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Biologist sheds light on wolf behavior

WILDLIFE -- Wolves are not bloodless killers, but they can appear to be, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Russ Morgan.

Wolf kills can appear perplexing because often they barely have a scratch.

The state's wolf program coordinator explained why -- and much more -- during a recent presentation about wolves at a meeting of the Union/Wallowa county chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association. The following story was reported by Dick Mason of the LaGrande Observer.

Wolves can kill and leave barely a visible scratch because they kill with multiple bites that often do not break an animal’s skin. The bites trigger massive internal bleeding.

“Multiple-bite trauma causes hemorrhaging (internal bleeding) and bruising,” Morgan said.

The hemorrhaging and bruising is apparent when the animal is cut open. This is why when animals suspected of being killed by wolves are examined it is important to conduct an internal examine similar to an autopsy, Morgan said. Such examines help confirm that a wolf killed the animal.

The walking stride of wolves also deceives. The back feet of wolves often step right into the tracks of their front feet. The gait makes their tracks appear they are those of a two-legged animal, Morgan said. The biologist said he knows of no dogs that walk in such a manner.

The Observer reports that wolves began arriving in Northeast Oregon from Idaho in 1999. Presently there are between 22 and 30 wolves in Northeast Oregon 16 in an Imnaha area pack, six in a Wenaha area pack, at least two between La Grande and Baker City and several north of the Wenaha area.

The low total number of wolves means the odds of seeing one in Northeast Oregon are remote, but the likelihood of spotting evidence of the legendary predator is better.

“Your chances of spotting wolf tracks are 90 percent greater than seeing wolves,” Morgan said.
Many people report they confuse wolf tracks with coyote tracks. This should not be a problem since wolf tracks are twice the size of a coyote’s, Morgan said.

The Imnaha pack is being monitored by ODFW biologists with the aid of radio collars attached to three of its members. The importance of radio collars should not be underestimated, Morgan said.

“No matter what you think of wolves, these radio collars are valuable,” Morgan said. “Without them we would not know nearly as much.”

Everyone, including people who object to the presence of wolves, should embrace the collars because they help biologist determine what wolves are killing and if conservation goals are being met, Morgan said.

“One goal of the ODFW is to de-list wolves (from the state endangered species protected list),” Morgan said.

Maintaining radio collars on wolves is difficult because the animals are exceptionally hard on them. Wolves chew collars and damage them in the process of killing prey, Morgan said.

Wolves first entered Oregon from Idaho in 1999. Since then they have killed livestock and will continue to do so, Morgan said. The ODFW has received no reports of wolves attacking people since then and Morgan believes it is extremely unlikely it ever will. Morgan said that over the past 100 years there have been only two documented human deaths from wolf attacks in North America.

“You can’t say this about almost any other large animal including deer, bears and cougars,” Morgan said. “We have to get over the Red Riding Hood syndrome.”

Morgan emphasized that while the incidence of attacks by healthy wolves is extremely low, this does not mean that there could not be one.

The biologist was asked Monday if people should be concerned when they encounter a wolf barking at them. The answer is no.

“Repetitive wolf barking is a territorial behavior. There is no evidence that barking or howling is a threatening behavior,” Morgan said.

Determining if a wolf is preparing to attack a person is difficult if not impossible.

“There is no way to tell if wolves are aggressive because conflict with humans is so rare,” Morgan said.

Wolves almost always leave in the presence of a person. Should a wolf not leave, this would be a reason for concern, the biologist said.

Morgan noted that wolves are not ambush hunters. Instead they usually follow their prey for long periods of time before attacking.

Elk hunters should not be alarmed by the presence of wolves in Northeast Oregon, Morgan said. Studies indicate that the introduction of wolves in Idaho and Wyoming have not hurt overall elk hunting success.

Wolves were reintroduced to Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in 1995 and 1996. Since then wolf numbers have increased significantly. Elk populations and hunter success in the three states has remained stable or increased.

Still, in some areas within these states, elk populations have fallen after wolves were introduced. These include Yellowstone National Park. Morgan said that properly managing localized impacts of wolves on elk will be important as Oregon’s wolf population increases.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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