GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Oregon has its first wolf pack since the predator was wiped out by bounty hunting a century ago.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf coordinator Russ Morgan heard at least two adults and two pups answer his howls under a bright moon in the pre-dawn hours Friday on the Umatilla National Forest in northern Union County.
“After searching and monitoring and surveying for two years, doing this – to actually confirm multiple wolves – was a bit of a surprise,” Morgan said from his office in La Grande. “We are talking about a very rare animal in the state of Oregon. That makes locating them difficult. It is satisfying to see part of that effort pay off.”
Morgan added that biologists would be keeping close watch over the wolves as part of Oregon’s plan for allowing them to roam free without causing undue harm to livestock.
Biologists have long expected that wolves would spread to Oregon after they were reintroduced to Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The Idaho wolf population numbers more than 500, and young wolves leave the pack and strike out for new territories rather than overcrowd an old one.
To get to northeastern Oregon, they can swim the Snake River or walk across a bridge or dam. At least five wolves are known to have reached Oregon since 1999.
Wolves are protected by federal and state law, so it is illegal to shoot or trap them, even if they attack livestock.
The Bush administration had declared wolf reintroduction a success and taken wolves off the federal endangered species list, but a federal judge in Montana last week restored protection.
The announcement triggered celebrations among conservation groups, who have been hoping to see wolves re-establish in Oregon to restore a balance of nature broken a century ago when a major predator was eliminated.
“Northeastern Oregon has plenty of big wild spaces left,” said Steve Pedery, of Oregon Wild. “There is lots of good habitat there, a big prey base, a lot of places to roam and not come into conflict with people.
“We’re going to make sure the legal protections are in place so there are not temptations for poachers to go out and break the law.”
Oregon Cattlemen’s Association President Bill Moore, who ranches in Baker County, said he knew of no confirmed wolf kills of livestock in Oregon, but expects they will come.
The Oregon wolf management plan does not allow ranchers to kill wolves they see threatening their herds, but Moore said the association is working to change that.
Morgan said the pack answered his howls in the same area where several single sets of wolf tracks were spotted in the snow last winter.
He said the pups had distinctly higher-pitched howls than the adults, and he could make out at least four voices, though there could have been more.