Top: Rob Klavins is the founder and leader of Oregon Wild's Wolf Rendezvous tours.
Above: The "wolf highway," where wolves in the Imnaha pack have attracted tourists and attacked livestock.
Below: As the sign indicates, some ranchers believe wolves should not be allowed to roam in Eastern Oregon.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
Wolves used to range throughout North America. In 1754 one European explorer remarked seeing “wolves without numbers” as he trekked west from the Hudson Bay. Other 18th- and 19th-century pioneers, like Daniel Boone, described hearing a “howling wilderness.” The federal government and local cattlemen would generously remunerate bounty hunters — or anyone else — who killed wolves. Grover Myers, a land speculator throughout the Northwest, remembers that even during the Great Depression you could get from $2 to as much as $5 for killing a wolf. “A hamburger cost 10 cents, and you were lucky to make $1 a day,” 91-year-old Myers tells me. “That was good money back then. They’d cut off the ears and some skin off the face and bring ’em in,” he says.
The last wolf in Oregon was killed around the year 1947. By then these predators were almost extinct in most of North America. Although wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s as part of a nationwide campaign to return wolves to the ecosystem, it wasn’t until just five years ago that wolves began reestablishing themselves in Eastern Oregon, breaking off from packs in Idaho.
There are now about half a dozen known packs of wolves in Oregon, all living in the Northeast part of the state: the Imnaha pack that Sykes and Rob Klavins from Oregon Wild are tracking this May morning in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest; the Snake River, Wenaha, Umatilla and Minam River packs inside the Eagle Cap Wilderness; the Walla Walla pack; and a couple other pairs that may not yet have had pups.
In 2005 the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife developed a set of rules (the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan) to ensure wolf recovery while addressing concerns of the livestock industry. Ever since, there has been conflict over these rules, with stakeholders introducing new legislation to, for example, allow people to kill wolves that come within 500 feet of a home. This spring conservation groups, ranchers and state officials have been negotiating to find a way to balance the protection of both wolves and livestock. In May 2013 a compromise was reached, and in June lawmakers approved a bill that requires implementation of nonlethal dissuasion tactics but allows ranchers and state agents to kill wolves if those efforts fail.
Given the ruckus the wolves have been causing in the Oregon legislature and on social media — one Facebook group started by ranchers, Oregon Wolf Education, shows a snarling wolf baring its fangs next to a big-eyed spotted fawn and a sign that reads “Private Property Rights” — it’s a bit surprising to learn there are fewer than 50 confirmed wolves in the entire state. There are more than 600 wild wolves in Montana and more than 8,000 in Alaska. Though you may hear them howl and see signs of them in the wild, it is very unlikely you’ll see an Oregon wolf.
The biggest issue is the same one faced by the Europeans who were settling North America’s howling wilderness two centuries ago: Wolves are opportunistic pack hunters and sometimes surround and kill calves, sheep and other livestock. Though the percentage of livestock lost to wolves is small (less than 1%, according to state and federal statistics), and ranchers in Eastern Oregon who lose livestock or working dogs from wolf kills are financially compensated by the state for their losses, that money is often slow in coming. It can take up to a year, says Sykes, who is also a member of the Wallowa County Wolf Compensation Committee.
Another difficulty is that forensic evidence must be collected confirming the animal was killed by a wolf. Ranchers who graze their cattle unattended on public lands often cannot be compensated because they cannot prove their losses were due to wolves.
“Wolves are large predators, and they are very adept at killing what they need to stay alive. They are bound to kill cattle,” says Dennis Sheehy, a 66-year-old rancher in Wallowa. Sheehy tells me the wolves cause stress in the area, both to the ranchers themselves and their cow-calf pairs, and that his business has lost cattle to wolves. “You can do certain things to mitigate some of the impact. But if you’re a livestock man, you’re going to lose some of your livestock to the wolves.”