Umatilla Biologist Views Wolves as Valuable

July 2012

By the Confederated Umatilla Journal, July 2012
PENDLETON – After all the "credible" sighting over the last several years, it now is official: Gray wolves are back on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
State game officials trapped and collared OR-14 (the fourteenth confirmed wolf in Oregon) in late June on Weston Mountain near the northeast boundary of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Given the wide range of wolves, including OR-7, the wolf that gained star status as he was tracked rambling from Wallowa County to northern California last year, it was safe to assume OR-14 would not be confined by an imaginary line separating public and Indian land.
"Up to this point we had reason to believe wolves were on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and now that's been confirmed," said Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Expecting their return, the CTUIR Fish and Wildlife Commission recently developed a draft Wolf Depreda­tion Plan, which has been sent to the Oregon Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife for review and input.
The Tribes took part in developing the statewide plan and although "we don't necessarily agree with everything in it, it makes sense to try to provide some level of consis- tency across jurisdictional boundaries," Scheeler said.
The Tribal plan will help define the different roles of the tribes and the stateagency, particularly in developing protocols for addressing live­stock depredation on the reservation. The Tribal draft is largely similar to the state's depredation strategy, but is tailored to re­flect the jurisdiction and authority within the reservation boundary. The Tribes will retain the sole decision-making author­ity on the lethal take of wolves on the reservation, under the current draft plan.
Confirming the existence of wolves on the reservation isn't the only exciting news, Scheeler said.
Experts suspect OR-14 and a female companion, photographed earlier this year by a trail camera, may have a den nearby but at this point there has been no sign of pups.
Oregon's total number of confirmed wolves is approaching 30. Most are living within either the existing Imnaha or We-naha packs in Wallowa County. OR-14, however, is not known to be a member of either pack but, rather, is assumed to have marked out his own territory near Weston Mountain.
Officials believe OR-14 is responsible for killing several sheep in northeastern Umatilla County in May. To this point, however, there have been no reports of depredation of livestock within formal range units on the Umatilla Indian Res­ervation.
That may be only a matter of time, but Scheeler said wolves on the Reservation likely will be satisfied by the abundance of big game animals.
"Certainly calves, sheep and goats are prime targets because of their size, but we believe the wolves will be liv­ing primarily off wildlife – deer and elk – that are plentiful year round. That's probably why they set up shop here," Scheeler said.
Getting a collar on OR-14 is a big step for wildlife managers who now can more closely watch the 90-pound animal, con­sidered an adult based on its worn and yellow teeth.
"The collar gives us a chance to monitor its travels within its territory and potentially gives us the opportunity to provide advance warning to livestock operators in the area," said Scheeler, who also serves as a citizen member of Umatilla County's Wolf Depredation Committee, the group that determines how state mitigation funds are dispersed to ranchers that lose livestock to wolves.
The area where OR-14 has taken up residence is an elk and deer hunting area for members of the Confederated Tribes, who now must be mindful of the wolves' return.
"Tribal hunters should be aware that wolves are now in the mix of predators on and off the reservation, and that it is illegal to shoot a wolf on or off the reser­vation at this time," Scheeler said.
Wolves will try to avoid human con­tact, but are curious and may approach people. However, they are not known to have killed any humans in the lower 48 states.
"The threat to human health and safety is greatly exaggerated," Scheeler said. "Throughout history and the press, there is no known recorded instance of a wolf killing a man in the lower 48. I believe there was one instance of a man killed in Alaska when he tried to outrun a pack of wolves and triggered their predatory response."
Having said that, Scheeler said hu­mans should be protective of their pets, particularly dogs, which wolves "view as competing kanid predators and will not hesitate to kill."
According to law, humans can shoot a wolf only if they are protecting them­selves or another human being, but Scheeler said, "It will be a challenge to demonstrate you are at risk," especially if the shot was taken from across a canyon.
As carnivores, wolves eat deer and elk that often are prized by sportsmen or as subsistence food for tribal members.
But the impact of wolves on the popu­lation of ungulates is different than any other large predator. By nature, wolves run animals, parting out the weary, old, sick, injured and very young.
"Cougars are just as likely to take a healthy pregnant cow elk as an old animal," Scheeler said. "Cougars are ambush predators and bears mostly go after the young animals before their legs are under them, and that's particularly true with calf elk."
Scheeler said the losses caused by wolves compared to all other losses are minimal and that the impact of the return of wolves to the wildlife ungulates will not be unreasonable.
Livestock is a different story.
"Livestock operators know what to expect from cougars, bears and coyotes, and they can build those losses into their budget. But as long as they are bound by the state ESA (Endangered Species Act), they may have to make significant changes to the way they do business."
Scheeler said some groups demon-ize wolves while others welcome their return.
"Currently, we're looking at wolves through a magnifying glass. Every single depredation is elevated in the public eye. Every time a sheep dies by a wolf it makes front page news, but cougars, bears and
coyotes still represent the vast majority of depredation losses."
Society spent generations trying to wipe out wolves so livestock operators didn't have to worry about them, and many people view their return as valueless.
As a member of the county's Wolf Depredation Committee, Scheeler repre­sents individuals who are "tolerant and support wolves."
"I believe wolves fill an apex predatory role in the ecosystem," he said. "They are a valuable resource."