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Tracks in snow first physical evidence of wolves paired up in Oregon

Months after a lone gray wolf was shot and killed in Northeast Oregon, a pair of wolf tracks have been found near the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

By Associated Press
Los Angeles Times

For the first time, state fish and wildlife trackers have physical evidence that two wolves have paired up after moving into northeastern Oregon from Idaho.

Tracks found by a rancher in snow near the southern edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness about 20 miles north of Baker City appear to be from two wolves walking side-by-side. One set of tracks was larger than the other, which could mean one is male and one female.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wolf coordinator Russ Morgan stressed that they don't know whether Oregon has its first pair of breeding wolves since wolves were wiped out by bounty hunters a century ago. Males and females often travel together without breeding, there is no way to tell the ages of the animals from the tracks, and breeding season isn't until February.

Biologists followed the tracks for three-eighths of a mile before the snow ran out. Since they were reported in late October, other sets of single tracks have been found in the area, Morgan said.

Morgan said the tracks were found by a rancher checking on his cattle grazing on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, but there has been no indication of any livestock, elk or deer killed by wolves in the area.

Biologists have long expected that wolves would spread to Oregon after they were reintroduced to Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The Idaho wolf population numbers more than 500, and young wolves leave the pack and strike out for new territories rather than overcrowd an old one.

To get to northeastern Oregon, they just have to swim the Snake River or walk across a bridge or dam. At least five wolves are known to have reached Oregon since 1999.

Wolves are protected by federal and state law, so it is illegal to shoot or trap them, even if they attack livestock. Oregon has adopted a wolf management plan that sets a goal of four breeding pairs each in Eastern Oregon and Western Oregon.

"This is really the first time we've documented more than one wolf traveling together," Morgan said. "This is not a surprise. We've expected wolves to enter Oregon from Idaho. We've expected them to find each other and group up like wolves do.

"I think this represents how things are changing as wolves come in," he added. "The reports we receive now of multiple animals are increasing. Now we are finding actual field signs of multiple animals. I think that does represent a significant change in northeastern Oregon."

Once trackers have a good idea where the wolves are living, they plan to put out live traps, so they can put a radio-tracking collar on a wolf and set it free to track its territory and look for evidence of breeding.

In all, Morgan is keeping tabs on four areas that may be occupied by wolves on the outskirts of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the biggest and most remote tract of wilderness in Oregon and a prime spot for wolves to settle.

North of the town of Elgin in the Wenaha River drainage, tracks have been found that may represent two wolves. East of Joseph in the Big Sheep Creek Divide there have been sightings reported, but no tracks found. And more reports have come in from an area north of Halfway.

Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County commissioners, said local ranchers were not looking forward to seeing wolves back in northeastern Oregon.

"I think everybody knew the wolves were coming and they would be here," he said from Baker City. "It's quicker than we thought they might be paired up. Now we're just going to have to deal with the impact when and if they become an issue."

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