Wolf Rendezvous - The Present and Future of Oregon Wolves

By Rick Lamplugh

When Mary and I arrived at the Joseph, Oregon rendezvous site, we joined others in pitching our tent in the backyard of a rustic, rental house, its brown paint faded by the weather. From the yard we had a view through the pines of the tip of nearby Mt. Joseph and the distant Zumwalt Prairie.

Under a threatening sky, we circled our camp chairs around a big fire ring and took turns introducing ourselves. In the circle were Rob and Jonathan, two staffers from Oregon Wild; Erin, a recent college graduate and their summer intern; Wally, founder of Northeast Oregon Ecosystems and the area's most active wolf advocate; Joseph, a photographer on assignment from Oregon Business Magazine; and the nine of us Oregon Wild members who had signed up for the four-day adventure.

While almost everyone hoped to see or hear wolves, Rob and Jonathan advised us to keep our expectations low. Wally said he has had only three wolf sightings in four years. And that's not for lack of trying. 2013 Wolf Rendezvous TentsThough he actively tracks wolves, only 46 live in northeastern Oregon, and most spend their time in the forest where they can avoid people.

We were guaranteed, on the other hand, to see the ubiquitous cattle and their damage to meadows, forests, and streams. Cattle graze on private and public lands in territory that the recently arrived wolves have chosen as their home range.

During the next four days, we would discover how this intersection of wolves and cattle has shaped the welcoming of wolves into northeastern Oregon, and how it will determine their future. We would also immerse ourselves in learning about the people, plants, geology, and history of the area.

After the introductions, we left the campfire ring and walked to a red outbuilding. The hand-painted sign above the door announced that this was "The Dawg Pound." A pool table filled one half of the interior. In front of the pool table stood a small projector screen. Around that screen we eager learners sat in a horseshoe-shaped ring of chairs—some from an old, local movie theater. In the center of that horseshoe and behind a laptop was Jim Akenson, veteran of 21 years of predator research in Idaho.

Through pictures, data, and personal reflections, Jim helped us understand Oregon's newest predator. All of Oregon's wolves migrated here from Idaho, where they were first reintroduced in 1995 with support from the Nez Perce tribe. Wolves from Canada were imported for introduction into Idaho because they hunted elk. But as the wolves made the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness their home, they also ate deer and smaller prey.

In 2000, when a huge fire burned their home range, the wolves moved to another area. Cougars, which Jim also studied, did not move from their burned-over home ranges, and some starved to death. But wolves proved to be adaptable survivors who will eat, Jim emphasized, whatever animals are available.

And in Wallowa County, "available" includes cattle. This became evident the next morning when our group went wolf tracking with Wally Sykes, the local wolf advocate. In two rental vans driven by Rob and Jonathan, we bounced and splashed our way along a two-track road deep into the national forest outside of Joseph.

When the vans couldn't go any farther, we climbed out into the rain and the home of the Imnaha pack. After hiking through the woods and taking a few stops so that we could put on more and more rain gear, we reached some ruts that crossed a green, high meadow.

Wally knelt near a puddle and we encircled him. He pointed out our first wolf track, about the size of a human hand. As we continued to hike, we saw enough wolf tracks and scat for us to proclaim this two-track a wolf highway. And along that wolf highway we also saw lots of cow patties. With grazing cattle and hungry wolves this close together, conflict is inevitable.

A few hours later we learned that this cattle-wolf conflict eats up almost all of Russ Morgan's work hours. Russ is the Wolf Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). As our group sat on the porch of a rustic cabin in a primitive Forest Service campground complete with a stocked, man-made pond, Russ stood in front of us and clarified that his job is managing the entire Oregon wolf population, not protecting individual wolves.

He tracks and collars wolves, investigates their killing of livestock, and removes problem wolves. But in reality, he spends most of his time dealing with people's reactions—both positive and negative—to wolves. As he put it, "Wolves are easy. It's the people who are difficult."

Russ reported that in 2012 ODFW investigated 37 possible wolf depredations and confirmed eight instances of wolves killing livestock. He foresees those numbers increasing, and added that as far as wolf-human conflict is concerned, Oregon is currently in a "five- to six-year grace period."

This grace period will end for three reasons. First, as Russ put it, "Wolves eat meat and that's not going to stop." Second, the number of wolves in Oregon will keep growing. Between 2011 and 2012, for example, the wolf population increased from 29 to 46. Third, though Oregon is a large state, it does not have huge tracts of cattle-free and people-free backcountry. In fact, he said, pointing to the surrounding geography, we were sitting right in the middle of one of the largest backcountry areas in Oregon—prime wolf real estate—and evidence of cattle abounded. When hungry wolves come upon unprotected cattle, trouble can happen.

Russ does not see non-lethal deterrents such as guard animals, fencing, removing carcasses, or fright tactics as a panacea for avoiding all that trouble. Wally, who is a member of the commission that doles out compensation to local ranchers for losses due to wolves, added that all recent compensation claims were paid, but the commission had run out of funds and could not provide ranchers with money to buy all the non-lethal deterrents they had requested.

Even in the face of increasing conflict, Russ remains optimistic. "If people wanted to kill all the wolves, they would have," he said. As he wound up his talk, he predicted that Oregon's wolves will survive.

The second day of the rendezvous ended with us sitting around the living room of the Joseph cabin. Rain streamed down the windows as we ate catered manicotti and salad and discussed what we had learned. One by one our group members succumbed to the effects of a pasta dinner after a long day in unseasonably cold and wet weather. We slipped out the door to our tents and drifted off to sleep with the rhythm of rain on the tent fly.

The next morning found us on the front porch—it was cloudy but not raining—grazing on pancakes made by Erin. We packed our lunches from a table piled with ingredients supplied by Oregon Wild. Then we climbed into the two vans.

RalphAnderson.jpgOn our way to the Zumwalt Prairie, we stopped in Joseph to pick up Ralph Anderson, our guide for the day.

This retired U.S. Forest Service employee describes himself as a "point and shout speaker." He has a lot to point and shout about: In addition to being a wildlife ecologist with a background in anthropology, he seems to know the name and properties of every edible wild plant in the county.

Ralph is less optimistic than Russ about the future of Oregon's wolves. He foresees an extermination campaign in Oregon similar to those now underway in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. He did not predict wolves being hunted to extinction in Oregon again, but he pointed out that the first government in Oregon was formed in 1843 to come up with a way to get rid of wolves. A hundred years later the wolves were gone; the last one killed in 1947 near Crater Lake.

Driving up onto the Zumwalt Prairie, we passed a sign, nailed to a fence post, which read "Zero Tolerance No Canadian Wolves!" Then we passed the Nature Conservancy holding with its expensive fences protecting stands of aspen from elk.

Ralph estimated that 3,000 to 3,500 elk browse the Zumwalt Prairie. And wolves, he said, have changed how elk do so. Before wolves, the elk fed on the aspen growing along the edges of the pine forests. Since the arrival of wolves, the elk have moved farther onto the prairie to browse. So the aspen on the prairie are being depleted while the aspen near the pine forests are growing back.

This defensive change in elk behavior—browsing on the prairie where they may see wolves approaching instead of near the forest where they may not—is an example of what scientists call "the ecology of fear." And it's a contentious topic wherever wolves have reappeared.

After a full day with Ralph, we dropped him off in Joseph and drove six miles to a micro-brewery in Enterprise. We arrived around 5:00 pm, and under the shade of young and old aspens growing along the banks of a quiet stream, pulled together two picnic tables and ordered drinks and food. As we sipped and chewed and chatted, a bluegrass band from Portland set up on the brewery's front porch. The tables around us filled, some with folks sporting big cowboy hats or dinner plate-sized belt buckles, other folks wearing color-coordinated outfits surely bought west of the Cascades.

The final morning began with clouds crowding a blue sky. We pulled down our tents, straightened up the cabin, packed our lunches, and put on hiking boots. Though the official rendezvous ended after breakfast, we were all invited to go on a hike led by Wally along Hurricane Creek in the Eagle Cap Wilderness just outside of town. Everyone was in, and we created quite a little parade as we drove our cars to the trailhead, where Wally gave us a 10-minute rundown on two million years of geology.

We spent the next few hours following Wally along a winding trail above frothy Hurricane Creek. We crossed the creek on a narrow log high enough above the water to get our hearts pounding. We explored a meadow splashed with colorful blooming wildflowers and took a lunch break by the roaring water. Sitting in this wilderness was a fitting end to the rendezvous. Though this area is currently claimed by no wolf pack, this wild is where wolves belong.

Though wolves roamed most of North America for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, they have been banished to a few small areas. After an absence of more than 60 years, wolves have returned to Oregon. These newcomers are entering territory divided up and claimed by humans, their only predators. Wolves will have to compete with local residents for territory and food—be it elk or cattle.

Wolves are good hunters; they'll fill their bellies. They also reproduce and defend their territory well. What wolves cannot do is stand before the legislature and explain what they need to survive in Oregon. For that, wolves need advocates like Oregon Wild with its knowledgeable staff and active members. In Oregon, the battle between wolves and residents is just heating up. If the experts we heard are correct, conflict will increase.

Before our final lunch, as we hiked along Hurricane Creek, a middle-aged couple wearing smiles and day packs approached us from the opposite direction.

When they passed Rob, in the sweep position at the end of our long line of hikers, the woman asked him, "Could you by any chance be the Oregon Wild group?" Rob, amazed, said we were and stopped to talk. He found that these two locals proudly sport an Oregon Wild howling wolf bumper sticker on their car, a risky move here in the heart of ranching country. That they choose to do so is an indicator that Oregon Wild is successfully changing an emotion-laden conflict into an acceptable public debate—while advocating for wild animals that cannot speak for themselves.

Rick Lamplugh is the author of the forthcoming book, In the Temple of Wolves, about the wolves and winter ecology of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, the best place in the world to watch wild wolves. He and his wife Mary Strickroth, residents of Corvallis, have recently spent four winter months volunteering and living in the Lamar Valley. This was their first Oregon Wild wolf rendezvous and they will be back. You can preview chapters of Rick’s book on his blog, Yellowstone Stories and Images:


Update December, 2013 - Rick's book In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone has just been released and is available for purchase on Amazon.

Photo Credits
Mary Strickroth provided photos in this blog post.