SEATTLE – The wolves came within howling distance of the house, but were gone by the time Kim Jacobs found dead lambs on her family's eastern Oregon ranch that spring morning.
While many conservationists welcome the return of gray wolves into the Pacific Northwest, Jacobs wants to shoot them if they harm her livestock. "A lot of (people) can't wrap their mind around what wolves are capable of," said the fourth-generation rancher from Baker City, Ore., whose family lost at least 26 sheep to wolves in 2009.
As gray wolves have moved into the valleys and forests of Oregon and Washington in recent years, the conflicts that marked wolf debates in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are unfolding here.
Congress in April stripped federal endangered-species protections from wolves in Montana, Idaho and the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon. Wolves are still on the federal list of endangered species in the western two-thirds of Washington and Oregon, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether that protection should continue. Public comments on that review are due Tuesday.
This summer, Washington wildlife officials are finalizing a draft wolf management plan that has been so heated that an advisory group can't agree on some of the basics. The state has gotten 65,000 comments, ranging from advocates who say wolves play a vital role in the ecosystem to hunters and ranchers who fear they will eat too many elk, deer and livestock.
Meanwhile, conservation groups are urging Oregon wildlife officials to stop killing wolves. Wildlife managers killed two wolves in May and said in June they may kill another to prevent more livestock losses.
"It's looking more like it's not conservation, it's looking like retribution," said Oregon Wild's Rob Klavins. "Nobody envisioned a situation where we'd be killing 20 percent of the wolf pups in two weeks to assuage the loss of four cows."
He said about 55,000 livestock animals were killed by disease and other causes in 2010, compared to about a dozen cows killed by wolves.
"Wolves are endangered and we don't take this lightly, but we do need to move to lethal control when other measures don't work," said Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The state has issued 24 permits allowing ranchers and others to shoot and kill wolves if they catch them in the act of biting or killing.
Wolves roamed the West before they were hunted, trapped for their fur and killed to virtual extinction in the lower 48 states decades ago. Since they were reintroduced into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, the predators have thrived and an estimated 1,600 roam the Northern Rockies. Wolves have dispersed into Oregon and Washington from Idaho and British Columbia. There are about 17 confirmed wolves in Oregon and about two dozen in Washington.
"There is a sincere fear people have about wolves and I think it's because they don't understand the animals," said Carter Niemeyer, a retired federal wolf trapper.
Wolves tend to avoid people and only a few human deaths have been attributed to wolves in North America in nearly 100 years, Niemeyer said. They're opportunistic predators that tend to feed on old, weak, sick or young prey.
"There's plenty of room for wolves. The issue is: are humans going to let them come back to the landscape?" said Jasmine Minbashian, who manages the wolf program for Conservation Northwest.
A father and son from the Methow Valley in central Washington were charged in June with illegally killing at least two wolves and conspiring with another family member to smuggle a wolf pelt to Canada. A shipping agent alerted police in 2008 after blood leaked from a package. William White, Tom White and Erin White pleaded not guilty to numerous charges in federal court in Spokane last Wednesday.
William White and Tom White are accused of killing or attempting to trap and poison as many as five wolves near their Twisp home in 2008 and 2009. State biologists confirmed Washington's first wild wolf pack since the 1930s near Twisp in 2008, the Methow Valley's Lookout Pack.
"When you're trying to recover a population, every animal counts and we know that poaching has played a factor in recovering wolf populations in Washington state," said Mike Cenci, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's deputy chief of wildlife enforcement.
The pack which had numbered 10 in 2008 is now reduced to two males. The pack's breeding female wolf disappeared, and "it seems likely that she was poached last year," said Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist with WDFW.
Normally around this time, pups would be moving from their den to a rendezvous site, but there's little evidence of a breeding pair or pups this year for the Lookout Pack, Fitkin said.
Still, one recent morning Ray Robertson hiked to a rendezvous site that the pack had used in 2009 hoping they may return there. He sets up remote cameras in the area as a contract employee with the U.S. Forest Service and a Conservation Northwest volunteer. Remote cameras had previously captured images of pups. Robertson hoped they would again as he attached two motion-sensor cameras to Douglas firs, aiming one at a clearing and another at a nearby trail.
Washington's draft wolf management plan calls for 15 breeding pairs for three consecutive years before the animals can be delisted in the state, which some hunters and ranchers say is too high while others say is too low.
"The number of wolves they call for in the plan far exceeds the prey and habitat base in Washington state," said Jack Field, vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. He and others support eight breeding pairs and a cap on the population.
In Oregon, wolves may be considered for statewide delisting once the population hits four breeding pairs in three consecutive years.
Living with predators, whether cougars or wolves, is part of ranching in the American West, Minbashian said. "The most productive way to deal with the issue is: how do we minimize the conflict and reduce the kills?"
Jacobs, the Oregon rancher, said her family has taken precautions against wolves. They closely watch their livestock, keep eight guard dogs and immediately bury anything that dies. But she wants to be able to shoot a wolf to protect her livestock.
"The wolves are here. I don't think they're going to disappear soon," she said.