Jumping (to) the gun


There may be no verified wolves, yet, in Colorado, but you bet there are in the Beaver State. In the arid northeast corner of Oregon, two packs totaling 14 wolves have appeared and, of late, they’ve been worrying the locals.

"You've got essentially a social experiment here," Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen told the Oregonian recently, referring to the political fervor wolves seem to incite wherever they roam. "Wolves are a very efficient, four-legged piranha.” True enough, all myths aside.

Wolves roamed eastern Oregon into the '20s; the last was shot for bounty in 1946.  Now there’s one pack of 10, which includes a breeding pair, and one of four—paltry numbers, compared to Idaho, where there are over 800, or Montana, which has more than 500. 

This May and early June these shaggy piranhas chomped on at least six cows in Wallowa County, at least according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The federal Wildlife Services agency says it’s nine. The ranchers claim even more.

Rancher Todd Nash, for one, suspects the pack killed one of his calves this spring, and possibly 15 to 20 of them last year. "This is like the 'Twilight Zone,’ ” Nash said to the Oregonian.  “Every time I go out to check cattle, the first thing I look for is something that's dead. It makes my heart sick.” Nash also said he never found a single carcass. Strange indeed, and a problem. While Defenders of Wildlife, for instance, will compensate ranchers for any livestock lost to wolves, each wolf kill must be verified.

In keeping with Oregon’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, ODFW issued a permit to nine ranchers that authorizes them to shoot any wolf seen attacking a cow. They also gave Wildlife Services the go-ahead to kill any two young wolves found on private land in the area, as last year’s litter is the suspected culprit.

But two of 14 wolves? That’s no small portion of Oregon’s modest, and fragile, population. Only one breeding pair exists, and since the wolf killing was first authorized, its 115-pound alpha male (known, telemetrically, as B-300) has gone missing. If it’s not just a radio collar malfunction, and he’s in fact dead, that, in and of itself, is a hit to the population.

Thankfully, ODFW  has put the hunt on hold, under the pressure of a July 1 lawsuit by a pack of conservation groups: Cascadia Wildlands, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity. (“bleeding hearts,” according to some, not to be confused with the “heart sick”).

As the suit points out, at this early stage wolf killing is only warranted, according to the Management Plan, when “chronic depredation” occurs. In the last month, however, no livestock have been slain by wolves in Oregon—that’s not "chronic," the enviros argue. Nor has the Wildlife Services shown that the alternative, non-lethal means of predation control, like fences and hazing, were “deemed ineffective.” In other words, wildlife managers jumped (to) the gun.

Additionally, the suit alleges that ODFW OK’d the hunt even though radio collars indicated that, at the time of the killings, the pack was in the mountains, not on valley ranches. The suit also claims that several carcass dumps were left on ranch lands, creating “unreasonable circumstances” that may have helped lure wolves to the region. And above all, perhaps, no real environmental impact assessment was made.

The hunt is on hiatus for at least four weeks, barring another attack. Then we'll see which way the wolf conservation/management winds will howl. For now, however, it may be worth noting, as the Center for Biological Diversity does, that in 2005 domestic dogs killed 700 sheep and cows in Oregon.