The sound of four gray wolf pups filled the room with the piercing sounds of practicing howls. The two parent wolves joined in, adding their voices to the wild melody. With their heads tilted upwards, the pups and parents sang to the sky with high pitched squeals, barks and resonate yowls. A crowd of approximately 65 people watched the video projected on the large white wall and laughed with wonderment.
"For those of you who don't know much about wolves, I'm hoping that if you get anything out of this evening, the visual of this family together is what you remember," said Diane Gallegos, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist and current executive director of Wolf Haven International. WHI is a wolf sanctuary and education center near Olympia, Washington.
Wolves used to inhabit most of the U.S. with populations ranging between 250,000 to 500,000 and living harmoniously among indigenous communities. According to the USFWS website, as colonization swept across North America beginning in the 1600s, settlers depleted wolves' natural prey including bison, deer, elk and moose. This, and loss of habitat, caused wolves to prey on livestock, which contributed to a wolf eradication movement. This attitude lingers today as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission prepares to vote on a new wolf management plan in January which could open the door again for wolf hunting which was outlawed in Oregon in 1947.
Oregon's current wolf management plan, called the Wolf Plan, was last updated in in 2010 as a social and political compromise between ranchers, hunters, environmental groups and policy makers, according to Rob Klavins, Field Coordinator for conservation organization, Oregon Wild. "Despite fundamental flaws, Oregon Wild supported the plan because we felt it was a reasonable compromise," said Klavins.
Largely due to intensive eradication efforts, U.S. wolf populations dropped to just 300 by the 1960s. After being protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1974, wolf populations began a slow comeback leading to approximately 112 currently inhabiting Oregon, according to Klavins. As wolf populations grow, ranchers now face the challenge of protecting livestock and therefore, livelihood while also abiding by the regulations in the Wolf Plan. With wolves still being fairly new to Oregon, Todd Nash, chairman Oregon Cattleman's Association Wolf Task Force said, "Going from no policy to a policy that everyone can live with is a huge leap."
Though wolf related cattle depredation is estimated under two percent according to Gallegos, she explained that for ranching families who experience a wolf problem, the issue is hugely significant. According to the Wolf Plan, ranchers troubled by wolves must first make efforts to subdue the problem with non-lethal measures including livestock guard dogs, increased human presence, and hanging flags around pastures which wolves tend to not cross. If measures have been made and wolves persist in threatening livestock, ODFW can issue a permit for lethal control. The challenge is that these measures cause extra burden on ranchers by giving them additional work to protect livestock from wolves, on top of being under attack by conservation groups.
To accommodate the economic hardship in an industry that already receives government subsidies to sustain business, Nash said ranchers are given financial compensation for livestock killed in wolf conflicts. However, it's the indirect effects wolves have on livestock that are more economically distressing. According to Nash, those effects include livestock stress causing weight loss, anxiety causing cattle to change their ranging patterns to areas with higher visibility but poorer foraging and lower conception rate. "I had thinner cattle. I had displaced cattle. Instead of grazing the far corners of the pasture, the herd was more comfortable congregating where they could defend each other," said Nash on his experience this past summer. Though he will be compensated approximately $1,600 for his two killed cattle, he estimates he's lost between $60,000-$70,000 due to wolves this past year.
However, the Wolf Plan does allow for lethal control with an approved state permit following chronic livestock depredation. "It's treated like a crime scene," said Wendy Spencer, Sanctuary Director at WHI on assessing wolf involvement in livestock death. "They need to preserve the evidence to rule whether wolves were responsible." Stakes are high for accused wolves in depredation cases, as being accused of livestock death can result in a death sentence for a wolf.
"The science shows that hunting carnivores is not a wise thing to do," Gallegos said. Citing trophic cascades, which is a ripple effect caused by ecological changes between predators and prey, she said wolves provide ecological benefits to the landscape. Yet the war on wolves continues including the 10 authorized kills and eight known poached in the past two years in Oregon according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We know it's important to talk to the people impacted by wolves to keep a certain level of tension from blowing up, because if it does, it will not be good for wolves," said Gallegos.
"It's a balance trying to work together on solutions and not just the environmental community telling ranchers we have solutions."
But not every wolf advocate believes in collaborating with ranchers to find durable solutions. "Cows and wolves will never coexist," said Jerry Black who believes wolves will continue to be threatened as long as livestock is permitted to graze on public lands. Black speaks out against conservation groups due to their collaboration with ranchers. Removing livestock from public lands is his solution for protecting wolves, citing extensive ecological damage as a reason.
Looking towards the future, Klavins said, "We're at the end of the first book in the trilogy. We killed wolves, had a conservation awakening and now they are back and recovering but with that, we are going to see more dead wolves and dead cows and more conflict."