After tiring of bouncing around in his state parks job, Mike Hayward left Bend two decades ago and found refuge in the scenic Wallowa valley, a place of dramatic snow-crusted mountain peaks and remote valleys that’s been called the Oregon Alps. It’s a rugged place that has more in common with central Idaho than it does with the verdant Willamette Valley.But that same isolation that has kept the din of the 21st century relatively at bay in Wallowa County has invited an old nuisance, at least as Hayward and some others see it, back into the lives of Wallowa County residents. Over the past six months, a pack of gray wolves, or at least a member of that pack, has harassed and killed half a dozen calves in the ranching-centric Wallowa Valley, reigniting a debate in Oregon that has been ongoing in neighboring states since the mid-90s when the federal government reintroduced wolves into the Yellowstone area and central Idaho. The issue came to a head this past spring when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife asked the federal government to kill a pair of wolves in the Wallowa Valley after non-lethal efforts apparently failed to end the wolf-livestock encounters.
It wasn’t the first time that Oregon’s wildlife managers had intervened with “problem wolves.” Last September, the state killed a pair of marauding wolves that were linked to more than two-dozen livestock attacks. But this spring’s government-sanctioned hunt—complete with helicopters, tracking devices and old-school wolf traps—ignited a debate that highlights a long-standing rift between ranchers, many of whom oppose reintroduction entirely, and conservationists who want to see wolves flourish in the Oregon wild. It’s a discussion that comes at a time when state wildlife managers are in the process of revising Oregon’s Wolf Management Plan. The outcome of the ongoing debate and management efforts could shape Oregon’s wolf policies for years to come, for better or worse. It’s a discussion that has ramifications not just for one small corner of the state, but for all of Oregon as wolves—which are prolific breeders and wanderers by nature—inevitably expand their territory westward.
While all of the documented wolf sightings thus far have been in eastern Oregon, federal and state biologists have said there is increasingly credible evidence that wolves are already ranging into the central Cascades and parts of the Ochocos, where they remain protected by federal law.
In eastern Oregon, though, it’s a different story. The federal government delisted wolves there—as well as in Idaho and Montana—in 2008, thanks to the health of the wolf population in places like Yellowstone Park and Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Conservation groups are lobbying to restore federal endangered species protections for wolves throughout the West, but for the time being, wolves are being treated more like a big game animal than, say, a spotted leopard. Following the Bush Administration’s delisting decision, Idaho and Montana issued wolf tags to hunters, resulting in more than 250 wolves killed by sportsmen last year.
The politics surrounding wolf reintroduction in Oregon are nowhere near as polarizing as in ultra-conservative central Idaho or Wyoming. There, state officials have refused to develop a wolf-management plan as a gesture of protest over the entire reintroduction program. However, the recent wolf-livestock encounters have ignited some long-simmering animosity in Wallowa County toward the wolf.
Hayward, who spent some time working as a ranch hand after his stint with the state parks, has served as a county commissioner since 1996. He said his constituents are clear about how they feel about wolves when they speak to him.
“I’ve got a constituent base that is telling us that we need to draw a hard line in the sand and say we don’t want any wolves in Wallowa County amd that the [state’s] wolf plan ought to be one paragraph long saying that any wolves in Wallowa County will be shot on sight,” he said.
“That would be a very popular position for us to take with some people in Wallowa County,” Hayward said.
He and his fellow commissioners are listening, at least to an extent. Earlier this year, the commissioners lobbied the state to declare a formal emergency in Wallowa County as a result of the wolf-livestock killings. The commissioners adopted a resolution to that effect and while the state didn’t bite on the emergency clause, it did temporarily rewrite its own wolf management rules to allow a more liberal kill policy. The state also authorized federal agents to hunt and kill two wolves from the Imnaha pack, which has grown from a breeding pair to roughly sixteen with four new pups caught on camera earlier this month. That’s good news for conservationists and wolf advocates who have fought for decades to restore the wolf—which remains an iconic symbol of the American wild—to at least a percentage of its former range.
Indeed, Oregon’s wolf management plan, which was adopted with input from multiple stakeholders including wildlife managers, environmentalists and ranchers, sets a target of eight breeding pairs in the state—four in eastern Oregon and four in western Oregon. But the plan has never been universally accepted, or applauded.
In Wallowa County, ranchers feel like they are shouldering most of the burden for a program that they didn’t support from the beginning, Hayward said. He recognizes that it isn’t realistic for Wallowa County to expect wolves to be completely eradicated from eastern Oregon. However, he said, it’s difficult for people like himself to find a middle ground in the debate because the state and the environmental community refuses to give ranchers and wildlife managers the tools they need to manage the wolf population. The key question remains: At what point does a rifle become the best tool to manage a predator whose only natural threat is us?
Rod Childers is the point person on wolf issues for the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, which has vocally opposed efforts to reestablish wolves in Oregon via the Idaho packs. He also happens to run cattle in Wallowa County. He’s been out to several of the scenes where livestock have been killed by wolves. It’s a gruesome sight, said Childers, who has roughly 480 head of cattle on a mix of private and public land, but has yet to lose a calf to a wolf. Still, he said, the state’s rules are too inflexible when it comes to dealing with an issue like Wallowa ranchers had this past spring.
“I’m a sportsman and a wildlife lover, but when I have a problem with something, I can take care of it. And we’re not advocating killing all the wolves—but when you have a problem, you get on it,” Childers said.
For their part, conservationists say the state was too quick to bow to pressure from the ranching community in Wallowa County. Dan Kruse of Cascadia Wildlands is lead attorney for the conservation groups who brought suit to stop the wolf hunt in eastern Oregon. Like others in the conservation community, Kruse said the ranchers and state wildlife managers could have done more to prevent further livestock losses without resorting to killing, including the hiring of a “range rider,” to patrol private lands for harassing wolves. Guard dogs have also proven effective in other states where wolves reside, Kruse said.
“We like to see more of these things going on and we’re concerned that ODFW was way too quick to pull the trigger,” Kruse said.
Indeed, the decision to cull the Imnaha pack appears rather sudden, at least in contrast to the rest of the management approach around wolves, which has developed at a glacial pace. The last wolf bounty paid out in Oregon was around the time of the Second World War. And it wasn’t until 1999 that the next confirmed wolf sighting occurred in the state, when a wolf swam across the Snake River and was later captured and returned to Oregon. The event and subsequent wolf encounters in Oregon, prompted the state to develop a Wolf Management Plan. The document was an acknowledgement that wolves would eventually migrate over from Idaho and establish themselves in Oregon. It laid out how the state would manage wolves, including how to deal with problem wolves and livestock encounters while setting some modest recovery goals in Oregon.
Oregon Wild’s Rob Klavins has been working on wolf issues for organization for the past two years and calls Oregon’s plan, “pretty weak”
Oregon’s plan was eventually adopted in 2005, but wasn’t exactly met with enthusiasm. Conservation groups, including Oregon Wild, signed onto the plan reluctantly because it gave a toehold for wolf recovery and offered some relatively attractive protections from indiscriminate killing for wolves.
“The plan was created specifically to address the potential for conflict and make decisions in the light of day before those conflicts came to pass,” Klavins said.
Under the plan, for example, ranchers have to seek a permit to shoot a problem wolf and can only do so if they catch the animal in the act of killing a domestic animal. That kind of restriction hasn’t set well with ranchers and groups like the Oregon Cattleman’s Association, which refused to sign off on the management plan, going so far as to oppose companion legislation that would have established a compensation fund for ranchers who lose livestock to wolf depredation. (In a bit of irony, ranchers now must seek compensation from a national environmental group)
Oregon ranchers aren’t alone in their concerns about wolf reintroduction. The effort to reestablish a wolf population in the United States has drawn strong opposition since the outset. It took roughly 20 years from the formation of the first federal wolf task force in the mid-1970s to the actual release of captured wolves in Yellowstone and Idaho in 1995. In between, the draft management plan drew more than 150,000 public comments.
However, since that first release, wolf numbers have steadily increased from the 66 wolves captured in Alberta, Canada—along with a naturally migrating population that has colonized northwest Montana—to an estimated 1,700 wolves spread across Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming with wolf sightings as far away as Utah and Colorado.
A WOLF IN LAWYERS’ CLOTHING
Based in part on that booming population, the Bush Administration removed wolves from the Endangered Species List in 2008, the move and the subsequent management efforts by individual states have set off a wave of litigation that continues today with no clear end in sight.
In Oregon, Kruse and Cascadia Wildlands along wit Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity have sued Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife over its decision to issue the kill permits for the pair of Wallowa wolves this spring. The groups are also suing the federal Wildlife Services over its role as the trigger man in the hunt, which was called off before any wolves were killed. Oregon’s legal salvos are just the latest round of litigation in the wolf wars. Conservation groups, including Cascadia Wildlands, have brought suit against the federal government in Montana in an effort to have all western wolves “relisted,” which would remove Oregon’s Imnaha pack from state management and restore prohibitions on hunting. Kruse said the move was necessary to ensure that there are adequate habitat and protections for wolves, allowing the disparate populations to move across multiple Western states to interbreed.
“When you’re deciding to delist a species, it has to be for biological, not political reasons,” Kruse said.
In the case of wolves, there are standards laid out in the recovery plan that haven’t been met, he said.
“The recovery goal also talked about there being genetic exchange between the populations to prevent things like disease from wiping out the entire population,” Kruse said.
Meanwhile, the state of Wyoming is suing the federal government over its decision to exclude Wyoming from the delisting order in the Rocky Mountains, which has left wolves under the management of the federal government in that state. Kruse said he speculates that the move to exclude Wyoming was an effort to force the state to develop a management plan for wolves that would set target populations, designate habitat and allow for things like a hunting season and predator control measures. But so far Wyoming hasn’t budged.
“It’s [Wyoming’s] position that they should be able to kill every wolf in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone. It’s their view that they are a pest and need to be eradicated,” he said.
WHAT’S A HOWL WORTH?
While most of the economic discussions around wolves have centered on the loss of individual animals and the cost to farmers, both directly and indirectly, there is evidence that wolves could provide an economic benefit to an area like Wallowa County. Surveys done at Yellowstone Park show that the majority of visitors count the possibility of seeing or hearing a wolf as one of the reasons for their visit. A significant percentage goes a step further, citing wolves as the primary reason for their visit. University of Montana economist, John Duffield, has studied the impact that these tourists have on the local ecnonomy and estimates that wolves alone generate as much as $10 million annually for the Yellowstone area. That’s likely just a fraction of the dollars generated by Old Faithful or activities like hiking and fly fishing, but it could be significant to a small rural economy like that of Wallowa County. Commissioner Hayward isn’t convinced, however. Hayward, who knows a little about the tourism business in Wallowa County from his time managing one of the larger family resorts on Wallowa Lake, said he doesn’t see wolves as a primary draw for summer tourists.
“My personal opinion is that it’s a sales pitch,” Hayward said. “I’ll tell you this: there are a lot of people who come to Wallowa County for the natural type of setting—the mountains, the rivers, the land and that sort of stuff. Whether someone would come because there are wolves here who wouldn’t come otherwise, I think that is a bit of a stretch,” Hayward said.
He also questions just how much money wolf watchers would generate for towns like Joseph and Enterprise.
“People who gas up in La Grande hike the Eagle Cap Wilderness for a week and then drive out to La Grande and sleep in a motel room, they don’t do much for Wallowa County,” Hayward said.
Still, he realizes that Wallowa County is going to have to learn to live with its wolf population, whatever that number might be. What he and others say they want is more tools to minimize the conflict between humans and wolves. But just what those tools will look like remains a point of contention between folks like Hayward and conservationists like Kruse, whose mission is to protect Oregon’s fledgling wolf population. For the time being, the state has edged more toward giving wildlife managers and landowners greater leeway in their ability to manage wolves, enacting the temporary rule change that expands the area where landowners can kill a wolf during an attack. But the state is also doing more on the non-lethal side, recently providing funds for ranchers to hire the range rider to harass wolves away from livestock herds. The state is also moving to fill a second position on its wolf management team that will allow the state to more quickly respond to wolf issues on the ground, said Michelle Dennehy, ODFW spokeswoman.
Within the next few weeks, the state expects to have a draft revision of its Wolf Management Plan that will likely give a clearer idea of what direction the state is heading with its approach. Dennehy declined to give any specifics on what changes to expect. However, she acknowledged the state has been open to more liberal rules for landowners.
“What I can tell you is back when we first adopted the wolf plan, we wanted to give ranchers the ability to shoot a wolf caught in the act,” she said.
Cascadia’s Kruse said he shares the agency’s concerns about wolf predation and the impact that it can have both personally and politically.
However, he said, the state and other stakeholders need to keep in perspective the amount of damage that wolves do versus other natural threats like disease and even domestic dogs, which together claim thousands of head of livestock each year, but are seen as simply a cost of doing business.
“The amount of damage that’s been caused by wolves is a fraction of one percent of the damage that’s faced every year, but it’s important for us to be aware of that damage and be able to respond to that. But I think it’s also important to put in perspective that wolves are demonized well beyond reason,” Kruse said.
Canis Lupus by the numbers
The number of wolves estimated in the wilds
of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The number of new pups spotted in the
Imnaha pack earlier this month.
The number of wolf tags sold to
Idaho hunters in 2009.
The number of wolves legally
shot by hunters in Idaho and Montana last year.
The number of wolves shot by state and federal
agents in Montana due to livestock incidents.
The targeted number of breeding pairs set
by the Oregon Wolf Management Plan.
The number of wolves killed by federal agents.
in Oregon due to livestock depradation.