When wolves move in


The Oregonian

Portland, ORE - Such government-funded trapping and poisoning eliminated wolves from the West until the nation sharply reversed course, calling for their recovery under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Biologists began releasing Canadian wolf packs in Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995, with results far exceeding expectations.

Some 700 wolves now range through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Although federal wolf recovery targets only those Rocky Mountain states, more and more wolves -- particularly youngsters striking out on their own -- are spilling beyond the boundaries.

"All these dispersing wolves have to go somewhere, and that somewhere is likely to be Oregon, Washington, Utah and other states," said Ed Bangs, the federal wolf recovery leader.

Wolf sightings have increased steadily in Oregon, concentrated heavily in the northeast quarter of the state closest to wolf packs in Idaho. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received a fuzzy photograph of a large wolf-like animal taken last month near Troy, just west of Hells Canyon.

At least three Idaho wolves have entered Oregon: One was captured and returned to Idaho in 1999, another was killed by a car on Interstate 84 near Baker City in 2000, and the third was illegally shot south of Pendleton in late 2000.

The first two wore radio collars for tracking, but the third did not. Since three-fourths or more of the roughly 300 wolves in Idaho are uncollared, it's likely more have entered Oregon undetected, biologists say.

Federal authorities do not plan to remove wolves from Oregon unless the toothy canines go after livestock. A magnet for controversy Wolves evoke passion on all sides, with no simple lines between them. A poll of 600 Oregon voters in 1999 found 70 percent favored wolf recovery. The Oregon Hunters Association worries wolves will chase the same wildlife herds hunters do, but some members think the predators have a place.

"I wouldn't be a thinking person if I thought I was the only hunter with a right to be out there," said Scott Stouder of Corvallis, a life member of the group. "One of the reasons we hunt is the connection to wildness and the land. Wolves, to me, add to that, they don't detract from it. When you sterilize the landscape by taking components out, what you're left with isn't much better than a game farm."

Respected ranching practices

Predators are a fact of life on Southworth's ranch in Bear Valley, homesteaded by his grandfather in 1887. He hasn't minded them so much. Strong cattle protect themselves and calves from coyotes, which do help by gobbling mice and squirrels that otherwise nibble away grasses.

"My family's been here 117 years, and I don't think we've ever lost a healthy calf to predators," he said, guiding a dusty Ford pickup past beaver dams in a frozen stream.

Southworth is widely respected for his ranching practices. He has fenced streams from cattle so willows could recover, making life better for fish, and lets beavers dwell on his 12,000 acres in the valley that early trappers reported held as many beavers as anyplace in the West.

Beaver dams, he expects, will boost the water table and improve his pastures. Up to 500 pronghorn antelope roam the valley, and he likes that.

"If I'm going to be here the rest of my life, I want to enjoy what I'm looking at and feel good about what I'm doing," he says.

He doesn't feel good about wolves, which he sees as far more aggressive than coyotes. Yet he imagines their arrival in Oregon is inevitable.

"I don't think anyone thinks we can keep them out," he said. "There's enough of a population in Idaho, they're going to be looking for new territory."

The question, he and other ranchers say, is how much freedom they will have to control the wolves that do get to Oregon.

Political, biological experiment It's as much a legal and political question as a biological one. Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are an "experimental" population and can be shot if they attack livestock. But it's unclear if they are subject to the same control after crossing into Oregon or Washington -- where they may not part of the experiment and full protection of the Endangered Species Act would be left to apply.

Federal agencies are acting to loosen the protection by dropping wolves from endangered to threatened status and plan to begin lifting the protection altogether early in 2003, leaving management to the states. But that is stalled because Idaho, Montana and Wyoming must draw up state plans to keep wolves from declining again.

Idaho and Montana are doing so, but Wyoming is not -- instead continuing to resist roaming wolves. That keeps federal controls on other states, including Oregon.

Oregon wildlife managers have met with officials high in the Bush administration to discuss handling wolves in the state, Ball said, although he would give no details.

Oregon law on wolves Oregon has its own Endangered Species Act, which calls for wolf recovery. When the state Fish and Wildlife Commission insisted federal agencies remove the first known wolf to wander into Oregon in 1999, it apparently did so in violation of the state law, Ball says now.

The commission will likely fold comments from the coming public meetings into testimony it received from biologists and others at commission workshops during the past year to devise an strategy for managing wolves. That may require altering the state Endangered Species Act -- a job for the Legislature.

State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, who co-chairs the Legislature's natural resources committee, said ranchers cannot be expected to tolerate wolves without having the flexibility to shoot them when necessary.

"They're not going to like it, but they can probably live with it if they have the management tools," he said. "What we're not going to stand for is no tools to deal with this predator."

State and federal biologists say Oregon does not hold enough large parcels of wild land where wolves can dwell without running into human pursuits such as ranching and hunting. The issue, they say, is whether to resolve the conflicts by removing wolves or letting some remain in some places.

"Is it reasonable that we should shoot every one?" Ball asked.

David Mech, the nation's top wolf biologist, told the commission in October that wolves breed quickly, travel far and spread widely. They confront and test prey and often -- but not always -- attack older and weaker animals. Studies of moose and elk killed by wolves in the Upper Midwest and Yellowstone showed they were generally older, weaker and more arthritic than those shot by hunters.

Mech said there are fewer than 10 reliable reports of wolves attacking people. Most involved wolves that had been fed by people.

Wolves may cut into prey numbers, Mech said, but there's no sign they wipe out prey altogether. They clearly do attack livestock, having killed almost 500 sheep and 200 cattle in the Northern Rockies since 1995. And they go after coyotes, cutting their numbers by 50 percent in parts of Yellowstone.

The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife compensates ranchers for livestock confirmed killed by wolves.

That doesn't make it sound any better to Southworth, who is concerned for the local band of antelope along Shirttail Creek. Wolves, he fears, are another wedge between rural Eastern Oregon and urban Western Oregon.

"My greatest frustration is the idea that Western Oregon is not wolf habitat and Eastern Oregon is," he said. "I think wolves would do great in the West Hills of Portland. I think there would be plenty of dogs, cats and maybe deer to eat. But that idea seems ridiculous. I feel the same way about wolves right here." Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com


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