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Wild wolves again might be at home in Oregon Protected species
- Biologists will try to confirm signs that wolves are back decades after being eradicated
The Oregonian 9/8/06 by MICHAEL MILSTEIN

Biologists will set up remote cameras in the Wallowa Mountains east of La Grande next week in hopes of verifying a series of wolf sightings and other signs that protected gray wolves have moved into Oregon.

The sightings include one report in mid-August from a local hunter who reported two adult wolves with two pups. If accurate, that suggests the species might have reproduced in Oregon for the first time since it was exterminated decades ago to make the range safe for livestock.

A team of biologists checking out the report saw what looked like a wolf through a spotting scope at a distance of about a mile, said Russ Morgan, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's wolf coordinator based in La Grande.

They also found tracks and older droppings that might have been left by a wolf in the same area along the upper reaches of the Minam River, in the remote and rugged Eagle Cap Wilderness, he said.

Another report included a videotape of what looked like a wolf in Wallowa County in late July. Wolf experts who viewed the videotape said it had all the characteristics of a wild wolf, Morgan said.

Looking for more evidence

He emphasized that it would take stronger evidence, such as a close-up sighting, photograph, signs of predation or other physical proof, to confirm the presence of wolves in the state. But he said the mounting reports point in that direction.

"We're getting to the point where it sure appears we may have wild wolves in northeast Oregon," he said. "But as biologists, we want to be certain about that."

Biologists have long expected that wolves reintroduced to Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 would spread into Oregon as they multiply. The Idaho wolf population numbered about 500 at the beginning of this year, with packs living just across the state line from Oregon.

Some animals appear to have left those packs in the last year and might have headed west.

"It's not a surprise that we would start to see wolves naturally disperse into Oregon," Morgan said.

Three wolves have entered Oregon since 1999. One was removed, another killed by a car and the third illegally shot, but biologists said more probably would follow. Wolves in Oregon are protected by federal and state law, and there are no plans to remove them.

A state wolf management plan approved last year sets a goal of four breeding pairs of wolves each in Eastern Oregon and Western Oregon. It also calls for biologists to keep track of wolves in the state.

Oregon wildlife officials have stepped up monitoring for wolves in the past few years, but the recent reports are the most tantalizing so far. State biologists next week will set up scent stations with the goal of drawing wolves into an area where they would leave tracks or trigger motion-activated cameras to take their picture, Morgan said.

If biologists can confirm wolves are present, the next step would be to capture and fit the animals with radio collars so they can be more easily monitored, he said.

Wolves sighted recently might be just passing through, especially if they are traveling alone, Morgan said. If some have taken up residence in mountains of eastern Oregon, biologists expect to find abundant signs such as tracks, fresh scat and rendezvous sites where packs gather.

"Certainly they've seen signs suggesting wolves are there," said Ron Anglin, head of state's wildlife division. "But we do not have hard concrete evidence of that yet."

The isolated Eagle Cap Wilderness might be a place wolves could survive in Oregon without serious conflicts with livestock, biologists said. However, the animals are known to roam long distances.

Wolves are protected by both the federal Endangered Species Act and Oregon's own state Endangered Species Act. It is illegal to shoot wolves even if they are seen attacking livestock. Only federal authorities may control wolves that injure livestock.

Oregon's wildlife agency has applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit that would allow state officials also to control wolves that repeatedly go after livestock. The state management plan calls for first using nonlethal methods to scare or drive wolves away from livestock.

The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife is protesting the permit application.

Morgan has met with local ranchers to fill them in on the recent wolf sightings, he said.

Authorities also have posted signs at trailheads around the Eagle Cap Wilderness advising hunters to be sure they do not accidentally shoot a wolf thinking it's a coyote.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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