Top: The Wallowa Range borders ranchland near Joseph, Oregon.
Above: Wally Sykes' dog, Kumo, half-wolf and half Malamute, tags along on the Wolf Rendezvous tour.
Below: Tour members hope for a wolf sighting.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
Those in favor of bringing back wolves cite the tremendous ecological benefits to having a top-level predator be part of the landscape. Indeed, several studies show the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone triggered a positive ripple effect; wolves cull from the herds of elk and deer, reducing their numbers and encouraging them to roam more widely, which in turn keeps these ungulates from overgrazing the aspens and other trees and shrubs along the river. The aspen-grove growth and revitalized riparian zones in turn cool the water, providing more habitat for beavers and songbirds and leading even to a flourishing of butterflies.
The positive ripples are also economic, advocates say. Since wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have been welcoming at least 40,000 visitors a year eager to attend ranger-led wolf walks and hoping to observe the wolves themselves from a safe distance through spotting scopes. A 2006 financial analysis done by researchers at the University of Montana found that over 90% of the visitors to Yellowstone came to view wildlife, and that $35.5 million flowed into the local economy as a result of wolf tourism that year alone. “Wolves have been immensely important to the growth of our business,” says Nathan Varley, co-owner of The Wild Side, a guiding service for visitors interested in seeing wolves, bears and other wildlife in Yellowstone Park. In business for eight years, The Wild Side charges $575 for an 8-hour day for up to five people in a group. “[We] have grown about 20% each year, right through the recession,” Varley explains, “and now work year-round employing up to six guides.”
That kind of success can be replicated in Eastern Oregon, some locals say. “People like predators,” says Mellie Pullman, a professor of supply-chain management at Portland State University who owns a second home in Enterprise, researches sustainable beef and also helps area ranchers develop sustainable business plans. “That’s a lot of the reason people go to national parks. Everyone wants to see wolves and grizzlies. It’s very exciting.”
Pullman believes that ranchers who market their grass-fed, grass-finished beef to high-end restaurants and suppliers in Portland can actually benefit from the presence of wolves by charging more for wildlife-friendly produce that reflects the values of consumers in the western part of the state. As she serves her guests asparagus omelets, fruit salad and homemade raspberry friands (an Australian pastry) sprinkled with sugar, Diana Hunter, co-owner of Barking Mad Farm, a bed and breakfast outside of Enterprise, likens the breathtaking vistas, diversity of fauna and unspoiled landscape of Eastern Oregon to Africa’s Serengeti, a comparison echoed by others. A herd of bison graze in view of the Hunters’ 1908 three-bedroom accommodations that welcome close to 500 guests a year, but it is the wolves and other wild animals that guests come to see.
“Wolves bring us clients who want to go out and see wolves and be where they are,” Hunter says, though she balks at the phrase “wolf tourism” (too controversial) and prefers to call it ecotourism. With his leathery skin, taupe beaver-felt cowboy hat and blunt speech, Diana’s husband James seems more like a rancher than a B&B owner. Despite their disagreements with some — a permit to expand their business to a second site on property they own 13 miles away was denied, with one rancher calling the Hunters’ business “detrimental to your direct neighbors” — Hunter is quick to point out that their 42-acre property doubles as a working ranch. They grow hay for sale and graze cattle.
Hunter also invites ranchers to talk with her guests — who are fascinated to hear how they are affected by wolves — and is sympathetic to ranchers who lose livestock to the wolves. “Not everyone thinks wolves are the best thing,” she says. “Sometimes they’re not. If they’re in the wrong place, they are not beneficial.”
Eastern Oregon’s pioneering wolf-tracking outfitters acknowledge the complex and contradictory feelings wolves arouse. “On an emotional level wolves symbolize wildness,” says Joe Whittle, an affable, intense 38-year-old photographer and backcountry wilderness guide who was born and raised in Enterprise and the San Francisco Bay Area. “People respond with a lot of emotion.” For Whittle, who is enrolled in the Caddo tribe, part Lenni-Lenape (Delaware) and part Irish, wolves are vital to his heritage. “Wolves were sacred to us; they play a part in our Caddo creation story,” he explains, adding that the Nez Perce Indians did not kill wolves but instead hunted with their help.
Today Whittle and his blond-haired business partner, Jordan Manley, view wolves as an opportunity. Starting this summer, Whittle’s company, Winding Light Adventures, will be taking visitors out on full-day wildlife viewing and tracking trips for $180 a person. Some will hunt game, others will come to learn about, track and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the wolves. For its part, Oregon Wild’s Wolf Rendezvous trips have filled every year since they were first offered. Klavins, the leader of the trip and an outspoken advocate for wolf recovery, points out that “whether you love them or hate them, the controversy in Eastern Oregon around the wolves is bringing a lot of attention to [that] part of the state.” It has other benefits as well. Sasquatch Brewery in Southwest Portland has created an amber ale named after OR-7, the lone male wolf nicknamed Journey traveling throughout the state unsuccessfully looking for a mate. Green Springs Inn, 25 miles east of Ashland, has designed an entire menu around the same wolf.
Klavins wants people to see the larger picture of positive economic impact. Since people who trek through the wilderness need gear, wolf tourism also indirectly benefits outdoor-gear companies that are Oregon-based: Columbia Sportswear, Keen, Icebreaker (a company that makes merino-wool clothing), LaCrosse Footwear, Bogs, RuffWear (which makes hiking gear for dogs) and Leupold (which makes riflescopes, binoculars and spotting scopes), among many more.