Wolves are here, are we ready for them?
Most of us who live in East Multnomah and Clackamas counties will never lay eyes on wild gray wolves as they roam through the high country of the Mt. Hood National Forest, but it's a fair bet that most people hold a strong opinion regarding the presence of these apex predators.
To catch you up: The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has released images of two wolves spotted on the east side of Mount Hood. While there have been other sightings in years past, this is the first time in decades that multiple wolves (two) have been seen on the forest at any one time. DNA tests have not been done on these wolves, so it's impossible to know precisely where they came from. If history repeats itself, these wolves likely originated in northeast Oregon where wolf numbers have risen steadily since their return to the state a decade ago, having migrated from Idaho.
It's also impossible to know, at this time, if the new arrivals are a breeding pair, if these animals are setting up housekeeping or if they're just passing through. And it's unknown if these wolves will ever venture onto the west side of Mount Hood.
In short, there's a lot of unknowns.
But as of 2016, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 110 wolves inhabiting the state. And as wolves begin to appear in other parts of the state, it's a sign that the population continues to grow.
The wolf — by name alone— is a lightning rod for controversy. Conservationists herald their return as a blessing, a restoration of the predator vs. prey balance to the natural environment. Livestock owners view wolves as a threat to livelihoods. Deer and elk hunters see the wolf as a blessing and curse, something that rightfully occupies a place in the natural environment, but also a destructive force that, if left unchecked, has the potential of dealing a crippling blow to already precarious big game herds.
As with most things, the truth regarding wolves is hard to come by.
For sure, one of the realities of wolves is their appetite. Wolves eat meat, and because a pack has a lot of mouths to feed, they'll likely prey on wildlife species that provided the biggest bang for their nutritional needs — deer and elk.
In northeast Oregon, the people who hunt big game are angry and frustrated with the surge in the wolf population, and they certainly have some justification. Deer and elk herds have been on the decline for years under mounting pressure from a lot of different factors — mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, loss of habitat, harsh winter conditions, summer drought, legitimate hunters, road kill and the scourge of poaching. Already facing these road blocks to survival, deer and elk herds now face life-and-death interactions with wolves, which had been eradicated from the state by the mid 1900s.
All of this goes to say that the presence of wolves isn't something that can be easily shrugged off, lightly dismissed as "crying wolf." The concerns of all Oregonians should be taken into consideration as these predators spread out into other parts of the state.
And now the conversation shifts from a problem that only existed 200 miles away, but now has come to our backyard. It remains to be seen what impact — if any — these predators will have on black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk. Some ODFW personnel tell us the negative impact on wildlife is overstated, but many others close to the situation will give you a different response.
So, faced with the unknown, we shouldn't wait for damage to occur before we formulate plans to manage wolves in western Oregon.
When Oregonians outlawed hounding and baiting of mountain lions and black bears, the result was a surge in those predator species, corresponding to a decline in deer and elk numbers. The state was not prepared, and it took years for wildlife managers to catch up in terms of predator management.
It's this wait-and-see posture that just might lead to undesirable losses in big game species on the Mt. Hood National Forest. That's why we encourage a proactive plan that assumes wolves will repopulate this forest, and forecasts the level of wolf population that can be sustained while maintaining other wildlife species.
Wildlife biologists across the state are undoubtedly scoffing at what's being said here. But it's those same wildlife experts who need to provide Oregonians with assurances that their cherished wildlife is being protected and enhanced, that preparations are being made now to manage the presence of wolves, and that real effort will be made to avoid the conflicts that have emerged in other parts of the state.
Wolves are welcome here on the Mt. Hood National Forest, but only if their numbers are controlled at a sustainable level. The work to determine that number begins now.