A misty rain fell on a recent Wednesday morning in the Blue Mountains east of Pendleton, where Greg Rimbach drove the muddy forest roads scanning for wolf tracks.
“Once you see one, now you’re an expert,” said Rimbach, district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “When they want to go somewhere, they like walking along roads down ridges. It’s just easier.”
Since wolves dispersed from Idaho and returned to northeast Oregon in the late 1990s, more of the predators are settling and forming packs in the Walla Walla and Mount Emily wildlife units. The district is now home to seven packs or groups of wolves totaling at least 36 animals — nearly one-third of the state’s known wolf population.
Rimbach figures he spends a quarter of his workdays managing wolves, from trapping and collaring to investigating claims of livestock predation. His latest project involves finding and re-collaring OR-11, a male wolf from the Walla Walla pack that initially split to form the Mount Emily pack, and has split once again and paired up with a new mate at the south end of the Mount Emily Unit.
The trajectory of increased wolf activity comes as no surprise to Rimbach.
“This is absolutely what we expected,” he said. “It certainly is tracking with what other states have seen.”
The presence of wolves, however, remains a polarizing issue as ranchers contend with livestock losses. Most recently, ODFW determined the Meacham pack was responsible for attacking cattle four times in eight days last month on the same 4,000-acre private pasture owned by Cunningham Sheep Company.
Predations occurred less than a mile from Interstate 84, and two miles from the community of Meacham. In response, ODFW issued a limited duration wolf kill permit, allowing Cunningham Sheep to shoot two adult or sub-adult wolves on sight within the densely forested pasture.
One of the wolves, a non-breeding female, was shot Sept. 7. The action sparked a wave of anger on both sides of the debate, with environmental groups criticizing ODFW for allowing any wolves to be killed and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association arguing the entire pack should be removed.
Wolf-livestock conflicts were anticipated when wolves reentered Oregon, Rimbach said. That is why ranchers and environmentalists were both included at the table when the state wrote its Wolf Management and Conservation Plan, to balance conservation with protection of livestock.
“This is exactly what came out on the back end of those discussions,” Rimbach said.
ODFW is still in the process of revising the plan, which it hopes to present back to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission by December or early 2018.
Personally, Rimbach said he sees wolves as another part of the local ecosystem that needs to be managed.
“Hopefully someday, we can start normalizing wolves into our fauna,” he said.
When wolves do prey on livestock, the state has a mechanism to compensate ranchers for their losses.
The Oregon Wolf Depredation Compensation and Financial Assistance Grant Program is administered by the state Department of Agriculture with funds allocated by the Legislature, distributed to counties and awarded to producers.
Jerry Baker, a part-time wildlife biologist who lives in Athena, serves as chairman of the Umatilla County Wolf Depredation Advisory Committee. He said the group meets two or three times a year to apply for funding and consider requests for compensation.
“We know (wolves) are here,” Baker said. “We’re trying to deal with them.”
In February, the committee awarded nearly $50,000 in state money to ranchers for livestock compensation, including non-lethal deterrents for hazing wolves away from their property. Baker said the committee will meet again sometime in November or December, and has received about a half-dozen requests so far this summer.
In the case of Cunningham Sheep, the company satisfied its requirements for non-lethal deterrence prior to asking for lethal control, according to ODFW. That includes removing dead or weakened animals from their herd that may attract wolves, and hiring a range rider five days a week to monitor the pasture.
“We’ve had depredations before,” Rimbach said. “For whatever reason, it really ramped up this year.”
Cunningham Sheep would normally graze cattle on the pasture until October. Instead, the company is rounding up the animals to move to another location. It also gave up using its adjacent sheep allotment two years ago to avoid wolf conflicts.
Larry Givens, Umatilla County commissioner and liaison to the wolf compensation committee, said he sympathizes with ranchers, and will continue to lobby Salem for greater support.
“That’s a tremendous financial loss to these folks,” Givens said. “We know we can’t just go out and get rid of the wolves. So we have to have a way to mitigate those losses.”
Driving along Summit Road near Fox Prairie, Rimbach can point in the direction of multiple areas of wolf activity within just a few miles.
The Meacham pack can be found four or five miles to the west. OR-11 — the Walla Walla pack disperser — is now about four miles to the north with a new mate. To the south is OR-52, recently paired up with a mate outside the Union County town of Perry.
The Blue Mountains is a popular spot for outdoor recreation, and Rimbach insists wolves do not change that dynamic. Wolves tend to avoid humans, he said, and locals should not have any concerns for safety.
“The chance of people having any adverse effect with wolves is almost zero,” he said. “They might sit on their haunches and watch as you walk by, but that’s about it.”
Rimbach did caution against letting dogs run off leash in wolf territory, as the predators do become territorial with other canines. As for folks who live in the area, the presence of wolves is nothing new.
“I don’t think it’s a big surprise to the few people who live there year-round,” he said. “They’ll see wolf tracks there. They’ve been seeing those for five years.”
If the latest documented wolf pairings become full-fledged packs, Rimbach said he could see where wolves in the district start running out of room to function, and the population naturally begin to level off.
Baker said he believes wolves have fared better in the area than anybody expected, and he is interested in seeing how they affect the local ecosystem in the coming years.
“We’re going to have to work together on this, all of us, to try and make the best situation we can,” Baker said. “Because (wolves) are here to stay. No doubt about it.”