Viewpoint: Wolf management in Oregon is a train wreck
I recently received another email update from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf and Livestock Updates list. I opened the message and clicked the link anticipating bad news.
Another wolf had been killed by the department in Northeast Oregon. A two-year old male trapped, tranquilized and then euthanized by the state. His crime? Being a member of a community of native carnivores trying to make a living on a landscape overrun with domestic livestock that have displaced their traditional food sources, mainly elk and deer.
This young wolf was a member of the Chesnimnus Pack, near the town of Joseph, whose range encompasses many active federally managed grazing allotments on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Reports of depredations – wolves killing livestock – attributed to the Chesnimnus Pack began rolling in this April, which resulted in fish and wildlife officials issuing an order to kill two wolves before the end of April.
In June, an additional four wolves were marked for death. As of today, three of those six wolves have been wiped out by the state. Not included in this tally is the additional wolf lost at the hands of a poacher in January. This onslaught of death comes on the heels of a bloody 2021 for Oregon, where 26 wolves were documented killed, up from 10 in 2020.
Killing wolves is counterproductive to many of the wildlife management and habitat conservation programs administered by the ODFW and undermines the benefits that having wolves on the landscape brings to all of us. After wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, the ecology of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem began to reset itself. Riparian areas – biodiversity hotspots – soon recovered from overgrazing by deer and elk because wolves began keeping them constantly on the move.
This dispersed movement allowed plant communities to reestablish themselves, providing home and sustenance to a host of species. Trout, juvenile salmon and steelhead are provided with cooler water refuges, more insects to eat and more cover from predators because of the shade and habitat provided by streamside vegetation.
Birds and land animals also rely on riparian areas for food, shelter and breeding habitat. Promoting biodiversity helps ward off extinction where one species’ existence is dependent on another. We are now in the throes of the sixth mass extinction and we humans depend on a functioning biosphere for our own survival.
As wolves rightfully return to their native range across northeast Oregon and the rest of the state, livestock producers will experience more losses unless they change the way they operate. Based on past and current responses, department officials seem primed to continue slaughtering wolves at an increasing rate in lockstep with the wolf recovery.
These dead livestock, however, are mostly due to mismanagement. The vast majority of livestock taken by wolves are calves, which are tender, small-bodied and easy prey. If livestock operators wanted to cut their losses to wolf predation by wide margins, they could leave their young-of-the-year at the home ranch with their mothers to nurse until they are ready to fend for themselves before releasing them.
Perhaps the most maddening aspect to this ongoing saga is the agency’s disregard for the best available science. We know now that when managers kill wolves and deplete a pack, the remaining wolves target livestock with more vigor, because livestock are the easiest prey. It is a vicious cycle of death until an entire pack is extirpated.
Take for example the Lookout Pack, also from northeast Oregon. Eight wolves were lethally removed for killing livestock in the fall of 2021, decimating the pack to the point where no breeding pair remained. Killing off entire packs of wolves simply cannot be the answer.
The influence peddled by the livestock industry must no longer reign supreme over wildlife management here in Oregon and across the West. This largely unchecked hegemony has resulted in untold slaughter of wolves – and myriad other creatures ranging from beavers to prairie dogs – over the centuries.
Times must change. We should demand better of our wildlife managers who are supposed to safeguard all of our wildlife in the public trust for all Oregonians.