Gray wolves in Central Oregon? Maybe someday soon, experts say

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed March 21 that three wolves are living in the Umpqua National Forest, to the southwest of Bend. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife/Submitted photo)

Gray wolves have returned to an area of Oregon’s Central Cascades where they haven’t been seen for more than 70 years.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed Thursday that three wolves are living in the Umpqua National Forest, about 90 miles southwest of Bend. The wolves appeared on trail cameras posted in the national forest, near the boundary between Douglas and Lane counties.

Michelle Dennehy, communications coordinator for the state wildlife agency, said the photos corroborate anecdotal wolf and wolf track sightings in that part of the forest dating back several years.

“We’ve had reports of wolf activity in this area before,” Dennehy said.

Gray wolves are native to Oregon, and once ranged all over the state. However, clashes with ranchers caused their numbers to decline in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

ODFW records indicate that Oregon offered bounties to kill wolves. Indeed, Dennehy said the last wolf presented for bounty in Oregon occurred in 1946, near where the wolves were spotted in February.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, there were no wolves confirmed living in the wild anywhere in Oregon. The predators were reintroduced to Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s, and made their way to Oregon later that decade.

Since, wolves have re-established a foothold in parts of the state, particularly Eastern Oregon. ODFW biologists counted 124 wolves in 2017, concentrated heavily in the far northeast corner of the state.

Dennehy said an updated count is expected to be available in April.

Despite their population growth over the last two decades, wolves remain relatively uncommon outside of Northeast Oregon, with only one pack — the Rogue pack, in Southern Oregon — confirmed west of Grant County. Dennehy said the wolves confirmed in the Umpqua National Forest don’t meet ODFW’s definition of a wolf pack, but said the confirmed sightings prompted the agency to declare the portion of the forest as an “area of known wolf activity,” a designation designed to reduce conflicts between wolves and nearby landowners.

A separate collection of wolves was identified in Wasco County near Mount Hood last year.

Erik Fernandez, wilderness program manager for the conservation group Oregon Wild, called the return of wolves to new parts of Oregon exciting, and said the portion of the forest west of Crater Lake will make for good wolf habitat. Fernandez speculated that the animals likely dispersed from an existing population of wolves living somewhere else in the region.

“It’s the nature of wolves to wander through different parts of the state,” he said.

However, Fernandez noted that the wolves may face hurdles. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it intends to move forward with a proposal to remove protections related to the federal Endangered Species Act from gray wolves nationwide. If the proposal is approved, conservation of wolves in Western Oregon will largely fall to the state, which is developing a new wolf management plan. Fernandez encouraged Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to continue protecting Western Oregon’s burgeoning wolf population.

“It is absurd to suggest as the Trump administration has that one or two wolf packs in Western Oregon means we should consider them as recovered and not deserving of protection,” he wrote in an email.

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

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