Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative
In 1999, a female wolf from Idaho crossed over into central Oregon before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracked her down, darted her, caged her and then returned her to Idaho. She was the first known wolf to return to Oregon since the mid-1930s, when the species was officially eradicated. Her journey set efforts into motion that led to the creation of the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. Other legislation, knee-jerk county decrees and countless news stories followed, all speculating on what impact wolves might have as they returned to their historic homeland.
I served on the original team that helped draft the earliest versions of what eventually became the state’s wolf plan. That’s where I met Carl Scheeler, wildlife biologist for the Umatilla tribe in northeast Oregon, who would continue to help the state craft conservation strategies that were adopted in 2005. Carl is a great biologist and also good with people. His sometimes irreverent humor was always well timed to lift discussions that had become muddied or polarized. He seemed to know that, no matter what, things were going to work out. His optimism helped many of us endure the endless (and often thankless) work of forging a plan that would secure the restoration of wolves while meeting the needs of diverse residents.
Carl always looked forward to the day that wolves would be documented on the Umatilla reservation, and would call from time to time with reports of tracks, sightings and other hopeful signs. It wasn’t until last year, however, that his hopes were finally fulfilled. Carl’s department assisted the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in efforts to confirm the first wolf den site near the reservation. ODFW wolf biologists documented four pups last summer, and Defenders helped the tribe purchase several infrared, motion-detection wildlife cameras to continue monitoring the pack. In the fall, tribal biologists used the cameras we provided to document the alpha male of the pack. Then, just a few weeks ago, they captured this footage of the pack. We don’t know what startles the young wolf during the video, but notice how he submissively wraps his tail under his hindlegs. That’s normally the response of a lower-ranking wolf or pup when frightened.
Last week, Carl and I met with local ranchers and tribal and state wildlife managers to discuss nonlethal strategies for reducing conflicts between livestock and wolves on the reservation. We talked about the use of carcass disposal, increased human presence, fladry and other deterrents to reduce wolf and livestock losses. After the meeting, we followed up on a tip from a wildlife manager of another possible pack near tribal lands. It’s a beautiful national forest area that looks like the expansive valleys and rolling mountains in Yellowstone. There were loads of elk and plenty of deer sign in the large, open meadows and gorgeous red-barked Ponderosa pines towering above us as we drove through the rolling hills. After driving over washboard-pitted dirt roads with a blizzard bearing down on us, we found the spot where the tracks were reported. Tracking conditions were pretty good in the thin blanket of snow that covered most of the ground. Eager to confirm a new pack, we examined the tracks and quickly determined they were canine, but not wolf. Wolves have huge feet and leave a track that typically measures about five inches in length and three to four inches in width. That’s about the size of my hand, which is useful when I don’t have a ruler handy. Unfortunately, these were dog tracks – a big dog to be certain, but not his wild ancestor.
I always welcome the chance to return to the Umatilla country, and it’s even more powerful now with wolves back on the reservation. As one tribal leader assured me, “Wolves are welcome here and we hope to never lose them again.” Defenders will be part of that effort to ensure that wolves have a secure future on their historic homeland that they once again share with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.