By DYLAN J. DARLING
The Bulletin via Associated Press
BEND, Ore. (AP) -- As wolves spread into Central Oregon, advocates and opponents continue to debate their value. Some say the animals, eradicated from the state decades ago, will help bring the ecosystem into better balance. Others argue the predators were eliminated for good reason.
Since wolves wandered into Oregon from Idaho in 2008, the state has spent about $800,000 to manage them, according to an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife report. That sum will grow by at least a half million dollars over the next couple of years, and the spending could escalate as the number of wolves roaming the state continues to grow.
For wolf supporters, having the animals back in the state's biological fold justifies such costs. For critics, the expenses come in addition to the damage they say the animals are doing to the state's livestock and wildlife.
In evaluating the benefit of wolves in an ecosystem, Bill Ripple, a professor of forest ecosystems and society at Oregon State University, is focusing on streamside plants in Yellowstone National Park. There are about 100 wolves in the park and, as in Idaho, they've been back for a decade and a half.
"Yellowstone seems like a different place than it was before wolves returned in 1995," he said.
The major difference is the resurgence of aspen, willows and cottonwoods along the park's rivers and streams, he said.
Elk regularly munch saplings, Riddle said. And without wolves to keep them in check, the elk devoured most of the young streamside trees.
Now that wolves are back, Ripple said, they've reduced the elk population and trained those that remain to exercise more caution. As a result, elk spend less time snacking on young trees along the park's creeks. This is what biologists like Riddle call the "ecology of fear" or "landscape of fear." The idea is that elk are changing their eating and moving habits out of fear of being attacked by wolves.
Ripple's theory has its critics, including Matthew Kauffman, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Wyoming. In a 2010 report, Kauffman wrote that an analysis of aspens in Yellowstone shows they aren't benefiting from a landscape of fear. Kauffman also argued that it is premature to claim that wolves are improving the park's ecosystem.
Whether or not wolves are improving Yellowstone, taking lessons learned there and applying them to Oregon should be done with caution, said Hilary Cooley, wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Region, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California.
"It's going to be very different outside the park," she said.
Yellowstone's wolves roam a land free of grazing livestock and hunters. That's not the case in much of Oregon, where disputes about wolves' attacks on cattle and their impact on deer and elk herds are likely to increase as wolf numbers swell.
"I don't know of any benefits of wolves," said Marilyn Kash, a rancher who runs about 200 head of cattle near Culver.
Since wolves returned to Oregon more than three years ago, four packs have established territory in Eastern Oregon, where they share open range with ranchers. The results have been deadly for cattle. The Imnaha Pack alone has killed about 20 head of cattle since spring 2010, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But wolf attacks do more than kill livestock, said Kash, who is a member of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's wolf task force. The attacks also have a lasting effect on the cattle that survive: Wolves put fear into cattle, she said, much as they're theorized to do to elk.
"They are creating a whole different lifestyle for the animal," she said.
Cattle that have survived wolf attacks become stressed, don't produce as many calves and come to behave aggressively toward people and other animals, Kash said. While there is a state program in the works to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, ranchers make their money by producing more calves. For this reason, the wolves may crimp their income even without killing any cattle.
"They bring nothing but heartache," said Rod Childers, an Enterprise rancher and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's wolf task force.
So far, about two dozen wolves are known to be in the state, according to the ODFW. Oregon has enough potential wolf habitat for as many as 1,450 wolves, according to research by Riddle and another Oregon State University professor.
Such a surge in wolf numbers could cause a drop in deer and elk populations around the state, said Duane Dungannon, coordinator of the Oregon Hunters Association. The Medford-based hunting advocacy group has about 10,500 members.
"You look at the problems that Oregon has had with a couple of dozen (wolves) and you imagine multiplying that 100-fold, and it's a huge impact," he said.
Whether that's seen as a positive or negative impact depends on where someone stands in the ongoing debate about wolves. The return of the predator could improve ecosystems around the state, said Rob Klavins, wilderness and wildlife advocate for Oregon Wild. The Portland-based conservation group supports wolf re-emergence in Oregon.
"Ultimately, I think it is safe to say that (wolf) impacts should be a positive, as they have been elsewhere," he said.
More wolves will simply mean a need for more management, said David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a nationwide group with 185,000 members. To keep wolf populations controlled, he said, states will have to hold hunts, shoot wolves from the air and gas their dens.
Ambitions of a natural balance are based on a land devoid of humans, Allen said, but because there are millions of people here it is up to them to manage animals like wolves.
"Natural balance is a Walt Disney movie," he said. "It isn't real."
Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.