Confederation weighs cultural significance, modern views


East Oregonian Publishing Group

Like the state and federal governments, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is preparing for the return of wolves to the Eastern Oregon landscape.

Wolves have a special place in American Indian culture, including the tribes on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said Bobbie Conner, director of Tamastslikt Cultural Institute. Like the coyote, wolves are members of the canine family, as are dogs that were used as pack animals and for hunting long before horses came to America.

"Canines are an important part of our history," Conner said. "The whole canine family has value and importance. They're another part of creation. They have a right to be here."

Wolves, like other animals, show up in old stories and even in petroglyphs. Along with cougars and bears, wolves are also relatives in creation beliefs, Conner said. Wolf is a common name on the reservation.

"The legacy continues in both English and Indian, in our own language and in borrowed language," Conner said. "The carrying forth of the wolf name is evident."

Even with this historical significance, defining the modern role of the wolf is never easy.

"A lot of people ask what the tribe thinks of wolves," said Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager in the confederated tribes' Department of Natural Resources. "But I think it's important to recognize that the tribal population as a whole has a wide range of views on wolves, just as the general population does."

The confederated tribes have a wolf policy, but not a wolf plan. Its policy reflects how its wildlife commission has worked closely with state and federal parties on the wolf issue.

In a nutshell, the policy states the tribes support wolves moving into Oregon and tribal lands on their own rather than being reintroduced.

"One is an act of man the other is an act of wolf," Scheeler said.

The policy is directed at both the 172,000-acre reservation lands in Eastern Oregon and the usual and accustomed areas, or places where tribal members hunt, fish and dig roots or pick berries. Scheeler said wolf scat and tracks have been spotted on the reservation, and wildlife staff and a member of the wildlife commission saw three wolves during a hunting party.

"We're pretty sure we've got wolves on the reservation," Scheeler said, "but the reservation boundaries are no boundaries to their movements."

As a next step, the confederated tribes are working on a nuts-and-bolts strategy to deal with the possibility of wolf killing livestock on the reservation. Scheeler said it came in response to questions from the tribal public, and also in preparation as wolves become more common on the reservation.

While Scheeler speculated depredation is a big concern for a livestock operator, he guessed there will be varying levels of tolerance for the tribes. There have not been any reports of wolves killing livestock on the reservation.

The tribes' policy also dictates wolves must be managed "in balance with other wildlife species, human health and safety needs and the overall public health of the region."

Scheeler said this is likely an admission of the fact wolves are predators and have an effect on other species. Speaking as a biologist, and not to the policy itself, Scheeler said wolves can have a positive impact on the balance between predator and prey.

Wolves are coursing predators who run down their prey, unlike the ambush strategy of cougars, for instance, Scheeler said. Because of their hunting strategies, wolves will kill young calves, which most predators do, but also the slow and weak.

"All the predators take the young ones," he said. "But it's only the wolf that consistently takes the older and infirm."

And that affects the overall herd.

An elk herd, for instance, not preyed upon by wolves may include older, less reproductive animals. But with wolves around, those weaker animals are killed off, allowing younger, more reproductive members of the herd to thrive.

"So the population becomes younger and more productive," Scheeler said. "It may be a smaller population, but a more productive population."

Wolves can also benefit smaller predators that feed on wolf-kill carcasses, especially in winter, Scheeler said.

"Their scavenging of wolf kills is very important to their overall health and vigor -- everything from coyotes to mink, weasels, ravens, other scavengers," Scheeler said.

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