A cultural and emotional history of wolves in Oregon

Radiocollared wolf OR-11, image courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

On November 9th, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife voted 4-2 to remove wolves from Oregon’s state endangered species list, while increasing penalties for killing wolves.

This surprised many people, myself included. You see, until 2008, there were no wolves in Oregon. They had been extinct for 70 years.

Before I go any further, I want to explain how massively confusing this issue really is. My biases fully on the table: I want wolves in Oregon, more than almost anyone. But when it comes to legislating them and removing them from the endangered species list? I’m beyond confused, and I’m not alone.

Part of problem is the Oregon Wolf Plan. I have a sneaking suspicion that no one reporting this story has actually read it. Case in point, check out this placeholder from The Oregonian’s first online post about ODFW’s decision to delist wolves:

The Oregonian's Wolf Plan Placeholder

I feel ya, Oregonian, I feel ya.

They caught and corrected the error pretty quickly, but ultimately wrote around it:

A for effort.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with this issue, I think in part because I’m so confused. Over the last month, I’ve read court documents and letters and spoken with wildlife regulators and special interest groups. I entirely rewrote this story four times. One draft was over 2,600 words, and I still felt like it was missing important information. I fell down the rabbit hole, and it goes deep. Like, back to the founding of Oregon deep.

When settlers first arrived in Oregon’s verdant Willamette Valley, they couldn’t agree on anything. In 1841 and 1842, several meetings were held to establish a provisional government. They succeeded in one thing: setting dates for future meetings that no one attended.

In 1843, pioneer William H. Gray had an epiphany, which he recounted in his assuredly unbiased 1870 magnum opus, A History of Oregon 1792-1849, drawn from personal observation and authentic information. Gray’s astounding idea? To “get an object before the people upon which all could unite.” Namely: killing predators, especially wolves.

Lured by the prospect of a shared enemy, The pioneers eventually voted 52-50 to create a government… after establishing bounties of $.50 for a small wolf and $3.00 for a large wolf. Priorities.

See? Rabbit hole.


The Plan:

“To ensure the conservation of gray wolves as required by Oregon law while protecting the social and economic interests of all Oregonians.” – Oregon Wolf Plan, stated goal

 The first three wolves to return to Oregon crossed over from Idaho in late 1999 and early 2000. Their return was heralded by controversy: the first, a radio-collared female, as promptly airlifted back to Idaho. The second, killed by a car. The third, by poachers. Their appearance triggered what Michelle Dennehy, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife called “the largest public process ever for a natural history issue”: drafting the Oregon Wolf Plan.

Dennehy might have been exaggerating a bit, but creating the Oregon Wolf Plan really was a massive process. It took several years to draft, and involved testimony from ranchers, scientists, conservation groups, and citizens. The plan went up for public review eight times, and the period for public comment was extended twice.

The Wolf Plan lies at the heart of the debate over delisting wolves. It’s been criticized as fast-paced, vague, and biased (against who? No one can agree.) It’s broken in to three phases, which are – bear with me – boring but important:


Phase 1: Wolves are protected under the state endangered species act.

Phase 2: Begins when there have been four breeding pairs of wolves for three years. Requires ODFW to consider removing wolves from the endangered species list. Phase 2 began January of this year.

Phase 3: Begins when there are seven breeding pairs of wolves in Oregon for three years. If wolves have been removed from the endangered species list, it allows for recreational hunting. If wolf populations remain stable, Phase 3 could start in 2017.

To make matters even more confusing, the state has been divided in to two wolf management regions – eastern and western. Although the eastern region is in Phase 2, the western region of the state is still in Phase 1. And the wolves in the western region, unlike most of those in the east, remain protected under the federal endangered species act.

Map of wolf management zones in Oregon - image courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Map of wolf management zones in Oregon – image courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife



The Conflict:

No wolf better represents the polarization of the United States’ wolves than OR-7. OR-7 was a radio-collared male from northeastern Oregon, who left the densely-forested Wallowa Mountains in 2011 to begin a solitary, 1,000-mile trek, and would eventually become the first wolf in California.

The image of a lone wolf, searching for companionship across the vast, barren scrublands of eastern Oregon captured the global imagination. The Oregonian called his journey “romantic” and “post-apocalyptic.” He eventually settled in near Crater Lake. The West welcomed him, but the east was glad to see him go.

“OR-7 was one of those GPS collared wolves, and we actually had a lot of trouble with him before he went south,” said Todd Nash, chair of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association.

Nash runs cattle in the Wallowa Mountains, which have the highest density of wolves in the state. We spoke over the phone. “I had a calf killed in May 2011, and OR-7 was the only wolf whose GPS was in the vicinity. It’s one of those kills ODFW won’t ever own up to.”

Getting the ODFW to confirm a kill is difficult, says Nash. Many farmers no longer report the kills they find. “We can tell if ODFW is going to confirm a kill or not. It’s usually not worth the trouble.”

But confirming kills is important for wolf regulation. Ranchers can be reimbursed for kills, and if wolves are chronically killing livestock ODFW can lethally remove them.

In 2011, several livestock kills were blamed on OR-7s home pack. ODFW confirmed the kills, but before wildlife services could remove the wolves, conservation groups filed a lawsuit. “They were breaking their own laws,” said Rob Klavins of the conservation group OregonWild. “The wolf plan says you can’t kill in retribution, but that’s exactly what this was.”

OregonWild won the suit, and the judge based his ruling on Oregon’s Endangered Species Act. The Cattleman’s Association has petitioned to have wolves killed since, but ODFW has refused.

Nash thinks this is exactly why wolves need to be delisted. He views the endangered species act as a tool conservation groups use to litigate. Nash believes these groups want to drive ranchers out of Eastern Oregon.

“They’d rather cattle just disappeared entirely,” Nash told me, “Some ranchers have left.”

That seems to be a widely-held belief. In a 2005 presentation to the Oregon Bar Association, Sharon Beck spoke on behalf of the cattleman’s association. She felt wolves were being used as a “biological weapon,” and said wolf advocates have an “organized agenda” that “doesn’t have much to do with wolves.”

Klavins disagreed, “Speaking for OregonWild, we want to see cooperation between conservation groups and the Cattleman’s Association.”

He also dismissed concerns that wolves are driving cattle out of Oregon. “There were 1.8 million cattle in Oregon in 2014, and maybe 20 were killed? When you look at the big picture, it’s not that much.”

But to cattlemen like Nash, looking at the big picture isn’t possible. I could hear the emotion in Nash’s voice as he described finding the mutilated corpses of cattle. He’s watched a rancher break down and cry after finding his daughter’s prize steer eviscerated.


The Meeting:

At a commission meeting in October, ODFW Wolf Coordinator Russ Morgan said that the committee would decide to delist wolves based on science, not emotion. Unfortunately, even the science is politicized.

On the October 29, ODFW biologists released their official biological status review. In short, they felt wolves met all necessary requirements for delisting.

There was one dissenting voice – the independent biologist ODFW hired to fulfill the wolf plan’s requirement for review by an independent pane.

OregonWild doesn’t believe a single biologist qualifies as an independent panel, so the group organized its own. Unanimously, OregonWild’s biologists felt delisting wolves would be premature.

So there’s one arguably hand-picked biological review saying wolves should be delisted, and one definitely hand-picked biological review saying they shouldn’t. I read them both, and looked up the researchers in both. As a non-expert, they all seem fairly legitimate.

I asked Klavins if OregonWild would sue if wolves were delisted. He laughed – Klavins gets this question a lot – and told me “if the state follows the law and has an independent review, there won’t be litigation. And if we don’t have a case, we won’t win.”

Although deliberation is over for now, the debate won’t end. The commission received tens of thousands of letters from Oregonians across the state representing varying opinions. Conservation groups will continue to push for increased protections while ranchers push for less. It’s a controversy that won’t stay in Oregon for long.

In August of this year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced California’s first established wolf pack, just south of Mt. Shasta. For the most part, the pack was welcomed with open arms. But there are ranchers in California, and hunters worried about game populations. If Oregon is anything to go by, they won’t stay silent for long.

Enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts, California: the wolves are coming for you.

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