Gray wolves return to Mt. Hood forest
Gray wolves have been spotted on the Mt. Hood National Forest, placing even more pressure on wildlife officials to formalize statewide wolf management policy.
On Jan. 4, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife captured images, through wildlife cameras, of two wolves traveling through remote parts of the Mount Hood territory.
This marked the first time since 2000 that more than one wolf was spotted in Oregon's northern Cascade Mountains. This sighting comes just as the ODFW completes its yearly winter survey and compiles a minimum population count for the species, which will be released to the public in March. The wolves' appearance in western Oregon also coincides with a state influx in terms of formal policy to guide management of gray wolves following an influx along the Oregon-Idaho border and west to the Cascade Mountains.
The state's Wolf Management Plan is under review by the commission, so it's unclear how that plan could affect the gray wolf population on the Mt. Hood National Forest.
"When we first adopted the plan in 2005 there weren't very many wolves," explained Michelle Dennehy, ODFW wildlife communications coordinator. "We didn't have nearly the numbers we do now."
Based on an increase in information about wolves in Orgeon and an overall increase in population, the commission is looking to make "1) updates to base information (i.e., status, population, distribution, etc.); 2) new science related to the biology and management of wolves; and 3) management improvements based on information gained through years of wolf management in Oregon," according to the plan draft.
"Wolves have reached Phase III population levels in eastern Oregon, but the state's wolf population is still relatively small at this time," the drafted plan detailed. "Wolves occur in both eastern Oregon forested areas, and the forests of the Cascade Mountains. However, the extent they will successfully expand into the Oregon coast range is undetermined. This Plan strives to provide a framework by which the management of this species may, at some point in the future, transition to a management approach similar to other wildlife in Oregon, while continuing to recognize the unique history of the species."
The adoption of the revised plan, Dennehy noted, was somewhat delayed by the recent delisting process undergone elsewhere in the state.
It's anyone's guess right now where these wolves originated.
"We'll get DNA samples eventually, which will help us determine that," said Dennehy. "Many wolves that have dispersed to new areas in Oregon have come from the packs in northeast Oregon."
Elsewhere in the state, the spread of wolves has become the subject of heated debate among wildlife supporters, hunter groups, livestock owners, wildlife managers and land managers.
This much is true: Wolves have been spotted on the White River Wildlife Area and Mt. Hood National Forest and on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. East of Highways 395, 78 and 95, wolves have been delisted, but west of those roadways, the species is still protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Many groups have spoken up about their excitement and fears regarding the return of the species to western Oregon.
"I believe hunters, sportsmen in general, are wildlife enthusiasts," said Fred Walasavage of the Oregon Hunters Association. "We as hunters support wise management of wolves."
Walasavage said the OHA is a longtime "active player" in the discussion about wolves in Oregon, and his overall take on the issue is that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission should be tasked with establishing a management plan based on science, not emotion.
"From a hunter's perspective, if there are wolves in the area, and managed correctly, there is no issue," Walasavage noted.
A draft of the revised plan is available on the ODFW website and expected to be discussed this spring.
Because of the wolves' protected status, Mount Hood environmental group BARK also is concerned with a lack of official wolf-related guidelines.
"Mt. Hood National Forest is at the point now where they really need to revise their Forest Management Plan," BARK Forest Watch Coordinator Michael Krotcha told The Post. "There is no reference to wolves, or for that matter, climate change, in the outdated plan, which was released in 1990. The fact that a federally threatened animal walked onto a forest that has nothing written in its management plan about how to manage for it really highlights that it's time."
Last week Krotcha issued a letter asking the public to "let the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) know ... Endangered Species protections on wolves in western Oregon are needed for ecosystem renewal."
"There is no plan individually for the forest," admitted Patty Walcott, a wildlife biologist with the Mt. Hood National Forest and U.S. Forest Service. "It's currently managed by the state and federal government. If the wolf gets delisted, then we'd probably want to update our land management plan, but that's a number of years down the road."
BARK hopes to encourage possible denning of gray wolves on the Mt. Hood National Forest, and argues that "wolves belong in the national forest and have always been here."
Though some worry that wolves may spell disaster for the populations of black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk, which also call the forest home, there is an overall understanding among state agencies and environmental groups that predators and prey can coexist.
"One of the benefits of having wolves there is they keep other predators in check," Krotcha explained. "Compared to coyotes or harsh weather, it's ridiculous how small the amount of those kills (of deer or elk) are from wolves. It highlights how politicized the discussion around wolves is."
On this point, Dennehy, the ODFW wildlife communications coordinator, agrees.
"At this point, we've had wolves in northwest Oregon for some time now," Dennehy said. "We've not measured an impact on deer and elk populations. It's something we're keeping an eye on, but there's a lot of factors (that contribute to their population). It's habitat, weather, poaching. We're concerned. Hopefully we won't see (a decline)."
Though it may take years to realize the impact of wolves on ungulates on the Mt. Hood National Forest, Walcott told The Post some people "hear the word 'wolf' and get excited," not in the same way as she and Krotcha might.
"I think it's really exciting that Mt. Hood National Forest can be part of the recovery," she noted. "People get alarmed but it's really not a safety concern."
"Any kind of attack with a wolf is rare," Dennehy added. "If there are humans, they're going to leave. Talk, yell, let (the wolves) know you're there. Some advice we give dog owners is to leash your dog or keep it close to you. You want the wolf to associate the dog with you."
Thus far, none of the newly sighted wolves have been collared for further monitoring, and officials have not been able to determine if the two seen are a breeding pair or not. Walcott said "it's hard to say" if the wolves will even stay on the forest.
"It's more likely they're using the Mt. Hood National Forest for foraging," she explained.
Where the wolves were seen on trail cameras is very near the site of a proposed Forest Service timber sale, the Crystal Clear Restoration project and the popular McCubbins Gulch off-road vehicle park.
"Wolves don't tend to want to be where there's heavy human activity," Walcott added.
Because of the even slight possibility of the wolf's return to the area, Walcott, who is involved in the Crystal Clear project, conducted an effects analysis, which was included in the project's preliminary assessment.
"I was erring on the side of caution because I assumed they might be in the area," she said. "If we find a den or rendezvous site (in the project area) we will create a one-mile buffer around that area."
Walcott explained that the denning of wolves in the proposed logging site could also mean a halt in activity for the breeding/denning season from December through July.
And though in the past there has been public concern that logging at such a high density may hurt local wildlife and flora, Walcott noted that the thinning of the canopy "might actually encourage foraging of the (animals wolves prey on)" and increase the food base for both the wolves and the ungulates.
"The wolves will show us where it's going to be suitable for them to habitate," Dennehy added. "There's no plans to encourage them to stay or prompt them to go."