Northwest braces itself for wolves

Wild predators are ready to reintroduce themselves to Oregon

 

BEND, Ore. - Images of wolves played on video screens as people filed into the meeting room at the National Guard Armory. Ranchers wearing cowboy hats and Wranglers shook their heads and scowled. Others, in fleece coats, ski hats and down jackets, greeted each other with hearty smiles and cheered at the thought of hearing a wolf howl break the Oregon night.

All told, about 200 people came to this Nov. 20 meeting - one of 14 "town hall" meetings across the state - to tell the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife their thoughts on the wolf packs that are expected to migrate into the state within the next few months. Although the Oregonians at the Bend meeting were on their best behavior, emotions ran high as the two sides squared off in what could become the next big wildlife debate of the Northwest.

Once prolific throughout the country, wolves were extirpated in Oregon by the 1950s. Now, a dramatic comeback under way in the Northern Rockies - officials estimate there are about 700 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming (HCN, 5/27/02: Wolf at the door) - has set the stage for some boundary pushing. Unconfirmed wolf sightings in Oregon are on the rise and at least three of the animals have come to the state in recent years. One wearing a radio collar was trapped and returned to Idaho in 1999. Two others were killed in 2000: A motorist hit a wolf near Baker City and someone illegally shot another south of Pendleton.

At the Bend meeting, Prineville rancher Ray Sessler worried that wolf attacks on his livestock could spell the end of his operation. "I already feed the deer and elk that come onto my property and eat my hay, and I don't mind that," he said. "But I don't feel I should be put in a position where I should sacrifice my cattle for the wolves."

Ready or not

The impending arrival of the wild predators exacerbates the political divide between the two sides of Oregon.

"All the environmentalists (in Portland and Eugene) think it is great that wolves will be in Oregon, but they won't have to deal with the animals," says Glen Stonebrink, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, whose members are concentrated in traditionally conservative eastern Oregon. "If they want wolves, let them have them just outside Portland."

"Wolves are coming to Oregon whether ranchers like it or not," says Brent Fenty of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. Fenty's group is one that is trying to soften the blow, however. He says that the Desert Association is poised to help ranchers get out of the business by buying up their public-lands grazing permits.

The national group Defenders of Wildlife also works to minimize resentments from ranchers by compensating them for livestock killed by wolves. It has also kicked off a new program aimed at preventing conflict before wolves even appear: The group provides ranchers with "proactive funds" to build electric fences, hire employees to monitor the range, buy guard dogs, and set up "radio-activated guard boxes" - devices that pick up the radio signals from collared wolves, then blare loud noises to scare them off.

According to Nancy Weiss, Western director of species conservation for Defenders, these tools help ease tensions between environmentalists and ranchers. "With individual ranchers, it's starting to get a little easier. In Idaho, you can't comprehend the bridge-building that's going on," she says. "It's our hope that ranchers in the Northern Rockies will spread the word, that if people would just work together, they could tolerate living with wolves."

A wolf by any other name

But the return of wolves to Oregon will be a different game than it has been in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Reintroduced wolves in the Northern Rockies are considered "non-essential, experimental," under the federal Endangered Species Act, which means they can be killed for preying on livestock. But when they reach Oregon, because they are coming without human help, they will be protected as "endangered." This means state officials have less flexibility, and ranchers will be prosecuted and sometimes fined if they shoot the animals.

That could change as early as the end of this year: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hoping to downgrade the wolves' status to "threatened," then remove them from the list altogether. Once removed from the federal list, wolves will still be protected under the Oregon Endangered Species Act. But the state is planning to a draft a management plan - based on comments from the meetings and information from national wolf experts - which could call for taking the animals off the state endangered species list.

One way or the other, most everyone agrees it's only a matter of time before the wolves arrive. As Idaho packs press out of the Rocky Mountain wilderness in search of new territory and mates, the natural direction will be toward the rugged and rural eastern parts of Washington and Oregon.

"Wolves belong in the Northwest as much as salmon do," says Joe Scott, conservation director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "We must seek to recover wolves wherever suitable habitat exists, for the sake of the species and these ecosystems."

 

    You can contact ...
  • Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 541/963-2138, www.dfw.state.or.us;
  • Oregon Cattlemen's Association, 503/361-8941, www.orbeef.org/oca.htm;
  • Oregon Natural Desert Association, 541/330-2638,www.onda.org;
  • Defenders of Wildlife, 541/772-WOLF, www.defenders.org.