A remote camera photo of two 5-month-old juvenile wolves of the Wenaha Pack on U.S. Forest Service land in northern Wallowa County in September 2020. Oregon's wolf population grew by nearly 10 percent last year, according to an annual report (photo by ODFW).

Wolf population in Oregon grows by nearly 10%, but illegal killings worry advocates

By Kale Williams | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Originally published on OregonLive.com April 22, 2021

Oregon’s documented wolf population grew by 9.5% in 2020, but advocates are concerned by the number of poaching incidents logged by state wildlife biologists.

The annual wolf report, released Wednesday by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, put the number of wolves in the state at 173, up from 158 the previous year. The report noted, however, that the count reflects only the number of wolves documented by the state, so the actual number may be higher.

The state is home to 22 defined packs, according to the report, the same number as 2019. Of those, 17 packs reproduced in 2020 with at least two pups surviving through the end of the year.

Most of the state’s wolves remain in the northeast corner of the state, according to Roblyn Brown, wolf coordinator for the state, but the population in western Oregon grew by nearly a third, from 17 to 22 wolves.

“While northeast Oregon continues to host the majority of state’s wolf population, dispersal to other parts of Oregon and adjacent states continues,” Brown said in a statement. In 2020, two Oregon wolves dispersed to Idaho, one went to California and one wolf dispersed from California into Oregon.

Advocacy groups welcomed the news that no wolves had been killed by the state in 2020, the second consecutive year. But the population growth was far below the 30% increase expected from a species in the early stages of its recovery, said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s great that for two years in a row now, the state didn’t kill any wolves for conflicts with livestock,” Weiss said in a statement. “But it’s still deeply concerning that the overall population increased so little and that there was so much illegal killing of wolves.”

The state documented nine wolf deaths in 2020, with seven caused by humans. One animal was hit by a car on Interstate 84, and another “was apparently killed when hit by a boat while swimming across the Snake River,” the state said in a statement. Another wolf was shot and killed by a rancher, the state said, under the “caught in the act” rule, which allows livestock producers to kill predators actively harming their animals.

Four of the nine wolves that died in the state last year were killed illegally. The breeding males from two packs — the Ruckel Ridge Pack in Umatilla County and the Cornucopia Pack in Baker County — were shot and killed in May and September, respectively. A subadult, believed to be from the Pine Creek Pack, was fatally shot in October.

The fourth wolf killed illegally was shot by a livestock owner in Union County in December. The rancher mistook the animal for a coyote, the state said, and reported the incident to the Oregon State Police. No charges were filed, and the rancher was let off with a warning.

Wolf attacks on livestock rose substantially last year, according to the report, jumping 94% from the previous year. More than half of the depredations, or 16 incidents, came from the Rogue Pack in the southwestern part of the state.

In Klamath County’s Wood River Valley, state and federal agencies partnered to try to haze wolves away from livestock pastures. Over four months, staff members used real-time data from collars and thermal imaging to track the wolves and scare them away from the livestock. In 99 nights of monitoring, they were able to successfully haze the wolves on some occasions, but not all.

Rodger Huffman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said he believes wolf numbers in the state are much higher than the report indicated. He said he is looking forward to having lethal options to deal with wolves that cause chronic problems after the Trump administration lifted endangered species protections for the animals in the western half of Oregon.

“We’re looking forward to having better tools,” he said. “You’ve got people out all night for months, and it still didn’t stop them from depredating. Maybe that lethal removal for chronic offenders is the best way to deal with the situation.”

A coalition of environmental advocacy groups have challenged the removal of protections for wolves, and some have pointed to other states where hundreds of of the animals have been killed since their status changed.

“While we celebrate the largely good news for wolves in Oregon and the Pacific West, wolves are facing increasing threats in other areas including Wisconsin, Montana and Idaho,” Bethany Cotton, conservation director with Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, said in a statement. “Wolves do not recognize arbitrary political boundaries like state lines, so it is critical that wolves retain federal protections grounded in sound science to help ensure recovery across their historic range.”

Kale Williams | The Oregonian/Oregon Live Reporter, Science / Environment
kwilliams@oregonian.com, 503-294-4048, @sfkale