Hiking with wolves

I’ve spent a lot of time in wolf country and even more time advocating for wildlife in offices and meeting rooms. Still, I’ve never seen an adult wolf in the wild before. With only 21 wolves (now 20) in the state, not many Oregonians have. In fact, as our friend – photographer Joe Whittle pointed out, as far as we know, no one outside of ODFW has taken a picture of an Oregon wolf. All that changed last week.

Over the last year, I’ve fallen in love with Oregon’s wolf country. I’ve been blessed to make some great friends along the way who, like Joe, value the wildlands and wildlife of Wallowa County. When I had the opportunity to take a week vacation, I was excited to make the trek back. Last Tuesday, I met with another great friend and tireless wildlife advocate - Wally Sykes. Wally and his dog Kumo know the wildlands of Wallowa County as well as or better than just about anybody around. A few weeks ago, Wally and Kumo joined the Oregon Wild Wolf Rendezvous as impromptu guides on our hike up the Hurricane Creek Trail. 

Wally has discovered lots of wolf sign throughout the county, but had a particular spot in mind to check out with me. I had no real expectation of seeing any wolves, but as we drove up an old logging road to the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, I was excited to explore a new corner of Oregon.

We hadn’t traveled far up the trail when we realized we were on to something. We came across the fresh print of a lone adult wolf heading up the trail. Though Kumo is a big dog, these prints were about twice his size. Wally wasn’t surprised, but it was invigorating to confirm that we truly were in wolf country. 

The tracks eventually disappeared off the trail and we arrived at our “destination”. We admired the view and enjoyed the serenity. After exploring the valley and finding some old wolf scat we considered, but decided against, a trip up to a high lookout place. Dusk was beginning to give subtle hints of its arrival, and Kumo was getting tired (as were some of his bipedal companions). 

On our way out, Wally decided to check out a game trail between some water and a ridge.

We spotted a set of fresh wolf tracks and began to slow down and really explore. A look into the mud along the water revealed wolf tracks everywhere. They clearly came in two sizes and indicated it hadn’t been long since a pack came through.

We were in the heart of the Imnaha Wolf Pack’s territory - and for good reason. The area is remote and full of game. It’s a good place for wolves to be.

Pretty soon Kumo’s behavior let us know that we might not be alone. He took a special interest in a particular ridge, and as we made our way closer, his interest increased dramatically. My senses were heightened, but could only wonder at what Kumo could smell and hear.

As anticipation and excitement mounted, I wondered if I should really get my hopes up. Wolves move long distances. Chances were that the wolves weren’t even in this valley. Even if they were, they could be in any stand of trees or behind any ridge. 

But Kumo has spent a lot of time near wildlife and Wally knew the wolves were near. He remarked with joy that he’d never dreamed of hiking the west in the presence of wolves. We agreed that even if we didn’t see them, it had been a good day.

I parted ways slightly with Wally and headed up a ridge to get a better view of the meadow below. Not long afterwards I heard the words “I’ve got ‘em Rob!...one, two, three…there are 8 wolves”. I strained my eyes at the meadow below. 15 long seconds passed. Wally had earned this experience and I was happy for him, but I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t sinking a bit as I realized I was going to miss out. 

Just then, an animal started to make its way to the far ridge about 40 yards away. It was unmistakably a wolf. The dark wolf (that Wally confirmed was wearing a collar and was likely a 3-year old male from the Imnaha Pack) was followed by at least 4 other wolves. 2 were clearly pups. I enjoyed the moment a bit longer than I should have and suddenly remembered…pictures!

I snapped three photos and later discovered only one had the fuzzy image of a wolf in it. You can see it in the blown up picture here. The auburn wolf pup is visible at the edge of a shadow to the left of the central green tree.

The wolves took note of our presence but simply trotted away. We followed the game trail. The pack made sure to clearly mark some trees on their way out, and though tempted to follow them for another look, we realized the day had come to an end and it was best for all of us to part company. 

It would have been a fruitless search anyway. When we reported the sighting to ODFW the next day, biologist Russ Morgan indicated that a signal from one of the wolves we saw was picked up 15 miles away just four hours later!

I was excited to share the experience with my friends and family and wrote this to conclude my message “I’m still glowing after seeing the wolves. We were lucky to see them. With lots of folks gunning for them, this pack – and all of Oregon’s wolves – needs all the luck they can get.”

I wish those words had not been so prophetic. Two days later, we learned that the wolf pictured here - a male in the Wenaha pack was senselessly gunned down by a poacher.  Federal officials investigating the case haven’t released any details. We hope they’ll pursue the killer with as much enthusiasm as the agencies pursue wolves that kill cattle, but we’re not optimistic. According to Ed Bangs, nearly 10% of western wolves are killed by poachers every year. In 2007, Oregon Wild and conservation partner the Center For Biological Diversity offered a reward for a poacher that killed a wolf near Elgin. That reward remains unclaimed.

Wolves invoke strong feelings for many people. I certainly had strong emotions that day and continue to feel strongly about it. As someone who values native wildlife and intact landscapes, it was an awe-inspiring experience. Words like appreciation and wonder jump to mind. I never once considered fear.

Wolves may bring economic benefits like ecotourism. They may help increase aspen growth and songbird habitat. But as I watched the dark wolf keep an eye on us as he patiently waited for the last pup to catch up before heading over the ridge, that wasn’t why I felt so thankful for this experience. Thoreau wrote that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world.” I’ve hiked lots of Wilderness, but I know now that without wolves it isn’t wilderness. 

Thanks Wally & Kumo!

(Please note that while wolves are not a serious threat to humans, all wildlife should be respected and unleashed dogs have been attacked by wolves who see them as interlopers. Kumo is a particularly well-trained dog with lots of experience near predators.)