BAKER CITY — Southwest of the heart of Oregon’s nascent wolf population — miles from the dead calves, the helicopter chases, the decade-plus of vitriolic local politics swirling around wolves — is a small creek that illustrates why they’re worth the trouble.
That’s where you’ll find Suzanne Fouty, waist-deep in a no-name tributary of the Burnt River lined with beaver dams, deep in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest about four hours northeast of Bend.
Wolves living in the Wallowa Mountains haven’t discovered this part of the forest — at least not yet. But Fouty, a retired hydrologist formerly with the U.S. Forest Service, said a busy dirt road nearby simulates the impact wolves may one day have on the landscape, scaring deer and elk away from the creek.
When enough wolves are present, they act as security guards on patrol, discouraging deer and elk from grazing the trees and willows along the banks of the creek to oblivion. Fouty said this allows creekside plants and aspen stands to flourish, giving beavers in the area material for dams.
After dipping an oversized thermometer in the willow-lined creek, Fouty notes that the tributary, widened by human activities and restored to a more functional state by beaver dams, is cooler and more suitable for fish species, such as redband trout, than most other streams in the area. The banks hold precious drinking water more securely than eroded banks on other streams. It is, in short, a peek into the role that wolves once played in Oregon’s ecosystems, including parts of the Cascade Mountains, where experts say they will inevitably return.
“This is what the West looked like, when we had beavers and we had wolves,” Fouty said.
In a community, and a state, that could face water shortages in the not-so-distant future, wolves provide a vital piece of the puzzle of making ecosystems more water-efficient. However, Fouty and other experts say that making the changes required to live peacefully with wolves could dramatically alter the role that ranchers play in the rural West.
Eastern Oregon remains a test case for how an entrenched ranching community can adapt and learn to live with wolves, one that has implications for the rest of the state. Because if there’s one thing ranchers and conservationists agree on, it’s that wolves will arrive in Central Oregon before long.
“They’re coming,” said George Rollins, Eastern Oregon wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. “To a forest near you.”
The return of the wolves
Conservationist Wally Sykes remembers feeling overcome with emotion the first time he saw a wolf track in Oregon. He had grown up in a family that hunted wolves in Alaska, but seeing paw prints in the forest near his Wallowa County home was a startling experience.
“I never expected to see wolves in the lower 48,” Sykes said. “I grieved that we didn’t have wolves here.”
It was the spring of 2010, when the return of wolves, and the backlash from the local ranching community, were already well underway. On the bumpy 45-minute ride from the small town of Enterprise to a soggy, narrow meadow that was used by some of the first wolves returning to Oregon, Rob Klavins, Northeast Oregon field coordinator for the Portland-based conservation group Oregon Wild, said the initial response to wolves influenced how Eastern Oregon still handles the predators.
“On one hand, if you’re going to tell the story of wolves in Oregon, you have to come out here and know what happened here,” Klavins said. “At the same time … if you’re looking for a model of how to do things, right or wrong, this is not a good example of success.”
Gray wolves are native to Oregon, and once ranged all over the state. Historical accounts in a 2017 draft of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf management plan reference wolves living along the banks of the Deschutes River during the 19th century.
However, as Oregon’s human population expanded, early ranchers found themselves increasingly in conflict with the predators, which killed livestock. As in other parts of the western United States, the state government offered bounties to kill the wolves, according to ODFW records.
— Rob Klavins, Oregon Wild
Gray wolves were hunted nearly to extinction. Sykes noted that, for a time, the only wild gray wolves in the lower 48 states lived in forests in the northern Midwest, right by the Canadian border.
In Oregon, the last wolf bounty was recorded in 1947, and for about half a century thereafter, there were no confirmed wild wolves living in the state.
Gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s, and made their way to Oregon later that decade. A female from the Boise National Forest met up with a wolf designated OR-4, and the first confirmed wolf pack in Oregon in nearly 60 years, the Imnaha pack, was formed in 2009 near the banks of Wallowa County’s Imnaha River.
Klavins said the pack settled in the Wallowa Mountains of Northeast Oregon outside Joseph, one of the most remote spots in the state, with steep cliffs and snow-capped granite peaks.
“This is one of the wildest places left in the lower 48,” Klavins said, gesturing to a forested ravine thick with fog near the eastern edge of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, once core territory for the famous pack. “If wolves can’t thrive in a place like this, where can they?”
However, the habitat the wolves chose also happens to be near the grazing allotments where ranchers, such as Todd Nash, run their cattle. Nash said Wallowa County ranchers had to quickly adjust to sharing the forest with an alpha predator.
“There was an age of innocence that was lost,” Nash said.
Nash, now a Wallowa County commissioner and the treasurer for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, added that ranchers quickly became frustrated at state officials who, in their view, weren’t acting fast enough to deal with the problem. Upset ranchers became a fixture at public meetings and in local newspaper op-eds in Wallowa County, according to Klavins.
The conflict came to a head in 2011, when the pack killed 10 calves in the area, prompting ODFW to kill two wolves. After another string of livestock attacks, four more wolves were killed in 2016. The remaining Imnaha wolves split off to form other packs, and Oregon’s original returning wolf pack was formally eliminated by the state agency.
“You can’t tell the story of wolves in Oregon without telling the story of the Imnaha pack,” Klavins said.
Seven years after the livestock attacks peaked, the anti-wolf signs around the county have faded. Though at least three calves were injured by wolves in Wallowa County in June, Klavins said the overall conversation around the carnivores has shifted, focusing on radio collars and management zones, rather than their right to exist.
With more packs covering smaller territories, that small corner of Oregon is settling into a more normal pattern of wolf management. Despite that, Klavins noted that the story is far from over.
“It’s more like the end of book one of the trilogy,” he said.
Barry DelCurto has lived his whole life in Halfway, a hardscrabble Baker County ranching town with about 300 residents, 10 miles from the border with Idaho. His 300-acre ranch overlooks the Wallowa Mountain peaks where wolves have lived since their return, but he hadn’t faced many of the problems that have plagued ranchers in Enterprise and Joseph.
Until this April, when he found a 6-week-old calf with his hind legs torn open, following a wolf attack.
“We’re very fortunate. The wolves have been in Wallowa County for 10 years eating livestock,” DelCurto said. “This is the first real known depredation that any of us here have had.”
The battle over wolves may be subsiding near Joseph, but it’s heating up on the other side of the Wallowas. So far this year, Baker County ranchers have had at least nine cows killed by wolves, and they believe several cows that have gone missing could have been killed by wolves. The kills were from the Pine Creek pack, Baker County’s only established pack, and they have the attention of a ranching community that has mostly been spared prior to the start of the year.
Ranchers receive monetary compensation from ODFW when wildlife biologists confirm that a calf is killed by wolves. But Rollins said it can’t cover the stress and frustration of keeping their livelihood safe with alpha predators nearby.
“It’s tough to walk up on a calf and see them hurt like that,” Rollins said. “It’s an emotional strain on these guys.”
The Sunday before the calf was attacked, DelCurto received a text from ODFW’s regional office in Baker City, saying that a pack of wolves was near where his cattle were grazing. He didn’t find the injured calf until later that week, hidden in the area with deep wounds on its hind legs.
“If we’d have just left him out there, he would’ve died,” said Shella DelCurto, Barry’s wife.
Rollins said the first step ranchers should take when they come upon an injured calf is to call ODFW, which sends local biologists to the area to determine if the attack came from a wolf.
Justin Primus, wildlife biologist for ODFW’s Baker City office, said wolves attack their prey differently than other predators do. Cougars go for the neck, but wolves tend to bite their prey repeatedly in the shoulders and hindquarters, relying on shock and blood loss to eventually kill the animal. The location of the bites, along with the spacing and size of the marks, tend to reveal whether the attack came from a wolf.
“It’s a pretty intricate and detailed inspection,” Primus said. “We don’t walk in and assume anything.”
If a wolf attack is confirmed, it’s added to the list of attacks for a given pack of animals. Under the current state management plan, if a wolf pack is deemed to be chronically threatening livestock, the wolves can be killed legally. Primus said the language on the permit allows either ODFW officials or ranchers to kill the wolves, depending on the specific circumstances of the attack.
On April 18, two wolves from the Pine Creek pack were shot from a helicopter by ODFW agents, according to Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for ODFW. The remaining wolves in the pack have withdrawn into the mountains while the alpha female gives birth, though DelCurto said they could return to cause problems in the fall.
While the ranchers talk, the injured calf lows softly behind them in a pen overlooking the Wallowas, sometimes allowing Shella DelCurto to apply antibiotics to the injuries on its hind legs.
The calf is expected to recover from the attack, but the DelCurtos said injuries and swelling are likely to linger. The calf would have likely netted the couple more than $850 prior to the attack, but they may now not be able to sell it at all. And they’ll only qualify for compensation if there’s money left over after dead calves have been accounted for.
While two of the wolves were killed in April, the DelCurtos were frustrated that the attack had been allowed to take place at all, adding that the state-level rules around when people can kill wolves made it difficult to protect their livestock. In Eastern Oregon, where gray wolves have fewer state-level protections, ranchers can kill wolves with a permit from ODFW or if they see a wolf attacking another animal on their property.
— Shella DelCurto
While the DelCurtos said ranchers in Halfway have signed letters authorizing them to shoot wolves in their stead, they want to see the law allow more leeway in the future.
“It’s not like we want to go out and just kill ‘em, but this is our livelihood,” Shella DelCurto said.
The “right” way to manage
There are plenty of ways to keep wolves away from livestock without harming them, but virtually no agreement over how they work in Eastern Oregon’s unique terrain.
Nearly everyone agrees that the most nonlethal method of deterring wolves is just having humans around. Suzanne Stone, senior representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, noted that wolves avoid people whenever possible, and are less likely to go after cows or sheep when they know humans are in the area.
The problem, as Rollins, DelCurto and other Eastern Oregon ranchers have noted, is that consistently being in the area is a challenge on the remote grazing allotments where their livestock are most in peril. Many of the allotments in Eastern Oregon are in the Blue or Wallowa mountains, spanning massive areas with lots of elevation change. In some areas, ranchers don’t see some cows for seasons at a time, according to rancher and Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett.
“It’s extremely rugged; it’s a lot of granite,” Bennett said. “We have a different type of cattle operation than other places.”
DelCurto added that, for a small ranch like his, having to police the entire allotment requires resources he doesn’t have.
“It’s just another expense for us,” DelCurto said. “We’re a small, family operation; we don’t have a hired hand.”
Stone, who has worked on wolf recovery in North America for around 30 years, said there are other techniques that can simulate the presence of humans. One option is fladry, a series of red and orange flags hung across a thin wire to deter wolves. Fladry, along with an electrified version known as turbofladry, can deter wolves from entering an area.
“We don’t know why they avoid it, but we know that they do,” Stone said.
Only for a short time, however. Many ranchers are skeptical of fladry, noting that wolves figure that there’s nothing to be afraid of relatively quickly. Even Stone acknowledged standard fladry is only effective for about 60 days.
Along the same lines, Rollins said that the sound of air horns and gunshots can scare wolves away, but they come back when there are calves in the area.
Perhaps the most radical approach is to change the way ranchers manage their livestock on public lands. Stone said ranchers can keep cows closer together rather than letting them disperse across the land, simulating the behavior used by wild herds. She added that bringing cattle out when calves are older and larger helps as well. However, changing generations of learned behavior can be a challenge.
“When you haven’t lived with (wolves) for years, that’s all you know,” she said.
Despite the skepticism from ranchers, Stone said adoption of nonlethal deterrence is on the rise nationally in areas with wolves. Bennett noted that Baker County has implemented a cost-sharing program to help more ranchers afford range-riders to deter wolves, which he said is a sign that ranchers are serious about preventing attacks. Rollins added that the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association has been proactive about teaching ranchers to bury carcass piles and make other small changes aimed at keeping wolves from finding livestock.
A pack in Central Oregon?
Ranchers and conservationists agree on little when it comes to wolves, but both are confident that it’s only a matter of time before they arrive in Central Oregon.
A 2006 study concluded that Oregon has territory to support at least 1,450 wolves, more than 10 times the state’s current confirmed population of 124. Klavins noted that wolves do well in almost any habitat where they don’t have to deal with many humans, but acknowledged that the sagebrush country of Central and Eastern Oregon is not an area where wolves will likely ever thrive. However, the Ochocos and the Cascades are another story.
There’s been a population of wolves in the Cascades in Southern Oregon since OR-7 traveled across the state in search of a mate and began establishing the Rogue pack in 2014.
(AP Photo/Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
More recently, two wolves began using territory in southern Wasco County, near Mount Hood, this winter. It’s too early to know if they’ll form a pack there, but Klavins noted there’s plenty of territory and game in the area.
“I look forward to the day where we acknowledge that wolves have a rightful place,” Klavins said.
The streams Fouty points out are set in a different environment than those in the Deschutes National Forest, but she notes that the challenges they face with bank erosion and lack of vegetation are fairly universal.
While those problems don’t magically disappear with the reintroduction of wolves, Fouty said there’s no reason why they can’t disperse deer and elk the same way they have in parts of Wyoming and Idaho, and are beginning to in Eastern Oregon, giving willows and other stream-side plants more space to grow.
Still, she added that full recovery takes sacrifices from everyone, from campers giving up spending time in certain vulnerable areas, to ranchers being open to giving up some of the federal allotments that their cows have grazed for generations.
Of course, how ranchers in Eastern Oregon and beyond respond to being asked to make those sacrifices remains an open question. Nash said any massive restructure of the structure around grazing on federal land could be very expensive.
For now, Rollins, Bennett and other ranchers are focused on pushing for certain changes in ODFW’s upcoming new management plan, including establishing management zones that would cap the number of wolves in a certain area.
But for all the skepticism about nonlethal deterrence, there’s pragmatism as well. Earlier this spring, the DelCurtos spoke with Stone about a program in Wyoming that teaches ranchers how to move cattle around in wolf country, making them less vulnerable to attacks.
“We’re considering at least checking it out, and maybe going,” Shella DelCurto said. “Because we’re going to be living with ‘em.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org