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An Inflection Point For Oregon's Wolf Recovery

09.20.15

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An Inflection Point For Oregon's Wolf Recovery

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  • OR14 was captured and GPS-collared by ODFW in the Weston Mountain area north of the Umatilla River. Photo courtesy of ODFW.- An Inflection Point For Oregon's Wolf Recovery
  • Remote camera photo of OR7 in eastern Jackson County on USFS land. Photo courtesy of USFWS.- An Inflection Point For Oregon's Wolf Recovery
  • Two of wolf OR7’s pups peek out from a log on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Photo courtesy of USFWS.- An Inflection Point For Oregon's Wolf Recovery
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Wolves have been making great news headlines in Oregon recently as their recovery and expansion continues to take hold. As of 2014 the first wolves breeding west of the Cascade Range in the past 100 years has been given official pack status. With it comes the next phase of wolf management for the state. Lost in the headlines touting the wolf's successful return to Oregon is a broader perspective on the future recovery efforts. Terms like Phase I and Phase II have little meaning to the everyday person, but they have far reaching implications on how humans and wolves will interact.

Our partners at Oregon Wild have been instrumental in advocating for the future of wolves in Oregon. To better understand where we are, I asked Rob Klavins, Oregon Wild's Northeast Oregon Field Coordinator and Wildlife Advocate, to help paint the picture and answer a few questions. Here was Rob's response.


It’s a difficult task to start a story from the middle. But when it comes to Oregon’s nascent wolf recovery, that’s exactly where we are: a long way from “once upon a time,” but perhaps not much closer to “happily ever after.”

For wolves, “once upon a time” was “happily ever after.” Prior to our efforts at extermination, they were the widest ranging non-human land mammal on the planet. The story for wolves here took a dark turn when European settlers expanded to the West. A bounty system for killing wolves was put into effect, and eradication became the norm. Oregon’s last wolf bounty was collected in 1947, at that time signaling the end of wolves in the state.

Fast forward just a few decades though, and America had an environmental awakening. We realized the horizon had limits and that there was value to the wildness that remained. With the passage of the Endangered Species Act we codified the idea that we would no longer let species go extinct, and we would even try to help them recover. In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to the West to augment populations recovering on their own.

Wolves are often characterized as polarizing and controversial. That’s our doing. Not theirs. Sharing the landscape with native hunters has always been a challenge for our species. The purposeful extermination of wolves was an environmental tragedy. Their recovery has the potential to be one of our greatest success stories. But the future is in our hands.

Like all native wildlife, wolves are simply trying to make a living the only way they know how. Given sharp teeth, incredible endurance, and a capacity for cooperation, they kill for a living. And for the 354 days last year that unattended domestic livestock weren’t on the menu, they didn’t get much attention.

As the debate over wolves continue to rage on in places like Idaho and Wyoming and the body count grows, Oregon’s wolves are still taking tenuous steps toward recovery. The Beaver State is now home to 77 known wolves (26 of which are pups less than a year old).

Wolf pups from the Wenaha Pack. Photo courtesy of ODFW.

Meanwhile, though often ignored in the story, science is continuing to demonstrate the critical and irreplaceable role wolves play on the landscape.

With that context, allow me to respond to the specific questions you asked about the status of Oregon's wolves.

 

1. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) recently announced that with seven breeding pairs of wolves in Oregon, the state’s wolf management plan is going from Phase I to Phase II. What changes does this mean for Oregon’s wolves? What are the main differences from Phase I to Phase II for wolf management?

Phase II takes Oregon back to a period of time where ambiguity created unnecessary conflict and killing that didn’t benefit anyone – the wolves least of all. To get a full understanding requires a quick history lesson.

In 2005, ODFW put together a wolf plan with input from a broad group of stakeholders. The ultimate result was a pragmatic political compromise, but it was not a scientifically defensible recovery plan. Though it included some laudable goals, the important parts were unenforceable and ambiguous. Over time, that ambiguity led the state to give in to political pressure from interests critical of wolf recovery.

Seeing little other recourse, in 2011, conservationists filed a legal challenge to the state’s wolf killing program. A judge agreed that ODFW was likely violating its own laws by killing endangered wolves. After 17 months of negotiations between conservationists, the livestock industry, and the state, a settlement was reached. While the agreement didn’t fundamentally change the wolf plan, it increased transparency, reduced ambiguity, and created clear requirements that had to be met before the state could consider killing wolves.

For example, the original plan allowed killing wolves to address “chronic depredation.” The term was so loosely defined though, that any wolf could be killed if two livestock were lost to wolves over any time period in any geographic area, even if the second hadn’t even been born when the first incident occurred. Though the plan called for preventative measures, there were no real requirements beyond a livestock manager simply telling someone from ODFW that, as managers, "they had done some stuff.”

All parties agreed on a coherent definition of “chronic,” limiting it in time and area. To qualify, a livestock manger had to meet and document basic requirements for trying to prevent conflicts (including things like not baiting wolves and checking on livestock). The settlement has been working for all but the most intransigent voices, but it wasn’t comprehensive. It only applied to Phase I.

Now that wolves in Eastern Oregon are under Phase II guidelines, the ambiguity that led to unnecessary conflict, controversy, and killing are back.

 

2. If non-lethal management under Phase I was such a success for wolf management and protecting livestock at the same time, why the change to Phase II?

Since settlement, Oregon has been the only state with a meaningful wolf population that didn’t (legally) kill any on purpose. With a focus on prevention and transparency, we didn’t have to. Responsible ranchers stepped up, and in the extremely rare instances when livestock were lost to wolves despite efforts to protect them, owners were reimbursed with full market value through the state’s compensation program.

Not surprisingly, Oregon’s wolf population has grown. What was surprising for some is that the number of depredations has stayed low and even decreased.

Remote camera pictures of the Minam wolf pack in Eagle Cap Wilderness of Wallowa County. Photo courtesy of ODFW.

Counter examples are easy to find. In Washington, killing entire packs has not reduced conflict. While conservationists, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, and wildlife managers worked in good faith to come to a settlement in Oregon, just across the Snake River in Idaho, where wolves can be hunted and trapped for sport, the wolf population dropped while the number of livestock depredations increased. Science can explain why, but that's a story probably best left for another day.

Unfortunately, the ambiguity of Phase II was written well before the settlement. When Oregon hit the established recovery goal of four breeding wolf pairs for three consecutive years in the eastern part of the state, it automatically triggered a switch to Phase II.

 

3. Is the state considering adopting the same non-lethal techniques permanently? If not, why?

The short answer is that adopting these rules permanently is still up in the air. Oregonians overwhelmingly agree they want to see wolf recovery and reduced conflict. The Phase I rules require a bit more up front work from ODFW and responsible ranchers. But since the settlement, Oregon has arguably been the only state in the nation to achieve both goals.

It’s not often the stuff of headlines, but stakeholders with differing views on wolves are working together more than ever before. As The Guardian recently noted, “nobody on any side of the argument is making easy concessions … it resembles a truce, albeit an uneasy one.” That’s progress.

Unfortunately, for a vocal and influential minority, any restrictions on killing wolves is perceived as an assault on their liberty.

Many at ODFW understand that non-lethal measures can be effective and conflicts can be reduced without killing wolves. However, for others, wolf issues are a headache. What we call ambiguity, they call discretion. Some seem to have already forgotten Oregon’s hard-earned lessons and the examples in other states. Maintaining Oregon’s focus on conservation, conflict prevention, and clarity looks to be an uphill fight.

Later this year, ODFW will undergo a public review of the wolf plan. That will be an opportunity to double down on the success of the last three years. But it is also an opportunity to repeat the mistakes of the past. Those who want to return to the old ways of picking up a gun or putting out a trap will certainly make their voice heard. It’s important for conservation-minded Oregonians to do the same.

 

4. Looking at the big picture, how is the return of wolves to Oregon impacting the ecosystems in which they’re spreading?

In Oregon, at this point, likely very little. Oregon is home to about 1.3 million cows, 125,000 elk, and only 51 known adult wolves. All but six of them are confined to the northeast corner of the state. While it’s likely the elk and coyotes in wolf country are a bit more educated and wary, we are a long way from what scientists would call an effective population.

Science is only now beginning to come to any kind of real understanding of the impact of keystone species like wolves. Even with our limited understanding, it has become clear that wolves and other native hunters play a critical and irreplaceable role.  Most of our current understanding of wolves’ impact on the broader landscape comes from Yellowstone, where scientists from Oregon State University have demonstrated incredible changes to the ecosystem with the presence or absence of wolves. Their return has had an impact on everything from songbirds and plants to bugs and beavers.

Especially given all that we have done to alter the landscape in the last few hundred years, restoration isn’t as simple as “just add wolves,” but it may be an essential step. As Aldo Leopold once said:

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

 

5. What can the public do to get involved and stay informed on the state’s efforts and plans?

Though policy may be the least interesting part of wolf recovery, it may be the most consequential. If recovery is to take hold, it’s up to those of us who value native wildlife to make our voices heard. You can keep up with the developments of wolf recovery in Oregon by following Oregon’s wolves on Facebook. If you want to be more involved, you can join the Oregon Wild Wolf Pack, where we regularly provide updates and opportunities to get involved.

A Snake River pup howling. Photo courtesy of ODFW.

For optimists, there is plenty of reason to see a bright future ahead. We’ve come a long way since the extermination of native wildlife and native people was viewed as acceptable practice in the west. Oregon’s wolf population is growing in number and range. Rather than follow Idaho’s lead, Oregon has been trying something different. 

But for pessimists, there is plenty of reason to be concerned. We’ve pushed natural systems to the breaking point. Wolves are getting a second chance. If we don’t get it right, they may not get a third, and in the long term, a small, persecuted population in isolated pockets across the state may not be enough.

Just next month, ODFW, the agency charged with protecting wildlife for all Oregonians, will undertake a status review for wolves. Some have willfully misunderstood an initial recovery goal to be an endpoint rather than a milestone. Even as wolves number in the low dozens and are just beginning to arrive in the western part of the state, some people at ODFW appear determined to strip them of their most basic protections, regardless of what the science or the public says. 

Urban and rural alike, Oregonians value native wildlife. Time and again, polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans support wolf recovery. Not too long ago, I came across a set of wolf tracks in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I howled and anxiously waited for a response that never came. For generations the very idea of hearing a wolf howl, even in Oregon’s wildest corner, was a fantasy. We’ve come a long way. But we’ve got a long way to go.

If we want to finish the story with “happily ever after,” those who value native wildlife have to be the ones to write the next chapter.

Rob Klavins is Oregon Wild's NE Oregon Field Coordinator. In 2012, Rob's work at Oregon Wild was recognized with a prestigious Skidmore Prize. He and his wife own and operate Barking Mad Farm Bed & Breakfast, a working farm and B&B in rural Wallowa County.

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