Once upon a time, the big bad wolf had Oregonians huddling in their cabins. Our territory’s first formal meetings were held by pioneers to plot the demise of “marauding wolves.” The farmers and ranchers who followed the wagons west shot, trapped or poisoned every wolf they saw, and by 1947 we’d driven the fanged menace from Oregon and the rest of the lower 48.
Turns out, that’s not such a good thing. Oregon State University scientists studying “trophic cascades” have shown that losing an apex predator wreaks havoc on ecosystems.
In 1995, wolves imported from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. They’ve proven themselves resilient and adventurous, spreading across the Northwest. They’re not in the 503 area code yet, but they might be soon. Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild—a bearded soldier in the Timbers Army and a 2012 recipient of the Skidmore Prize, WW’s annual award honoring young Portlanders’ extraordinary work at nonprofits—explains why that can be a good thing.
WW: What happened to Oregon’s wolves?
Rob Klavins: Before we started eliminating them, wolves were the widest-ranging nonhuman land mammal on the planet. That included nearly all of Oregon. We worked to eliminate them through poison, steel traps, shooting. We even had government-sponsored bounties.
There’s actually an argument that Oregon exists in the way it does because of wolves and our war against them: The first legislative session was brought together in part to deal with the problem of “marauding wolves.” We were pretty successful at that. And that happened at the majority of the lower 48 states. In 1947, the last wolf bounty was collected for a wolf that was shot just outside of what is now Crater Lake National Park. There were reports of wolves after that time, but for all intents and purposes, after ’47 we had eliminated wolves from the landscape.
But they’ve been in Canada all this time. And now those wolves are coming here?
Canadian wolves started to make their way back on their own into northwest Montana and then were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in ’95. Three years after that, the first wolf made its way into Oregon from Idaho. The wolf was darted, put into a crate, put into a helicopter and returned back to Idaho by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Realizing that wasn’t going to be a long-term solution, the state put together a wolf plan in 2005. At the moment, there are 46 confirmed wolves in the state, 47 if we include Journey, which is what we call wolf OR-7, who traveled from the far corner of Eastern Oregon, and now travels between California and Oregon.
Do we have tracking devices on all of them?
We do not. When we get population estimates, it’s a minimum number. It’s the number of confirmed wolves in the stateBecause they’re a pack animal, if you have a collar on one wolf in a pack, biologists can go check on that pack and count the number of pups.
All but one wolf are confined to the very northeast corner of the state—Union County area—and there’s one wolf, Journey, who got international attention when he moved from northeast Oregon. He made his way and became the first wolf in western Oregon since 1947. He was then the first known wolf in California in nearly a century.
How close will wolves get to Portland if they’re allowed to continue establishing themselves?
You’d be surprised. There’s wildlife all over. Wolves, in particular, travel. You get a story with a wolf like Journey, who has logged over 3,000 miles. I think there are a lot of good habitats for wolves across the states—and that includes the Cascades—so Mount Hood National Forest is a place with great habitat for wolves, also the Coast Range.
There used to be this idea that wolves were this wilderness-dependent species, and wilderness is important for wolves and other wildlife. But we found they are surprisingly resilient. If we don’t shoot and poison them, and they have a stable prey base, they can do pretty darn well.
And there’s good habitat for them not too far from Portland. It used to be that you had to go to Yellowstone, and that’s not going to be the case.
There are cougars in Portland, and actually Oregon has a pretty healthy bear population. They say there’s wildlife around us already, and I think you’re seeing people starting to move past the days wanting to kill anything with pointy teeth.
In another decade could we go out to Timberline and hear the howl of a wolf?
There’s a good chance. One thing they do regularly is surprise us. It was only three years later that the wolf swam down the Snake River, shook itself dry and came over to Oregon, and three years later we had one on the west side of the state. The trick is that there is a gap in good wolf habitat between where they currently live in Oregon and the Cascades. So it’s going to take a few brave, wandering wolves from elsewhere to cross and then find each other. Eventually there will be a couple of wolves that do find each other, have pups and they’re going to do well if we allow them.