SALEM, Ore. – A record number of wolves are roaming the forests and fields of Oregon, 20 years after the species returned to the state.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported Monday that the number of known wolves in Oregon at the end of 2018 was 137, a 10% increase over the previous year. There are likely even more wolves because not all individuals or packs are located during the winter count.
“The ongoing recovery of Oregon’s wolf population is something to celebrate, and perhaps 2019 will be the year that wolves return home to the Oregon Coast Range and Siskiyou Mountains,” said Nick Cady, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands, a conservation organization.
Still, the group warned against lifting wolf protections – as the Trump administration is proposing – saying it would be premature and a setback for the species that was almost exterminated in the contiguous United States.
Sixteen wolf packs – defined as four or more wolves traveling together in winter – were documented during the Oregon count, up from 12 packs in 2017. For the second straight year, resident wolves were documented in a new area of the state – the central portion of the Cascade Range.
Confirmed wolf attacks on domesticated animals increased 65 percent from the previous year, with 28 confirmed incidents, most of them on calves. But the attacks have not kept pace with the increase in wolf population over the past nine years.
Wildlife agency spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy attributed it to use of non-lethal measures by the department and ranchers, such as removing carcass and bone piles, electrified flagging, deterrent lighting and other scare devices.
Despite the territorial expansion, the objective of maintaining four breeding pairs in central and western Oregon for three years had not been reached. In the east, the objective of seven breeding pairs was exceeded.
Oregon delisted wolves from its Endangered Species Act in 2016, though they’re protected statewide as a special status game mammal. Wolves in central and western Oregon continue to be federally listed as endangered species.
But in March, the U.S. Interior Department proposed lifting protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states. That would allow states to hold wolf hunting and trapping seasons.
Cascadia Wildlands said “reckless state and federal plans … could reverse the progress wolves are making after their systematic extermination nearly 70 years ago.” Many Western states, including California, Colorado and Utah, have extensive wolf habitat but few or no wolves, the group said.
Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, added: “The slow and steady progress of wolf recovery could still easily be upended if ODFW and the Trump administration succeed in their attempts to weaken protections.”
Wolves received endangered species protections in 1975 when only 1,000 remained, all in northern Minnesota. Now, more than 5,000 wolves roam the contiguous U.S. The species returned to Oregon in 1999 when a wolf that had been re-introduced into Idaho crossed the state line.
The resurgence of the gray wolf in Oregon reflects a trend.
The number of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico has increased to at least 131 – the most since federal biologists began reintroducing them into the Southwest more than two decades ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday.
In Washington state, gray wolves increased by four in 2018 to a minimum of 126, with one pack living for the first time west of the Cascade Range.
In California, one pack has established itself, with the breeding male an offspring of a wolf that had wandered south from Oregon in 2011. A California judge recently upheld protection for gray wolves under the state’s Endangered Species Act, rejecting a legal challenge from ranchers.
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