Night is falling in the Wood River Valley, a broad, flat expanse of southern Oregon, just south of Crater Lake National Park. John Stephenson, a gray-haired, lantern-jawed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, is building a campfire on this chilly late October evening. He is here to be a human — to move around and make noise and generally discourage a nearby wolf pack from coming out of the dark timbered hills. These wolves have killed four yearling cattle in this particular pasture already. And this isn’t any old wolf pack; it was the first to settle in southern Oregon, and the family of a legendary lupine wanderer known as OR7.
The campfire’s flickering amber flames compete with the irregular flashing of anti-predator lights mounted on fences. This is Stephenson’s fourth night in this field. In a few days, the cows will be rounded up and shipped to California for the winter. Once they’re gone, he’ll be able to more or less relax until the cattle return in the spring.
Wolves are expanding across the West, though they’re still federally endangered in some places. At the edges of their range, the wolf frontier, the animals are more likely to be individually known and managed as if each one is precious. If one finds a mate or has pups, it’s announced in the local paper and even on Facebook. And if one begins killing livestock, government officials camp out for days in a cold pasture, hoping to maintain a fragile coexistence without further bloodshed — especially if the wolf is as famous as OR7.
But the era of knowing and managing Western wolves as individuals probably won’t last. If and when gray wolves become well established, they will be managed like black bears, cougars or other animals — as largely anonymous populations. In another wolf generation or three, an animal that kills livestock in this valley might well be shot. “Part of the deal of having wolves back on the landscape is there are going to be some problem ones we have to remove,” Stephenson says. “It is the price of success.”
OR7, whom local environmentalists dubbed “Journey,” gained his official designation in early 2011, when he became the seventh wolf to be captured and fitted with a radio collar in Oregon. That fall, he left his natal pack and took off on an epic thousand-mile trek that saw him cross into California for a time, becoming the first wild wolf in the Golden State since the 1920s. His wanderings surprised biologists, who hadn’t realized how far wolves were prepared to travel in search of a good territory and a mate. And he inspired environmentalists, who regarded “Journey” as symbolic: the personification of wildness reclaiming the Pacific Northwest. OR7 has since inspired two documentaries, a children’s book, and a Twitter account (“Hobbies: wandering, ungulates”).
Since his famous cross-state trek, OR7 has settled down in a large territory stretching from north of Crater Lake down to the California border. He’s found a mate and had several rounds of pups. The family is known as the Rogue Pack after the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest that makes up much of their turf. OR7’s radio collar has gone dead, but Stephenson has been unable to trap him or his mate; the wolves are too wily.
OR7 is now 7 years old, and he and his family have largely kept to themselves, hunting elk and staying in the remotest parts of the forest. It wasn’t until this year that the Rogue Pack bothered livestock, perhaps owing to what Utah State University ecologist Dan MacNulty calls “predatory senescence” — older wolves simply have a harder time chasing down wild game, and fat, placid cattle make a tempting alternative. So far, the attacks have been few, annoying rather than infuriating Klamath County ranchers.
Butch Wampler is the manager at the Nicholson Ranch, where the pack killed cattle. He was riding his horse on a Monday morning in October when he came across several wolves dining on the carcass of a 600-pound steer. He suspected the wolves had made the kill. “I rode the cattle really good on Friday, and there were no sick ones,” he says. The next night, the pack struck again. “All they ate out of that second one was the heart and lungs and liver,” Wampler says, clearly irked. “Wolves kill just to kill.”
Eventually, they took two more steers. The owner of the cattle, DeTar Livestock of Dixon, California, was paid $3,660 in compensation from the Klamath County Wolf Depredation Committee. And after the third loss, Stephenson began his vigil. Wampler told Stephenson he understood the real reason he was working so hard to avoid yet another kill: “You are not protecting these cattle from the wolves; you are protecting your wolves from these cattle.”
Stephenson acknowledges that the fame of this particular wolf figures into the amount of effort he’s putting in. “It would take an extreme situation for us to order a removal of OR7,” Stephenson says.
However, even here on the wolf frontier, the fate of a single animal hardly matters, given the likely spread of these smart, flexible predators, who know how to move and take advantage of local resources, says Mike Jimenez, a recently retired wolf biologist. And so he supports early lethal control of livestock-killing wolves to encourage tolerance in rural residents. “You give wolves a little bit of protection and don’t indiscriminately kill them, and then take care of the problem ones, they come back ferociously,” he says.
Robert Klavins, the northeast Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild, does not believe that wolves will inevitably cover Oregon. The state’s population, around 110 animals in 12 packs, is still far too small and thinly spread to assume they are here to stay, he says. “I think it is pretty premature to start talking about when do we start killing wolves in western Oregon.”
Wolves haven’t colonized all of the West’s suitable habitat, including parts of Utah, Colorado and Nevada, but they have expanded faster and more broadly than expected. Twenty-one years after the first wolves were moved from Western Canada to Yellowstone, there are approximately 1,900 wolves in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, plus another 3,610 in the robust Great Lakes population and 65,000 in Canada and Alaska. Wolves have already been delisted in Montana and Idaho, which now have hunting and trapping seasons. They’ve also been delisted in the eastern third of Oregon (without legal hunting or trapping), and the state has removed the species from its endangered species list.
When wolf numbers are very low — during the early days of reintroduction, or in small, isolated populations like the Mexican wolf subspecies — genetic diversity is precious and every breeding adult with unique genes can be vital to recovery, says MacNulty. But at a certain point, that’s no longer true. Once wolves have a large enough interconnected population, removing one won’t matter to their conservation status. And thus many Oregon wolves, including OR7 and his pack, are probably, ecologically speaking, expendable.
But even if their ecological value isn’t especially high, their “social value” is, MacNulty says. Social value tends to be higher in new populations at the edge of wolves’ range. In Minnesota, where MacNulty worked for a decade, wolves were never eradicated, so they didn’t have to be reintroduced. “I don’t recall individuals having the kind of attention and press that individuals out West would get,” he says. “Maybe once you have established populations, these individuals lose their charm or notoriety.”
The draw of the individual is testified to by the popularity of wild animals with distinctive characteristics — an unusual gait, a recognizable voice or an easy-to-spot color variation, like that of the grizzly cub called “Snowy” in Grand Teton National Park. Well-known animals are featured in the press releases of groups like Defenders of Wildlife or the Center for Biological Diversity, which often releases fundraising appeals when a particular favorite is killed by officials or poached. Recently, an email blast from Defenders announced that a locally famous sea otter in Southern California known as “Mr. Enchilada” was killed by a car. The group used the “devastating loss” to lobby for speed humps to slow down motorists.
Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, says this focus on the individual is rhetorically effective, even though his organization is primarily concerned with populations and species-level conservation: “There have been lots of psychological studies showing that people connect emotionally to individuals and small groups more than large groups. They’ll give hundreds of dollars to help one poor child, tens of dollars to help a family, and very little to help a -struggling nation.”
The tension between managing a population and caring for individual animals can be hard to reconcile. Even Stephenson, whose job it is to act at the population level, regards many of the wolves he manages as individuals. “You get attached,” he says. “We all do.”
OR7 is a celebrity, and no doubt the Fish and Wildlife Service will go the extra mile to enable him to live out his life and die a wild wolf’s death, perhaps after getting kicked by an elk or starving to death in a bad winter. But in a future where wolves are a normal, everyday part of the landscape, his great-grandchildren may not warrant such special consideration. Killing wolves should always be the last resort, says Klavins, but more conflicts will be inevitable as their population increases. When wolves are truly recovered, it will no longer be possible to know each one individually, he says: “There is a part of me that looks forward to the day that we don’t know every wolf’s story.”
Clarification: In Wyoming, wolves were delisted from the endangered species list in 2012, but federal protections were restored in 2014.
Emma Marris writes about wildlife, ecology, conservation and occasionally food from Klamath Falls, Oregon.