After years during which Oregon’s recovering gray wolf population remained concentrated in the far northeast corner of the state, two new groups of wolves have migrated to the Cascade Mountains since the start of 2018.

With an increase in breeding packs nearby, experts are looking for swaths of habitat that may soon host wolves. And Central Oregon’s forests are on the list.

“I would expect, down here in Central Oregon, to have a resident pack before too long,” said John Stephenson, wolf biologist for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released its annual report on Oregon’s gray wolf population, which showed a 10% increase since last year’s report. The report is the latest update on the effort to track wolves as they return to Oregon.

While gray wolves are native to Oregon, conflicts with ranchers decimated the population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The state wildlife agency’s records show that Oregon offered bounties to kill wolves, the latest of which was completed in the 1940s. For nearly half a century, there were no confirmed sightings of wolves in the wild in Oregon.

After wolves were reintroduced to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana in the 1990s, they made their way back to Oregon later that decade. Since that time, the population has grown, reaching at least 137 wolves as of 2018, according to ODFW’s annual report.

Still, some environmentalists have argued the population hasn’t grown as quickly as they would have expected.

Rob Klavins, northeast Oregon field coordinator for the environmental group Oregon Wild, said the population stood at 110 wolves when the animals were removed from the state’s endangered species list in 2015.

Since that time, the increase has slowed on a percentage basis, and the estimated population of 137 wolves is just two animals above what the state agency declared to be its baseline scenario when animals were removed from the list. While Klavins said he was happy to see the increase, he cautioned against treating the increase as a massive recovery.

“I think it’s fair to say that this is what wolf recovery looks like in a post-delisting world,” Klavins said.

Even as the number of wolves has increased, the population has remained heavily concentrated in Northeast Oregon, the area that wolves first returned to, Klavins said. ODFW’s annual report notes that the number of confirmed wolf packs increased from 12 to 16 from 2017 to 2018, the largest single-year increase since the state agency began producing reports.

Rodger Huffman, chair for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s wolf committee, said the animals are nearing a saturation point in that part of the state, and that could end up changing how the packs behave. For wolf populations to continue to grow in Oregon, they may need to expand in other parts of the state.

“When you look at the maps, with Union, Baker and Wallowa counties, they’re pretty well surrounded,” Huffman said.

Stephenson said some young wolves leave their packs and roam across the countryside to find a mate around their second birthday, which is one of the ways the species is able to establish a foothold in new territory.

Perhaps Oregon’s most famous roaming wolf, OR-7, left his pack in 2011, and wandered thousands of miles across Eastern and Central Oregon and dipped into California before eventually settling in Southern Oregon. He eventually became the alpha male of the Rogue pack, the first pack confirmed in that part of the state in 60 years.

Since the start of 2018, two new groups of wolves have joined him. Last August, a trail camera on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation caught a pair of wolves accompanied by two pups south of Mount Hood. The group of wolves is now known as the White River pack. Earlier this year, a group of three wolves was confirmed in the Umpqua National Forest, near the boundary between Douglas and Lane counties.

So far, the dispersing wolves have largely bypassed the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, though Stephenson said it’s unclear why. Both forests have the necessary population of deer and elk to allow a wolf pack to succeed, he said.

“We’ve always thought that the Ochocos would be (a) good fit,” Stephenson said.

A 2015 report from ODFW identified more than 41,200 square miles in Oregon as potential habitat, concentrated heavily in the Oregon Cascades.

Stephenson said having a more stable population of wolves closer to the two forests, in the Central Cascades would make it more likely that wolves will eventually settle there. Already, he said, there have been isolated reports of wolves near Crescent Lake, Santiam Pass and other Central Oregon destinations.

“It may just be a matter of time,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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