Breeding female of the Wenaha Pack, captured on remote camera on U.S. Forest Service land in northern Wallowa County in December 2018.

Oregon’s wolf population grew by almost 10% during 2020, and 20 of the state’s 22 wolf packs live in the northeast corner of the state.

Wolves from six of those packs include parts of Baker County in their range.

Those are among the statistics included in the annual wolf report released Wednesday, April 21 by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

The report is based on wolf statistics at the end of 2020.

ODFW officials confirmed that at least 173 wolves were in the state at that time, an increase of 9.5% from the 158 wolves tallied at the end of 2019. Those numbers are based on sightings, tracks and photographs from remote cameras, according to ODFW.

ODFW acknowledges that there are likely more than 173 wolves living in the state, as not all wolves are seen, or their presence confirmed by other evidence, during the annual winter census.

Although two wolf packs and two other groups of wolves are living in the Cascade Mountains or in Central Oregon, a large majority of the state’s wolves inhabit the northeast corner.

That’s been true since wolves started migrating into the state from Idaho about 20 years ago.

Of the minimum statewide population of 173 wolves, 151 – 87% — are in the northeast corner, including Baker, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, Grant and Morrow counties.

That region also is home to 20 of the state’s 22 documented wolf packs, according to ODFW. The agency defines a pack as four or more wolves traveling together during winter. Pack populations ranged from four to 15 wolves.

Wolf attacks on livestock

Both reported and confirmed wolf attacks on livestock increased during 2020.

ODFW investigated 73 cases of suspected wolf attacks reported by ranchers, a 46% increase from 2019. A majority of those investigations — 51 of 73, or 70% — were in Eastern Oregon.

The number of confirmed wolf attacks rose by 94% in 2020, from 16 to 31. Slightly more than half of the confirmed depredations — 52% — were from the Rogue pack in Southwest Oregon, which was responsible for 16 confirmed attacks.

Statewide, 42% of reported wolf attacks were confirmed, which 21% were deemed possible or unknown, and 34% were attributed to other predators or causes. Another 3% were listed as probable wolf attacks.

The percentage of confirmed attacks was lower in Eastern Oregon than statewide, however, with 15 of 51 investigations — 29% — deemed confirmed.

In 2019 there were seven confirmed wolf attacks on livestock in Eastern Oregon.

The comparatively low percentage of confirmed attacks is one concern that ranchers have about Oregon’s approach to wolf management, said Rodger Huffman, a Northeast Oregon rancher and co-chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s Wolf Task Force Committee.

Huffman said he and other ranchers believe ODFW’s criteria for determining whether wolves attacked livestock are too heavily weighted toward a finding other than confirmation that wolves are responsible.

He said he understands, however, that ODFW officials are under pressure from what Huffman calls the “pro-wolf side,” to not blame wolves for livestock attacks without overwhelming physical evidence.

Huffman said he’s not suggesting that agency biologists assume wolves are the culprits in all depredations, but he contends a lower standard would be more reasonable, and better reflect the actual prevalence of wolf attacks on livestock.

He said he knows a rancher in Union County who reported six possible depredations last year, but ODFW confirmed only one.

Huffman said the rancher has “lost confidence in the system” as a result.

Although Huffman believes wolf populations are increasing faster than ODFW’s figures show, an official from Defenders of Wildlife, a group that advocates for the state to protect wolves and encourage their distribution in Oregon, said wolves are still in a relatively tenuous situation.

“This past year has seen a multitude of challenges for wolves in Oregon,” said Sristi Kamal, senior Oregon representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “While increasing wolf numbers are encouraging, long-term recovery is still dependent on addressing multiple threats, including poaching and a push for predator control measures.”

According to the ODFW annual report, four wolves were killed illegally in Oregon in 2020. Oregon State Police is investigating three of those cases. The breeding male of the Ruckel Ridge pack was shot in Umatilla County in May 2020. The breeding male of the Cornucopia pack was shot in September in Baker County, and a subadult wolf, believed to be from the Pine Creek pack, was shot in October in Baker County.

Five other wolves died from different causes during 2020, according to ODFW.

One pup from the Wenaha pack and a yearling from the Indigo pack died of natural causes.

A livestock owner shot a wolf that was attacking livestock, one was hit by a car on Interstate 84 in Baker County, and another apparently was killed when it was hit by a boat while swimming across the Snake River in March 2020.

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