The Beginnings of  Wolf Recovery in Oregon

By Neva Knott

For Wolf Awareness Week, I’m going to post the series of papers I wrote in graduate school for my Conservation Biology course, all on wolves. To produce these papers, I read pretty much everything in the science literature about wolves, and studied the controversy in Oregon–my home at the time. These were written in 2010, but the scientific research is still the most current. What’s changed since is an increase in management and advocacy. That said, yesterday, via Pacific Wolf Coalition, I learned of a graduate project out of the University of Washington; researchers are investigating ungulate prey response to the presence of wolves. And, of course, there is the mesmerizing journey of the first wolf to disperse from an Oregon pack, OR-7.

Here is my second paper, actually the final in a series:

Unknown-1Image: wikimedia

Wolves began crossing into Oregon from Idaho in 1999, after US Fish and Wildlife re-introduction there. They are protected by both the federal Endangered Species Act and the Oregon’s own protection act. Wolves are listed as endangered until there are four breeding pairs in the state for three consecutive years. Currently, there are currently about 14 wolves in Oregon, comprising two packs. There is one breeding pair, in Wallowa County, eastern Oregon (ODFW).

Wolves were originally extripated from the Oregon landscape. A wolf bounty was established in the late 1800s, and the last wolf killed under that program was presented for bounty in 1946 (ODFW). The reason for removal of this predator was simple and straight-forward—it was a threat to human settlement and agriculture. As it stands now, the presence of wolves in Oregon is a significant issue in terms of conservation, culture and politics. The ESA mandated protection of this species calls into question the role of top predators, agricultural mores, the ranching lifestyle, and values held about how humans use nature. Wolves symbolize wilderness; humans fear wilderness, or revere it, or believe it is there for our purposes and needs alone. Human attitudes toward wolf recovery divide along these lines. Even so, wolf recovery here in Oregon is a study in the application of the principles of conservation biology.

Even though wolves do not present a problem of immediate danger to humans, wolf depredation of livestock is a serious concern for ranchers and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. There were no acts of depredation the first decade wolves were here, but calves have been killed by wolves the past two years (ODFW). Even so, the legal framework surrounding wolf management requires protection. In 2005 the ODFW adopted the Wolf Management Plan; this plan was recently up for review. The revision was adopted in October 2010.

Under the Wolf Management Plan, a three-phase program is in place to increase the wolf population so that the species can be delisted. The conservation population objective for eastern Oregon is four pairs present for three consecutive years. The management population objective is seven breeding pairs present for three consecutive years. Once this Phase II population is reaching, delisting will occur. Phase III management is intended for maintenance of wolf numbers so that relisting is not necessary (ODFW). In the recent review period of the WMP, it was projected that it us unlikely Phase I population numbers will be reached within the next 5-year evaluation period (ODFW). To monitor population growth and behavior, individual wolves are radio-collared and watched by camera surveillance. On occasion ODFW personnel capture and release wolves for inspection.

Much has changed on the Oregon landscape in the last century, leaving wolves with several risk factors with which to contend. Common themes in the literature are threat of persecution; human-caused habitat loss; habitat fragmentation and degradation; roads. Though wolves are considered habitat generalists, they are dependent on prey populations, most specifically of elk and deer. Even though there are environmental factors that affect wolves, it is woven consistently throughout the literature that human attitudes of tolerance are a major factor in wolf management and conservation.

Successful population increase is interdependent upon the management of depredation. The primary limiting factor has been, and possibly still is, direct persecution. Michelle Dennehy of ODFW explains that a rancher has the right to harass an invading wolf in many non-lethal ways, to include noise, such as firing a gun into the air. A rancher also has the option to work with ODFW experts to install fladry—strips of colorful cloth that confuse and deter wolves—and other to keep wolves from even coming close. Ranchers are also encouraged to dispose of carcasses in ways that will not attract wolves. In the event that wolves do kill a member of a herd, the rancher will be compensated and may be issued a permit, allowing him to shoot the wolf in the event he find one in the act of depredation. In incidents of depredation ODFW will kill the suspect pair of wolves, in hopes of sending the message to the other members of the pack that “this isn’t a good place to hunt,” as Dennehy explains. Should this form of control be necessary, the breeding pair will not be killed, nor will those collared for monitoring. The kill will not happen on public land or in the den area. Phase III of the WMP will allow for stronger control of wolves that kill livestock once they are delisted.

A theme has emerged in the current body of scientific literature about wolves that suggests wolves and humans can and should live on the same landscape. The current body of research on wolves began in the early 1990s. What is significant about the current body of research, and what sets it apart from what was done before, is that all of it is geared toward understanding wolf reintroduction or re-colonization. Reintroduction programs were conceptualized after the passage of the US Endangered Species Act, which gave protection to the gray wolf. Across the literature, it is clear that the first questions scientists asked were: What are the characteristics of this species? What will it take for this species to thrive? Where are the most habitable places? Along with this much information about the biology of the wolf itself was gathered. From the body of knowledge that now exists, one can now understand a wolf’s habits and needs so that management decisions can be shaped around the ESA policy of protection. As this current body of research has taken shape, Yellowstone National Park, the first site of reintroduction, has emerged as a model landscape. Now the scientific research question has become: What is happening within the ecosystem because wolves are here?

Wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Simultaneously, L. David Mech published “The Challenges and Opportunities of Recovering Wolf Populations” in the journal, Conservation Biology. Just before that, Steven H. Fitts, Edward E. Bangs, and James F. Gore published “The relationship of wolf recovery to habitat conservation and biodiversity in the northwestern United States” in Landscape and Urban Planning. Taken together, these papers clearly outline what was, and is, needed for wolves to survive on the contemporary American landscape. Both papers speak to the needs and functionality of habitat to shape their arguments in favor of wolves as a natural part of the landscape.

Mech’s paper looks at reproduction rate and dispersal to consider how wolf habitat needs can be met and managed within the context of human use of land. One suggestion is for zoning management, which allows for wolves to inhabit areas where there is natural prey while keeping them out of agricultural areas. For this idea, an example is given of wolves living in Minnesota and Montana in areas surrounded by farmland; no livestock depredation occurred. Mech also offers the example of a program sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife that pays ranchers to allow wolves to raise pups on ranchland. In correlation with his comments on habitat-sharing and how to make wolf-friendly habitat that discourages depredation, Mech is straightforward in his acknowledgement that wolf reintroduction will require some form of wolf control. He states that, “wolves will probably have to be controlled almost everywhere they are restored, [and] this translates to political pressure against wolf recovery.” When the issue of habitat is aligned with that of control, it becomes clear to see Mech’s point that wolves need access to prey within their range to survive without the threat of starvation, which can lead to livestock depredation.

Fritts, et. al., look at habitat structure and availability of prey, and they consider where appropriate land might be found, both public and private in ownership. As with Mech, they consider how to control wolves found in the wrong places. They cite a US Fish and Wildlife Service set of criteria that includes: year-round prey base; at least 7770 square km of contiguous designated wilderness, national park lands, and adjacent private land; a maximum of 10 percent private land ownership; absence of livestock grazing. Based on this set of criteria, these authors suggest, “the more negative the attitudes [of humans], the more wild space necessary…”. Fritts, et. al. realize that wolves are adaptive. These authors conclude simply that, given the availability of land, wolves need only two things to survive: ungulate prey and freedom from human persecution.

Now that wolves have been reintroduced, scientists understand that wolves create a trophic cascade in the ecosystem. Douglas W. Smith, Rolf D. Peterson, and Douglas B. Houston published “Yellowstone after Wolves” in BioScience. William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta published “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems?” also in BioScience. Smith, et. al., discuss how the presence of wolves has created balance in animal and plant populations. Ripple and Beschta set the YNP reintroduction into much broader contexts, looking at change over time and at a more complex web of interactions. Both papers clearly support wolf presence as a necessary function of the ecosystem. Both teams of scientists explain that elk and coyote populations increased to levels of concern about carrying capacity during wolf-free times. As well, shrub steppe vegetation and aspen growth lessened due to trampling by elk, and riparian functioning was altered. This, in turn, caused habitat loss for various mesocarnivores and birds. With wolves on the landscape, vegetation is regenerating and elk numbers are coming back in line. Ripple and Beschta conclude, “the extripation of the gray wolf—a keystone predator in this ecosystem—is most likely the overriding cause of the precipitous decline and cessation in the recruitment of [woody species].” In application of the YNP studies as relevant to Oregon the question becomes: What will be the same here, and what will differ?

Stakeholders were invited to comment on the WMP during the recent review period. In June of 2010, various meetings were held by ODFW with the following groups: Baker County Natural Resources Advisory Committee; Defenders of Wildlife; Hells Canyon Preservation Council; Nez Perce Tribe; Oregon Cattleman’s Association; Oregon Department of Agriculture; Oregon Farm Bureau; Oregon Hunters Association; Oregon Wild; Oregon Wool Growers Association; Umatilla Tribe; US Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services; US Fish and Wildlife Service; US Forest Service. There are three obvious factions in this mix—ranchers, conservationists, government agencies. These groups represent the overarching voices and concerns surrounding the issue of wolf recovery and management. As is plainly acknowledged in the ODFW summary of these meetings, most of the concerns of stakeholders focus on the balance of livestock production and wolf conservation.

Careful consideration of the issues that affect wolf fitness and drive management of the species has been conducted by the ODFW as it developed the revised WMP. Of primary concern is education of and collaboration with humans who live in close proximity of wolf habitat—ranchers and non-ranchers alike. As humans begin to understand the degree of threat posed by wolves and the ecosystem conditions that drive depredation, managers will be better able to serve wolves and in so doing minimize human-wolf conflicts. I believe the WMP outlines an appropriate strategy for managing this conflict, but I think more can be done. For example, Dennehy explains that ODFW personnel are not sure what caused the change in depredation; there was none for a decade, yet the last two years there have been several instances. Therefore, I would propose a study of the relationship between prey availability, habitat fragmentation and livestock predation. This study can draw on what is known about each of these elements separately. A hypothesis can then be formulated about how to avoid killing of livestock by maximizing habitat structure and prey availability in wilderness areas, on both public and private land.

L. David Mech and Rolf O. Peterson (2003), in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, explain that wolves, though habitat generalists, adjust to a new prey source with lag time. These scientists believe that wolves circulate around their territories, gathering information and testing various types of prey. Lag time is created as wolves gather this information before switching prey. Mech and Peterson offer that this behavior explains seasonal variations in prey capture. As well, these scientists offer data on age of calves taken as prey; most are under one year in age. Most prey, regardless of species are less fit or in some way defective. Another group of scientists: Steven H. Fritts, Robert O. Stephenson, Robert D. Hayes, and Luigi Boitani, also writing for Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, explain the association of certain husbandry practice with depredation. These scientists found that untended livestock in remote pastures or heavily forested areas sustain the highest losses. As well, leaving newborn livestock in remote locations, poor surveillance of livestock, and the presence of carcasses increase the risk of depredation. This information, paired with data on wildlife prey sources within the range of the wolf pack, and a monitoring of possible nutrition stress can be used to minimize the need of livestock for food. By utilizing our knowledge of wolf biology and habitat needs, it is possible to create a harmonious existence between the two species that overleaps the main conflict of livestock depredation. As well, ranchers, as stakeholders, must be willing to make changes in husbandry practices to support this outcome.

Secondary to the objective of managing depredation, it is important that wolves be taken seriously as the indicators of ecosystem function and keystone species of top-down regulation that they are (Carroll, et. al.). Much can be learned, as Carroll suggests, about multi-species conservation strategies by looking at top predators. Here in Oregon, wolves can help frame the discussion about biodiversity. Moving forward, management of this species should include the goals of: habitat protection so that area available to wolves isn’t further degraded; a change in use of public lands for livestock grazing so as to make available a larger hunting range for wolves of their undomesticated prey; monitoring of the tropic cascade of landscape and ecosystem services created by the presence of wolves.

In terms of habitat protection, it is common knowledge that the US ESA provided protection of habitat where endangered species are concerned. Section 7 states that Federal agencies cannot conduct projects that destroy or modify habitat. Wolves occupy Federal public lands, State public lands and private lands. State agencies should follow the ESA mandates of habitat protection. On the ground this will affect where roads are built, where logging or other resource extraction happens, how areas are fenced. In terms of landscape and ecosystem, habitat protection will provide for less fragmentation and more connectivity, aspects that are key to such a far-ranging species as wolves. This conservation goal seems logically possible, and because of the ESA is probably already instituted; however, private landowners should be encouraged to understand the importance of connectivity and other aspects of habitat such as cover and area available for denning. The willingness of public landowners to participate in habitat protection is a constraint to consider in implementing this goal.

The way public lands are used for grazing is most likely regulated by rule-making and other policy setting mechanisms. I am not sure what re-configuration is possible at the local level. Even with policy procedures as a factor to contend with, it seems possible to use Mech’s zoning system mentioned above to create safer spaces on public lands for both wolves and livestock. There is enough science available to help managers understand and designate the types of habitat in which wolves thrive. That said, any changes to availability of public lands for grazing will be met with opposition from the ranching community. There is a long history in the public dialogue of Oregon around this issue. There is enough public support at this time for wolves, and that can be harnessed to create these changes.

Wolves have been back in Oregon for just over a decade. In that time, no research has been conducted to understand their effects on the landscape and ecosystem. I strongly suggest studies such as those conducted be implemented here. Quite simply, because wolves are top predators yet generalists, and so much of their modus operandi is determined by prey relations, it is important to understand how they function in the specific ecosystems where they are found. This knowledge will better inform management decisions and can serve to help mitigate the conflicts with ranchers. Once information is gathered about ecosystem services, the benefits should be communicated to stakeholders. Ranchers should be helped to see how the presence of wolves is beneficial. Also, this date will promote a human understanding of the biodiversity promoted by wolves, thereby furthering support for their presence. Constraints to this management goal are most likely financial, and this type of research takes time. Meanwhile, depredation continues to occur and the pressure to take offending wolves increases.

These objectives are in line with what textbook authors Martha J. Groom, Gary K. Meffe, and C. Ronald Carroll, Principles of Conservation Biology, state as an important research goal of conservation biology: the understanding of the interplay between processes and species as determinates of community structure and biodiversity. They also correlate with the Three Guiding Principles of Conservation Biology: evolution is the basic axiom that unites all of biology; the ecological world is dynamic and largely non-equilibrial; human presence must be included in conservation planning (Groom, et. al.).

The objective of Principle 1, as explained by Groom, et. al. is to ensure populations may continue to respond to environmental change in an adaptive manner. I am strongly suggesting habitat protection, which does not seem to require wolves to adapt. However, their range is broad, and they constantly have to adapt to changes within habitat within that range. It seems prudent to allow for adaption that is in line with intact habitat. Otherwise, wolves will be trying to adapt to landscapes that push the population past carrying capacity due to fragmentation and other degradation.

Principle 2 centers on the acknowledgement that ecosystems are open systems that experience fluxes of species, materials, and energy. Therefore, conservation acts should not be conducted in isolation (Groom, et. al). In my own thinking on wolf recovery and management, I tend toward ecosystem and landscape management. As is outlined above, it makes sense to look at this issue from multiple scientific perspectives that include the species itself, its habitat needs, and what it provides to the ecosystem in return.

In explanation of Principle 3, Groom, et. al state that, “[w]e must incorporate problems of modern culture into conservation, for they will have the largest influences on resource use.” As is clearly illustrated throughout this paper, human attitudes shape wolf management. These authors also suggest that a relationship between conservation and a reasonable standard of living is the only way to achieve conservation objectives that fall along the dividing line of the environment vs. economics. While the fate of wolves in Oregon seems to be promising on the biological front, their longevity here can only be sustained when they are able to coexist with ranchers.

Overall, I am optimistic about wolf recovery in Oregon. Citizens of this state have a long history of arguing over spotted owls vs. loggers, wolves vs. ranchers, salmon vs. hydro-electric power. The dialogue is always heated. Yet, we are always united by our love of the land, and this commonality paves the way for progressive solutions to these issues. So far, the ODFW Wolf Management Plan has been effective in sorting out the conflicts created by wolves here. There is enough science available, and research opportunities to make that science specific to Oregon’s needs that the future management of wolves will be effective.