For Wolf Awareness Week this year, Defenders has invited guest bloggers to offer their perspectives on the importance of wolf conservation. Michelle Dennehy is wildlife communications coordinator for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
I’m not a wildlife biologist but in my position I still have a front row seat on wolves’ return to Oregon.
Much of my job is relaying what wildlife biologists see in the field, where the real action is. Most of these professionals grew up in the woods and the first place you’ll find them following a work day in the woods is…back in the woods (just try getting them on cell!).
To give you a taste of what they do: Between January and August of this year, wildlife biologists spent 135 days surveying for new and lesser-known wolves and wolf packs in Oregon, combing the woods for tracks, scat and other signs of wolves. They use this information to determine new pack activity, home ranges and reproduction. A new pack just discovered in January 2011, the Walla Walla of Umatilla County, had pups this year. Two new wolves were found in the county over the summer. Two wolves from the well-known Imnaha Pack of northeast Oregon have made their way to central Oregon. Surveys may yet turn up new pups for the Wenaha pack wolves, which would mark three years of reproduction for this pack.
That’s the biology part of the job they trained for in college. But with wolves, sociology is as important as biology. Much wolf management involves people, not wolves.
Biologists have also spent hours on the phone talking with livestock producers, conservationists, government officials and others. In that same time period mentioned above, they personally contacted livestock producers 263 times to let them know about wolf activity in their area or preventive measures to avoid wolf-livestock conflict. They have sent more than 2,500 text messages to ranchers about recent wolf activity. (Ranchers have used this information to change their husbandry practices, turning cattle out at different times and places to avoid wolves.)
Defenders of Wildlife has funded a range rider for some time, to help keep tabs on wolf activity and even haze them away from livestock operations. Carcass piles have been buried, fladry hung and radio-activated guard boxes installed.
But like every other state, Oregon has experienced livestock losses to wolves. In one of the more difficult parts of the job, wildlife biologists are also on the scene for livestock loss investigations when wolves are suspected.
Emotions run high when producers lose an animal they have cared for and count on for their livelihood. Discerning what actually happened can be difficult, especially if the animal has been dead several days, or when weather or another disturbance effects evidence. Here the job turns into a scene from CSI, with biologists carefully looking for evidence (wolf tracks, signs of struggle). Their previous knowledge of other predators in the area is useful here. To be thorough and make sure the animal wasn’t just scavenged, the dead animal is usually skinned, even if it’s been dead for several days. (Oregon’s livestock loss investigations are summarized online at http://www.dfw.state.or.us/Wolves/livestock_loss_investigations.asp)
When repeated depredations occur, our wildlife biologists are also called to remove the wolves they have been tracking. The decision to kill wolves, an endangered animal in Oregon, is never made lightly. But the hope is that by removing problem wolves, the rest will be able to thrive.
Each year, we learn more about Oregon’s wolves that will help us reach our goal. The state has a wolf management plan with an initial conservation objective of four breeding pairs on each side of the Cascades. Oregon’s wildlife biologists will continue working hard to make that plan a reality.