BY JENNIFER MARGULIS
Top: Members of Oregon Wild's Wolf Rendezvous tour hike through wolf country in Eastern Oregon in June.
Above: Guide Wally Sykes (kneeling) displays elk hair and bone fragments commonly found in wolf scat.
Below: Wolfprint: A Wolf paw is bigger than a dog's, almost the size of a man's fist.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
"Hot diggety, that’s fresh,” exclaims 67-year-old Wally Sykes, a longtime Wallowa County resident whose family used to hunt wolves in Alaska. He points to a pile of wolf scat on the disused forest service road in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Eastern Oregon where we are hiking. Larger than a dog’s, the clumped scat is tapered at the ends and full of reddish elk hair and small bone fragments. Sykes points to the flies buzzing around it. “Can’t be more than 12 hours old, maybe less,” he muses, rubbing the white stubble on his chin and quickening his pace.
Though he grew up shooting woodchucks for fun, Sykes has become an advocate for wolves and other wildlife in Eastern Oregon, the heartbreakingly beautiful region far east of the Cascade mountains that comprises about half the state’s land but has a population of only some 100,000 people, depending how you tally it. The backbone of Eastern Oregon’s economy has historically been mining, logging and agriculture. As mining became almost nonexistent and the timber industry has declined, the region has been reinventing itself in recent years, advertising its natural beauty, outdoor recreation and abundant wildlife to attract visitors.
Sykes — who volunteers as a guide to college kids from Whitman, graduate students from Oregon State University, documentary filmmakers and journalists who want to learn more about wolf behavior and habitat — believes the presence of wolves is good for Oregon’s ecology and economy. He has also been lending a hand as a volunteer to Oregon Wild, a state-based environmental organization spearheading an initiative to prove to business people — including ranchers, farmers, recreation outfitters, hotel owners and other stakeholders — that wolf tourism is one way to attract even more ecotourism dollars and grow the economy in one of the remotest and hardest-to-access parts of the state.
But while most Eastern Oregonians agree that the expansion of tourism is a benefit to the economy, using wolves to bait visitors, so to speak, is a much more sensitive issue. “Tourism in general is a really important diversification of the economy,” explains Sara Miller, economic development specialist for the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District. Miller points to the reinvention of Joseph, Oregon, as an art mecca with bronze statues lining the main street, cafés serving free-range chicken soup with rice, and handmade chocolates sold in locally made wooden boxes, as an example of an Eastern Oregon town that is successfully attracting visitors who spend their money locally.
“Our tourism is natural resource-based,” she says. “Whether it’s cultural tourism, ecotourism or agri-tourism, people are coming here because of the outdoor assets we have.” At the same time, Miller — who co-owns a small ranch with her husband in Wallowa County — says the phenomenon of tourists coming to Eastern Oregon specifically to see the wolves is very controversial. “There’s a lot of variation in people’s opinions and how they feel about it.” Indeed, spend a few hours exploring revitalized downtown Joseph and you’re as likely to see a pickup truck sporting a black antiwolf bumper sticker — “Smoke A Pack A Day” — as you are to see a resident wearing a light-blue pro-wolf T-shirt, “Save a wolf ... save an aspen tree, save a songbird, save a riverbed ... save an ecosystem.”