Courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Eric Mortenson/Capital Press
They called him OR-4, and by some accounts he was Oregon’s biggest and baddest wolf, 97 pounds of cunning in his prime and the longtime alpha male of Wallowa County’s influential Imnaha Pack.
But OR-4 was nearly 10, old for a wolf in the wild. And his mate limped with a bad back leg. Accompanied by two yearlings, they apparently separated from the rest of the Imnaha Pack or were forced out. In March, they attacked and devoured or injured calves and sheep five times in private pastures.
So on March 31, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff boarded a helicopter, rose up and shot all four.
The decisive action by the department may have marked a somber turning point in the state’s work to restore wolves to the landscape. It comes on the heels of the Wildlife Commission’s decision in November to take gray wolves off the state endangered species list, and just as the commission is beginning a review of the Oregon Wolf Plan, the document that governs wolf conservation and management.
Oregon Wild, the Portland-based conservation group with long involvement in the state’s wolf issue, said shooting wolves should be an “absolute last resort.”
“While the wolf plan is out of date and under review, we shouldn’t be taking the most drastic action we can take in wolf management,” Executive Director Sean Stevens said in an email.
The commission should not have taken wolves off the state endangered species list in the first place, but it isn’t likely to revisit that decision, Stevens said.
The commission should call upon the department to not shoot more wolves until the plan review is finished, he said.
“But, more importantly, they should recognize that delisting does not mean that we should suddenly swing open the doors to more aggressive management,” Stevens said.
The ongoing wolf plan review, which may take nine months, should include science that wasn’t considered in the delisting decision, and the public’s will, he said. It also should create more clarity on non-lethal measures to deter wolves, he said.
Publicly, at least, no one is celebrating the shootings.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, long on the opposite side of the argument from Oregon Wild, said ODFW’s action was authorized by Phase II of the state’s wolf plan.
“The problem needed addressed and ODFW handled it correctly,” spokeswoman Kayli Hanley said in an email. “We acknowledge that while this decision was necessary for the sake of species coexistence, it was a difficult decision.”
Michael Finley, chairman of the commission, said the department handled the situation properly.
“I feel that the department acted in total good faith,” Finley said. “They followed the letter and the spirit of the wolf plan.”
Another conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, called the shootings “a very sad day for us” but also said it appeared Fish and Wildlife followed the wolf plan.
“The final plan is a compromise, but it is among the best of all the state plans in that it emphasizes the value of wolves on the landscape, and requires landowners to try non-lethal methods of deterring wolves before killing them is ever considered,” the group said in a prepared statement.
Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Imnaha Pack shootings may lead to more poaching, because killing wolves decreases tolerance of them and leads to a belief that “you have to kill wolves in order to preserve them.”
Weiss agreed that coming across a calf or sheep that’s been torn apart and consumed — the skull and hide was all that was left of one calf after the OR-4 group fed on it — must be gut-wrenching for producers. But she said those animals are raised to be killed and eaten. “They don’t die any more a humane death in a slaughterhouse than being killed by a wild animal,” she said. “It’s a hard discussion to find a common place of agreement.”
She said such losses are the reason Oregon established the compensation program: to pay for livestock losses and to help with the cost of defensive measures that scare wolves away.
Rush to Phase II
Weiss said Oregon rushed to move to Phase II of its wolf conservation and management plan in the eastern part of the state, which was prompted by reaching a population goal of four breeding pairs for three consecutive years. That also prompted the Fish and Wildlife Commission to take wolves off the state endangered species list in 2015, although they remain on the federal endangered list in the Western two-thirds of the state.
Like others, Weiss believes the state should have held off on such changes until it finished the mandated review of the wolf plan.
“Under Phase I, Oregon was the state we could all point to” for successfully managing wolves, Weiss said. “I would hope they look at what parts of the wolf plan are working, and look at the parts that are not working.”
Politics and policy aside, the shooting of OR-4 gave people pause. He was a bigger-than-life character; he’d evaded a previous state kill order and had to be re-collared a couple times as he somehow shook off the state’s effort to track him.
OR-4’s Imnaha Pack was the state’s second oldest, designated in 2009, and it produced generations of successful dispersers. OR-4’s many progeny included Oregon’s best-known wanderer, OR-7, who left the Imnaha Pack in 2011 and zig-zagged his way southwest into California before settling in the Southern Oregon Cascades.
OR-25, which killed a calf in Klamath County and now is in Northern California, dispersed from the Imnaha Pack. The alpha female of the Shasta Pack, California’s first, is from the Imnaha Pack as well.
Rob Klavins, who lives in Wallowa County and is Oregon Wild’s field representative in the area, ran across OR-4’s tracks a couple times and saw him once.
Despite his fearsome reputation, the wolf tucked his tail between his legs, ran behind a nearby tree and barked at Klavins and his hiking group until they left.
“Killing animals four or five times your size is a tough way to make a living,” Klavins said. “Some people appreciate OR-4 as a symbol of the tenacity of wolves, even a lot of folks who dislike wolves have sort of a begrudging respect for him.”