A New Year for Oregon's Wolves

A new year provides opportunities for reflection – and prognostication. For wolves in Oregon, 2014 was a good year. Journey finally found his mate and Oregon continued a management paradigm where killing remained an option of last resort. The result was a small but expanding wolf population and a continued decrease in conflict.

However, it’s not an understatement to say that 2015 is poised to be among the most consequential years for Oregon’s wolf recovery since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

After a hard-fought legal settlement, Oregon’s fragile wolf recovery is back on track under the most progressive plan in the country. Though the plan is working for all but the most extreme voices, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) is re-igniting old conflicts by caving to political pressure and giving serious consideration to weakening basic protections for wolves.

Meanwhile in Salem, another legislative session is gearing up. Anti-wildlife interests are teaming up with their political allies to push an anti-conservation agenda. The annual attack on wildlife conservation from the livestock industry, development and extractive interests, and a handful of right-wing groups, recently earned the capital of the Beaver State attention in the New York Times as “the place wildlife go to die”.

Even so, conservationists are working just as hard. Here at Oregon Wild we are redoubling our efforts to ensure science and 21st century American conservation values get an equal hearing. Looking ahead, the biggest challenge in the year is to encourage the majority of citizens who value native wildlife to speak as loudly and regularly as those who still seem stuck in an 18th century mindset.

Prompted by an inquiry from accomplished Oregon writer Rick Lamplugh, below is a focused look on the year that was, and the one that lies ahead for Oregon’s Wolves. You can read similar reflections for wolves in other parts of the country in a pair of great summaries by Rick Lamplugh and Ashland-based writer Beckie Elgin.

Looking Back – Still in the Limelight
Yet again, Journey (OR-7) was the center of attention in 2014. His epic travels inspired an art installation, successful expedition, a movie, and even a play. He’s been a tremendous ambassador for the species and his fifteen minutes of fame hardly seems up. However he’s no longer alone in making headlines. Now he’s sharing the spotlight with his new family!

After thousands of miles and years spent looking for love in all the wrong places, love (in the form of a mysterious black female) found him.

In early 2014, collar data indicated the world’s most famous wolf had settled down and was exhibiting denning behavior. Nearby, a well-positioned trail camera snapped a photo of Journey with what appeared to be a belly-full of meat. Shortly afterwards the same camera photographed a dark wolf – just the second known in the region since Oregon’s last wolf bounty was collected just after World War II.

Finally, on June 4th, wildlife managers made history when they confirmed at least 3 pups for the pair.

The pups are the first confirmed in Western Oregon in the better part of a century! Late last week, wildlife agencies dubbed the family “the Rogue Pack”. From the news, it’s reasonable to surmise that at least two pups have survived.

Before the discovery, those same agencies seemed poised to let the batteries on Journey’s collar expire. While some saw that as a loss, others thought the time had long come. But as wolves so often do, Journey surprised us. Efforts to (re-)fit members of the family with new collars have so far been unsuccessful.

Looking Back – More than Journey
Unsubstantiated wolf reports are nothing new. However, recent years have provided meaningful glimmers of hope that more than one wolf had made its way back to the wildlands of Western Oregon.

Journey’s mate could have been the wolf who made tracks on Mt.Hood. She could have been the source of howls reported from the shores of Waldo Lake. Perhaps it was she who appeared in a tantalizing photo of a black canid on the Santiam Pass a few years ago.

We’ll never know for sure, but despite rampant conspiracy theories, genetic analysis ultimately showed OR-7’s mate shared ancestry with members of two packs from Northeastern Oregon – the Snake & Minam.

Northeast Oregon is still home to nearly all of Oregon’s 64 known adult wolves. That’s a far cry from the 1,000 plus the state could support according to the only peer-reviewed scientific study of wolf habitat in Oregon.

Outside of the majestic Wallowa and Blue Mountains in Northeast Oregon, there’s plenty of room (and food) for wolves in the Cascades , Siskiyou, and Coast Ranges. However, there are significant obstacles.

That’s why – even if it didn’t make major headlines – it was a big deal when ODFW recently announced the presence of wolves in the “Desolation Unit” near the North Fork John Day Wilderness. Several known wolves have tried to follow a western dispersal route like Journey. However many have turned back once they hit I-84. More than one made the fateful choice to instead cross the Snake River only to be killed in neighboring states.

The “Desolation Wolves” are just the second confirmed west of that imposing strip of asphalt, concrete, and semis. The news was another step in recovery that offered hope to those who value healthy, intact landscapes.
With the native hunter still only numbering in the dozens, seeing – even hearing – wolves in Oregon is still a rare opportunity. That’s why, on a personal level, it was so rewarding to lead Oregon Wild’s fifth-annual Wolf Rendezvous and possibly see a wolf trailing a herd of elk on the Zumwalt Prairie. Though even wolf experts were divided on whether or not we’d seen a wolf it was an exciting and fulfilling moment.  The very possibility of seeing a wolf in Oregon was something that would have been impossible less than a decade ago!

What’s Next
If that’s not a conservation success story, it’s hard to know what is. But it’s not over.

Most Americans have moved past a mindset when killing wildlife was the solution to every problem and the only good predator was a dead predator. But for a vocal minority, old prejudices die hard. For them, the wolf is still big and bad.

For those of us who see value in all native wildlife and prefer conservation to killing, there is still much work to do if the story is to end with “happily ever after…”.

How We Got Here
For the third consecutive year, Oregon was the only state in the nation with a meaningful population of wolves that (poaching aside) didn’t kill them on purpose.

Not surprisingly, the wolf population has grown in number and range. Meanwhile – in stark contrast to neighboring Washington and Idaho, conflict has remained remarkably low. Only 5 of Oregon’s 1.3 million-plus cows were confirmed lost to wolves last year. That’s not surprising given recent research demonstrating that while killing wolves may be cathartic to some, it actually leads to more conflict.

The Oregon paradigm didn’t happen by accident. When the state violated its own laws by killing wolves, conservationists went to court. Almost immediately, a judge issued an injunction halting Oregon’s wolf killing program.

After seventeen months of negotiations, the state increased transparency and provided clarity to ambiguous portions of its plan that called for a focus on non-lethal measures. Under the plan, killing wolves in Oregon is the option of last resort.

Though far from perfect, Oregon has the most progressive plan in the country. And it’s working - for wolves and all but the most extreme voices in the wolf debate.

Upon his recent retirement, ODFW’s director Roy Elicker was quick to take credit for and highlight Oregon’s wolf plan as his greatest accomplishment. Sadly, almost immediately upon his departure, the state began to turn back the clock and the agency he oversaw seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

What’s Ahead
In the likely event that Oregon confirms 4 breeding pairs of wolves, the state will undergo a status review to evaluate whether or not wolves need continued protections. Much to the delight of those eager for a return to wolf killing, bureaucrats within ODFW have given every indication that they have predetermined wolves are no longer deserving - regardless of what the science says.

Though the settlement plan clarified ambiguity, increased transparency, and reduced conflict, some in the agency argue it is too burdensome and are eager to undo recent progress. Late in 2014, the then Chair of the ODFW Commission – who has at times acknowledged a conflict of interest due to her ties to the livestock industry – instructed her agency to give serious consideration to a proposal to share specific and timely collar location data to ranchers.

Add that to the usual attacks from anti-wildlife interests in the state legislature and Washington, DC and 2015 is setting up to be one of the most consequential for wolf recovery in Oregon since the passage of the Endangered Species Act!

Looking Ahead: More Than Wolves
Most of these proposals fail to even pass the laugh test. But sadly, despite Oregon’s green reputation, when it comes to wildlife, many of Oregon’s leaders are simply out of touch. As more and more Americans switch from hunting and fishing to observing and photographing wildlife, the agency charged with managing wildlife for all is facing a historic budget shortfall as well as a continued crisis of credibility that has led to what many observers accurately describe as a death spiral.

ODFW spends only 4% of its shrinking budget on habitat and conservation. Some of the most endangered species in the state – like wolverine and sea otters – don’t even have management plans, say nothing of the funding to carry them out.

Even as the agency asks for more money from the general public they serve, administrators seem determined to double down on the problem by shipping nearly half a million dollars to Wildlife Services (a controversial federal agency that has actively undermined wolf recovery), raising fees, and reducing funding for key conservation programs.

Wildlife are part of the public trust. They belong to all citizens regardless of their zip code, occupation, or choice in recreation. Conservationists like Oregon Wild and the Oregon Conservation Network are working hard to ensure the state honors its mission and its obligations to all Oregonians. Meanwhile others are calling for the agency to double down by running the state as a game farm, killing any animal with pointy teeth, and ignoring the majority of the public.

Looking Ahead: An Uncertain Future
For a long time we’ve said wolves returning to Oregon do so on a different ecological, social, and political landscape than places like Idaho and Wyoming.

After a rough start, wolf recovery has gotten back on track in Oregon. But it remains fragile. Now the state is at a crossroads. Will Oregon have a different conversation, informed by science and 21st century conservation values? Or will it be driven by politics, prejudice, and fear?

Poll after poll has shown that like most Americans, Oregonians overwhelmingly support native wildlife and wolf recovery. But old prejudices die hard. Anti-wildlife voices and their political allies continue to hold disproportionate power.

There’s a lot at stake in 2015 for wolves in Oregon - and across the country. The Beaver State is far from perfect, but, thanks to tireless efforts from conservationists, when it comes to wolves, it’s as good as it gets.

Other states have shown that killing does little to decrease conflict or promote conservation. Oregon’s model of prioritizing non-lethal conflict deterrence, increased transparency, and clear guidelines has show a different way forward. Oregon can – and should - do better than places like Idaho, Wyoming, Wisconsin, or Washington.

If Oregon is going to hold on to its hard fought progress and honor its conservation values, those who value wolves and native wildlife need to become as vocal as those who hate them.

Looking Ahead: What it Takes
Regardless of occupation, location, or recreational choices, wildlife appreciators need to do more than just shake their head at articles they see on Facebook.

We need to show up.

You need to get involved.

We need to support organizations that stand up for our values. We need to make phone calls, write letters and get our friends involved.   

A fatalistic look at 2015 finds plenty of reason for pessimism. But if we collectively believe that citizen power still matters and if we take action on that belief, there is no doubt Oregon can continue to be a model and show that in 21st century America there is room in our hearts - and on our landscapes - for wolves and all native wildlife.


Photo Credits
Public domain wolf photos courtesy USFWS & ODFW