May 29–The first beast of the season was a beauty: a black male with neon yellow eyes.
The wolf, part of the Imnaha pack in northeast Oregon, was the first to be collared this year as part of the state’s wolf monitoring program.
Their numbers are growing.
“Wolves in Oregon are increasing,” said Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They’re not only increasing in number but also in distribution.”
Last winter, biologists counted 49 wolves in the state and eight packs, mainly in the northeast. There are probably more animals now with pup season underway, Morgan said.
The numbers fluctuate as wolves disperse and form new packs. OR-7, Oregon’s famous wandering wolf, did just that, leaving the Imnaha pack on the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in 2011, traveling south and entering California, then returning to Oregon. Photos snapped in a remote area in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest this month indicate he has finally found a mate.
Biologists suspect he is denning. They’ll leave him alone for the moment while they focus on collaring other wolves.
The black one, an 87-pound yearling, was caught last week east of Joseph. Biologists snagged him with a trap that clamps the animal’s foot when it steps on it. The steel jaws have rubber linings to cushion the blow.
Biologists check the traps twice or once a day. When they find a wolf, they sedate the animal with a syringe on a 6-foot-long pole. During the 45 minutes when the wolf is asleep, biologists take the trap off and check vital signs and overall health, looking for any broken bones, for example. They measure it, weigh it and bolt a radio collar around the neck.
Biologists also collect a tissue sample by taking a little piece of skin from the animal’s ear. They collect blood and fecal samples, too. DNA information is plugged into a database, which is used for genealogy information.
That database could identify the origin of OR-7’s suspected mate if biologists manage eventually to get a DNA sample from her.
Catching a wolf is not easy.
“It’s a common misconception that we can snap our fingers and capture a wolf,” Morgan said. “You’ve got an animal with four feet that covers hundreds of square miles. You’re trying to get one of those feet to step into that trap.”
Biologists collared eight wolves last year and hope to do the same this year. The one caught last week, the 25th collared in Oregon to date, was named OR-25.
He’s in perfect health, Morgan said.
Biologists like to collar the pack leader, who sticks around while young males might disperse. The Imnaha pack is led by OR-4, but his collar has started to malfunction. The collars only last three to four years.
The radios send GPS coordinates, allowing biologists to track a pack’s movements. They are also useful for counting. When an animal dies, a signal indicates that.
The animals are protected under the state and federal Endangered Species acts, though Oregon biologists have authorized the killing of four wolves over the death of livestock. Morgan said there have been few depredations this year.
“We’re pleased with that,” Morgan said. “Depredations are a serious issue when they occur.”
Biologists have worked with ranchers to minimize the risk by monitoring cattle more and removing carcasses, which draw the animals.
The collaring is done in spring, fall and winter. Sometimes biologists drive to known wolf habitat. Sometimes they hike. Occasionally, they travel by horseback. In winter, they hop into helicopters.
The state has good information about six packs: Imnaha, the Snake River pack in Hell’s Canyon, the Wenaha pack in northwest Wallowa County, the Walla Walla pack in northern Umatilla County, the Umatilla River pack near Pendleton and the Minam pack on the western portion of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Wildlife biologists have less information about the Mt. Emily pack near La Grande and the Keating pack in north Baker County.
They will work on collaring until mid-June. For the wolves, it’s a painless procedure, Morgan said.
“Wolves are very tough,” he said. “Collaring usually goes off without a hitch.”
— Lynne Terry