Reflection: Wolves in the 21st Century

The Wolf OR-7 Expedition team retraced Wolf OR-7’s dispersal route from NE Oregon into California to explore the challenges facing a wolf in the 21st century.

As part of the team, I walked and cycled across mountain wilderness, public rangelands and busy highways and wondered how the region has changed since my great, great grandfather moved to the Pacific Northwest as a logger in the late 1800’s. As the first known wolf west of the Cascade Mountains in well over half a century, Wolf OR-7 encountered a very different landscape than the one his predecessors knew. Viewed through the lens of the places and people we encountered along Wolf OR-7’s route, we reflected on a number of changes both in the physical and political landscape, including: human population, fire ecology, roads and traffic, political borders, natural resource use, research technology, and wilderness and species protections.

While many of the challenges Wolf OR-7 navigated on his 2011 journey from the Wallowa Mountains into the Cascade Mountain Range were quite different than those we encountered as humans, there were a number of instances that we found we could relate to wolves first-hand. In retracing a wolf’s route, I couldn’t help but measure the landscape in terms of what I imagined were the top priorities of any wolf: a) stay hidden from their greatest predator (humans), b) find food and water, c) establish home range, and d) raise pups.

Stay hidden:

Wolves are secretive animals and generally avoid humans when possible. Nonetheless, I was still surprised at how few people, if any, we saw on a daily basis traveling along backcountry roads and trails. While hiking, we didn’t see a single other person on the trail in the Wallowa Mountains, Strawberry Mountains, or Sky Lakes Wilderness. On cycling days, we passed zero to three cars a day, except when we had to cross busy highways. Granted, we chose to travel in spring before the recreation season was in full swing, but even Memorial Day Weekend at a campground in the Ochoco National Forest was empty of other humans. Wolf OR-7 traveled in the fall, and would have had to navigate deer and elk hunters and the additional danger of being mistaken for a coyote. Even so, I was impressed by the expanse of wild lands in the state of Oregon, and the substantial fir, pine, and sagebrush forests that provided cover for a wolf to travel across the entire state largely undetected.

Oregon’s population has grown 8-fold since 1900, and California’s 25-fold, but population growth is largely concentrated in urban and suburban areas.1 Sprawling urban and suburban neighborhoods have transformed the landscape and reduced available habitat for wildlife, but the towns Wolf OR-7 brushed past such as Durkee, Brothers, Macdoel and Nubieber had all seen more populated days. A rancher we met near Durkee, in NE Oregon, pointed out an empty schoolhouse and said there used to be one about every 15 miles back in the day. The number of people making a living from ranching and farming in rural areas has greatly declined over the last century, and so too has the number of people concerned about livestock depredation. Outside of rural areas, wolves are generally low on the list of hot button issues.

The formation of Oregon’s first government was inspired by “wolf meetings” held in the Willamette Valley in 1843, to discuss the issue of how to solve the problem of attacks on local livestock by wolves, bears and cougars. A system was created in which all residents contributed to a fund that would pay bounties for dead predators, and a committee was established to collect and distribute Oregon’s first local tax.2 Settlers systematically shot, poisoned and trapped wolves until the last recorded wild wolf in Oregon was killed in the Umpqua forest in 1946, for a bounty paid by the Oregon state government.3 In California the last wolf bounty was paid in 1924 in Lassen County.4 While Oregon and California state governments are now mandated to support wolf conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act, humans continue to challenge the role of wolves as a keystone predator on the landscape and it behooves wolves to stay hidden.

We met some locals along Wolf OR-7’s route who were not excited that Wolf OR-7 had passed through, and were concerned about what wolf recovery meant for livestock, pets and even children in the area, and we met others who were hopeful the impacts of wolves could benefit rural areas. A cattle rancher and hay farmer outside of Sisters, Oregon wondered if the studies of wolves in Yellowstone National Park would translate to central Oregon, and change the behavior of local deer and elk populations. He hoped that wolves in the area would help keep elk on the move, and prevent them from setting up shop in his hay fields. He also protected coyote on his land, as he knew the population of rodents would be out of control without them.

Another rancher outside of Macdoel, California, who believed Wolf OR-7 had crossed right through his property, was interested in how to manage his land to benefit both cattle and wildlife. He invited us over for a tour (and showers), and showed us how willow and aspen had returned after he fenced cattle off from the creek which in turn brought beaver (a preferred meal of wolves)5. He also was nearly finished replacing miles of the lowest strand of a barbed wire fence with a barbless wire, to avoid snagging birds such as the pygmy owl. Working out how to balance the needs of his family, cattle, water and wildlife was an ongoing experiment, but judging by the sheer beauty of the ranch and the number of birds we saw, it seemed to us he was making an impressive headway.

The fact that Wolf OR-7 is currently protected by both state and federal law under the Endangered Species Act, in Oregon and California, and that he is not only still alive but raising wolf pups marks a significant shift from the policies and fears of centuries past.

Find food and water:

Wolves are opportunistic carnivores. Deer and elk rank high on their list of favorite foods, but large prey is more difficult to hunt as a lone wolf. Beaver, squirrels, rabbit, mice and even road kill were likely on the menu of Wolf OR-7. If there was something we could count on everyday on the trail, it was sharing the road with the tracks of deer, ground squirrel, and often elk. It appeared to me, that were I even half the hunter that a wolf is, there were ample opportunities to be well-fed as a carnivore.

Hunting is not easy, and wolves may go days without catching anything at all. However, adult wolves have the capacity to eat 30 pounds in one sitting. They will gorge, nap and attempt to return to a kill again, but often end up sharing it with ravens, crows, and other wildlife who may not be as gifted in hunting as the wolf.

On day four of the expedition, we left for a three hour cycle ride to Durkee, where we planned to meet up with our support van for lunch. Turned around by un-mapped private property, and slowed down by over 20 flat tires from a recent plant invader called the goathead thorn, we learned the hard way what it means to travel for long distances without food. I never left camp without packing lunch again.

There were days where we had to plan our water stops, and filter water from a stream in order to have enough water to drink and cook with at the end of the day. One day on bicycles, we even knocked on the door of a house and gratefully filled our water bottles up with a garden hose.

Wolf OR-7 likely met his water needs directly from the water-weight of his prey, and from streams, lakes and rivers where available. The warmest day we encountered was in California, while traveling into Lassen County which even in spring appeared very dry. When we turned back North towards Oregon, I for one was looking forward to greener, water blessed pastures ahead.

Establish Home Range:

Wolf OR-7’s dispersal, and the appearance of his mate, may demonstrate that there is more or less functional connectivity of suitable wolf habitat from NE to SW Oregon.

Wolf OR-7 left his natal range in the Wallowa Mountains at 2 and ½ years old, an age where wolves typically strike out to find their own territory and a mate. Wolf OR-7 had been collared by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife just 6 months before, which is the only reason we are aware of his route and movements. GPS-collars are a relatively new technology within the last 15 years, and a new realm of contact for wolves with humans. The decision to collar an animal is not taken lightly as there are risks to both the biologist and wolf. A sister of Wolf OR-7 was collared at the same time, and was found dead just a few days later of unknown causes. One theory is that the shock or trauma of being collared may have played a role.

When Wolf OR-7 dispersed, he crossed a number of dangerous highways including Hwy 20 and 97, a relatively new challenge for the 21st century wolf. Data indicates that high volume roads strongly deter animals from attempting to cross at all, and low trafficked roads present a lower risk for animals that do try to cross. It turns out that the roads with the greatest amount of roadkill, are the roads with medium levels of traffic. There isn’t enough traffic to completely deter animals from trying to cross, but there’s enough traffic that the risk of getting hit is greater.6

We hit Hwy 20 one windy afternoon. Reaching the road after days in the relative quiet of the Ochoco, Strawberry and Monument Rock wilderness, the highway felt like a terrifying, sensory attack of semi-trucks and cars. The rumble strip just inches from my bike tires was sobering, while it may serve to alert a driver to stay on the road, with just a two foot shoulder a meandering vehicle would’ve been the end of the road for me. We cycled in a pack to draft off one another and make it safer for cars to pass us, and I pedaled like mad just to get out of there sooner. Wolf OR-7 covered the same distance from just north of Burns to Paulina Crater in more or less a direct line in about two days. Who knows what made him cover that distance in such a short time, but when the sight of the Three Sisters Peaks emerged from the horizon of high-desert sagebrush, I was eager to push on towards the quiet and shade of the Cascade Mountains.

The Cascades were still days ahead, but we took refuge from the elements at Brothers Café, in Brothers OR and sat down for the most delicious breakfast of fried eggs, hash browns, bacon and coffee ever. Owned by two sisters, one of them told us that farmers nearby had heard the howl of a wolf back in 2011 when Wolf OR-7 crossed the highway.

The athleticism of wolves astounds me. Wolf OR-7 did far more than 1,200 miles on his route. He backtracked, circled round, and likely covered more than 3,000 miles of terrain before staking his current territory in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest.

In the Pacific Northwest, wolves live primarily in mid-elevation, forested wildlands, where food sources can also be found. The various jurisdictions of land ownership, from private land to protected wilderness, are difficult to navigate on the ground, even for humans (we worked from three different maps which often showed three different things). Wolves are generally welcome in wilderness areas, but wilderness areas have primarily been assigned to high elevation habitat, which is much less valuable biologically for wolves. Wide-ranging animals like wolves, require room to move, and without corridors or connectivity to adjacent landscapes the risk of human-wildlife conflict with human settlements increases.

Raise pups:

Wolves mate only once a year, usually around late February in the Northwest.

Following their food sources, they move into lower elevations for the most sensitive time of year for wolves, pup-rearing. It’s no mistake that wolf pups are born around the same time as fawns and elk calves. Unfortunately, this also coincides with the time that beef cattle drop their calves too, which tempts the greatest potential for strife between humans and wolves.

Wolves in the Northwest:

In Oregon, as of the last census there are 4.9 million people, around 25,000 black bears, 5,000 cougars and according to the 2013 count by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at least 64 wolves.1,7 In California, there are 38 million people, over 25,000 black bears, an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cougars, and Wolf OR-7.8 In the U.S., there are about 1,500 species on the U.S. Endangered and Threatened species list including gray wolves.9

What changed between the years where the U.S. Department of Rodent Control was charged to exterminate wolves across the U.S., to the present day where the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife is now required to restore and protect wolves and other endangered and threatened species on the landscape?

There are many fascinating books and articles on the subject, but to me, it’s a testament to a trait humans share with wolves, adaptability. Perhaps more than any other animal, we as humans, have the capacity to change.

Spending over one month of my life out of doors on the move, eating dried food, drinking from streams and sleeping under the stars changed me, and not just the strength of my thighs and calves. Learning first-hand from the places and people we met along Wolf OR-7’s route has transformed the way I see the Northwest. I saw a region divided along contentious rural/urban lines, and now I see individuals whose shared humanity is greater than our differences over wildlife management.

The whole expedition was so far outside of my comfort zone that every day I’d wake up wondering which of my fears I’d have to face that day. To get to camp every evening I pushed my limits beyond what I thought I was capable of, but with the support of many, many people… I did it. Through the people who supported the expedition from afar, and the people we met along the way, I have more hope than ever that we as humans have the capacity to ask questions, listen to new information, get to know one another and come up with solutions that will leave our fears behind in the dust.

References:

1. U.S. Census Bureau. “Population in the U.S.” Google. U.S. Census Bureau, 2013. U.S. Census Data. Web. July 9, 2014.

2.Bevan, Dane. “Public Meeting at Champoeg, 1843.” The Oregon History Project. Oregon Historical Society, 2004. Web. 9 July, 2014.

3. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan – History of Wolves in Oregon. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2010. Web. July 9, 2014.

4. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Gray Wolf (Canis Lupus).” California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2014. Web. July 9, 2014.

5. Mokowitz, David. Wolves in the Land of Salmon. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2011. Print.

6. Seiler, Andreas. “Ecological Effects of Roads: A review.” Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2001. Web. July 9, 2014.

7. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Frequently Asked Questions about Wolves in Oregon.” Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2014. Web. July 9, 2014.

8. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Black Bear Population Information, 2012.” “Commonly Asked Questions about Mountain Lions, 2007.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Web July 9, 2014

9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Endangered Species.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife. 2013. Web. July 9, 2014