PORTLAND, Ore. – Biologists in Oregon counted 124 wolves in their annual tally, an 11 percent increase over last year's numbers, and hailed the results Thursday as evidence that wolves are regaining their foothold in the state after being wiped out by bounty hunters more than 70 years ago.
Wolf advocates, however, blasted the report by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and said the report exaggerates the success of wolf recovery at a critical juncture when state officials are considering how to manage the species going forward.
They also criticized the agency for allowing ranchers to kill wolves to prevent attacks on livestock, including a kill order that was issued this week for up to any two wolves from a new pack that includes a heavily pregnant female.
The report "demands accountability from an agency that insists on killing more wolves every year," Sean Stevens said, executive director of Oregon Wild.
The count will be presented to the state's Fish and Wildlife Commission next week and is likely to start a heated debate about the future of wolves in Oregon.
The commission late last year indefinitely delayed a vote on an updated wolf management plan because of conflict between ranchers, who want greater latitude to protect their herds by killing wolves, and environmentalists, who say the wolf population is still fragile.
Wolves were once so plentiful in the abundant forests that the earliest settlers gathered from far and wide to discuss how to kill them. Those "wolf meetings" in the 1840s, spawned by a common interest, eventually led to the formation of the Oregon territory, the precursor for statehood in 1859.
The state later took over the bounty and offered $20 per wolf in 1913 — the equivalent of nearly $500 today.
The last bounty payment was recorded in 1947, and the wolf vanished from Oregon for decades.
In the mid-1990s, wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho and, in 1999, a lone wolf wandered into northeastern Oregon. It was trapped and returned to Idaho.
Two more were found dead in Oregon in 2000. But the first definitive proof wolves returned to the state came in 2007, when a wolf was found shot to death. The following year, a wolf nicknamed Sophie by conservationists gave birth to the first litter of pups born in Oregon in decades.
The wolf was taken off the state endangered species list in 2015, but it remains protected under federal law in the western half of the state. Most of the known population is clustered in northeastern Oregon, along the Idaho border, and ranchers there can apply to the state for permission to kill wolves if they are attacking livestock.
In 2017, the state investigated 66 cases of livestock attacks and confirmed that 17 of those were caused by wolves, leading to the state-sanctioned killing of five wolves. Ranchers in 10 counties collected $252,570 in funds to compensate for livestock losses.
On Wednesday, the state announced one of its employees had killed a yearling female wolf from a pack in Baker County. Authorities earlier this week gave permission to a rancher there to kill up to any two animals in the pack that had been eating calves on private land.
The report released Thursday also found a 38 percent increase in the number of breeding pairs in the state and said multiple wolves were spotted for the first time in the Mount Hood National Forest, about two hours east of Portland.
There are now 12 known wolf packs — defined as a group of four to 11 animals — and nine smaller groups of two or three wolves. So-called "resident wolves" were counted in nine counties, mostly in eastern Oregon.
Thirteen wolves died in 2017, including four that were killed illegally; three that were killed by humans who were not found in violation of the law; five that were killed under a state-sanctioned kill order; and one that died of natural causes.
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