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Biologists say wolves are spreading into Oregon but without conflict

by Michael Milstein, The Oregonian November 07, 2008

Gray wolves were exterminated from Oregon decades ago but are spreading into the state from Idaho.

As more and more gray wolves arrive in the state, Oregonians are gradually recognizing that the once-native predators may find ways to live in Oregon without stirring up the conflict or trouble some had feared, a state biologist says.

"People are beginning to understand that if there are wolves around, even multiple wolves or a breeding pair like we have now, bad things aren't automatically happening," said Russ Morgan, the state biologist handling wolf issues for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He was one of several speakers at a weekend conference at Portland's Concordia University that sought to bring rural and urban interests together to discuss a future for wolves in Oregon.

Agricultural leaders also spoke about the restrictions they face under the Endangered Species Act, which now protects wolves.

Wolves were exterminated from Oregon decades ago to make the state safe for livestock. But they are now spreading back into the state from Idaho, where the federal government released wolves in 1995 to launch a recovery program for the species.

Morgan documented at least one breeding pair of Oregon wolves with pups in the Wenaha region north of La Grande last summer. There is also strong evidence of multiple wolves - though no pups - in at least two other areas: eastern Baker County near the Idaho border and western Union County along the Grande Ronde River, he said.

He also said that within the last year a new wolf pack has taken up residence in Idaho immediately across the Snake River from Oregon. The river has not proved to be much of an obstacle for wolves heading west to Oregon.

The number of reported wolf sightings in Oregon has increased from 42 in 2006 to 140 so far this year, Morgan said. He expects to receive more than 200 by the end of the year.

"These people are calling up and saying, 'Wow, it's the coolest thing I ever saw,'" he said. "I hear that quite a lot."

He said an ever-increasing number of reports involve two or more wolves.

"Essentially, wolves are colonizing Oregon," he said. "They have been for some time."

Wolves in Oregon have not come into conflict with people or livestock, he said, noting that is not surprising given the relatively small number of wolves in the state so far. Some Oregon ranchers have fought the return of wolves, fearing they will attack livestock.

A few wolves have been found shot in Oregon in past years.

Officials in Washington state are also developing a wolf conservation and management plan that would establish a permanent population of wolves that could further colonize Oregon.

A draft version of the plan calls for at least 15 breeding pairs of wolves in Washington, with the wolves spread around the state. For instance, it calls for at least five breeding pairs in the southern Washington Cascades, a large area that includes the Olympic Peninsula and stretches south to the Mount St. Helens region on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Depending on whether any could find their way across the Columbia River, those wolves might move south into the Oregon Cascades.

Washington's draft plan suggests that biologists may move wolves within the state to distribute them to unoccupied areas. That means state officials could eventually move wolves from eastern Washington to the western part of the state if they do not find their way on their own.

"There may be a lot more sources for wolves coming into Oregon than the Idaho wolves we're thinking about now," said Greg Dyson of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

Washington's plan will undergo peer and public review and will be revised before it becomes final.

Oregon's wolf conservation plan sets a goal of at least four wolves each in eastern Oregon and western Oregon. Wolves in Oregon are now protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and the state's own Endangered Species Act.

Federal agencies moved to take wolves in the Rocky Mountain region off the federal endangered list, but recently backed off after court rulings put it on hold.

That has frustrated farmers and ranchers, said Mike Colton, a Baker County rancher representing the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. Endangered species protections mean that ranchers cannot control wolves that come after their livestock. He said such protections have been used to eliminate logging and restrict farmers.

"If it was really all about saving the wolf, we'd have a lot more in common," he said.
-- Michael Milstein

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