological evidence of bison and bighorn sheep and literature supporting the existence of mountain goats he found very little information on wolves. In fact, the only reference to wolves in Wallowa County was one from Spalding’s writings about killing and eating a wolf with Old Chief Joseph on a trip to the Wallowa country.

Coggins theorizes that wolf populations in the county may have been low due to strychnine poisoning and salmon poisoning, a disease 90 percent fatal in untreated canines.

As for 21st century wolves, Coggins was in the middle of a controversy that rivaled what he called the “elk wars” — elk and deer damage to livestock feed that drives angry ranchers into the local district office demanding justice, or the decades-old fight between wild sheep advocates and domestic sheep ranchers.

When wolf sightings outside of Joseph in 2010 turned to calls about dead cattle, Coggins was in the thick of it again with livestock producers pitted against wildlife activists and federal and state management agencies.

The longest chapter in Coggins’ memoir is about the species nearest his heart — bighorn sheep. Just three years into his wildlife career he helped the cliff dwellers return to Hells Canyon. For more than 40 years he tended to wild sheep herds on the Snake River and the Wallowas, bringing in transplants from as far away as Alberta, Canada.

His dedication to the successful reintroduction of wild sheep to Northeastern Oregon was recognized this winter when his name was added to the “Wild Sheep Biologists Wall of Fame” by the Wild Sheep Foundation in Bozeman, Montana, for his scientific contribution to the enhancement of North America’s wild sheep.

To order a copy of “Memoirs of a Backcountry Bio” visit www.cogginswildlifepublishing.com.

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