Their deep, mournful howls sometimes drift along Tucker Down Road not far from Joseph, sliding across the open ranch country and timber-covered mountain foothills.
JOSEPH — Their deep, mournful howls sometimes drift along Tucker Down Road not far from Joseph, sliding across the open ranch country and timber-covered mountain foothills.
Wolves finally have returned to Oregon.
Two small permanent packs roam the far northeastern corner of the state — giving Oregon its first real taste of what's ahead as Canadian gray wolves repopulate their historic haunts.
"Wolves were a missing piece of that ecosystem," said Cat Lazroff, spokeswoman for the 530,000 member Defenders of Wildlife environmental group.
The powerful predators are good for the isolated landscape and its wildlife, she said. They keep elk and deer on the move, preventing them from overgrazing. That, in turn, improves the health of riverbanks and re-energizes foliage and grasses, she said.
"One of the things that wolves can do is make their traditional prey species act more the way they used to," Lazroff said.
But Wallowa County ranchers beset by a rash of wolf attacks on calves this spring insist that cattle and Canis lupus will never co-exist in their rugged county, where cows outnumber people almost 4-to-1.
"You've got essentially a social experiment here," said Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen. "Wolves are a very efficient, four-legged piranha."
Wildlife managers fall in the middle of the debate — they've sent government hunters to kill two wolves because of attacks on livestock and issued permits to several ranchers, allowing them to kill wolves if they catch the animals preying on their cattle.
This is likely the beginning of a culling cycle that should keep the wolf population down in Oregon, preventing dramatic declines in livestock and Rocky Mountain elk, said Ed Bangs of Helena, Mont., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's gray wolf recovery coordinator.
"There will not be wolves wall-to-wall, that's for sure," Bangs said.
That's little comfort to ranchers worried about their livelihoods. The 10-wolf Imnaha pack, which ranges near Joseph and Enterprise, has killed up to nine calves since early May on private ranchland in the green and nearly treeless Wallowa Valley.
Todd Nash believes the pack killed one of his calves this spring and 15 to 20 of his calves last year on a 100,000-acre government grazing allotment.
"I never found a single carcass. I never found anything," said Nash, operator of the 550-cow Marr Flat Cattle Co. near Joseph. "This is like the 'Twilight Zone.' Every time I go out to check cattle, the first thing I look for is something that's dead. It makes my heart sick."
Wolves once roamed from central Mexico to the Arctic, but were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction by the 1930s in most places besides Canada, Alaska and northern Minnesota. Some remained in eastern Oregon until 1921, and the last bounty was paid in 1946 for an Oregon wolf killed in the Umpqua National Forest.
Wolf numbers in recent years have rebounded dramatically, and Bangs said more than 1,700 wolves now ramble around Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington. Environmentalists say that keeps prey species wild and creates healthier stands of aspen, willow and cottonwood because elk and deer don't have the leisure in wolf country to eat them down.
Gray wolves are protected under Oregon's Endangered Species Act. The better-known federal act of the same name protects wolves in the western two-thirds of the state, but not in the eastern third. The federal government is considering whether to once again list wolves as an endangered species across the West.
Oregon's 5-year-old Wolf Conservation and Management Plan calls for allowing gray wolves to migrate in from Idaho, but eliminating wolves that kill pets and livestock. Ranchers must have a permit to shoot wolves when they're killing livestock in eastern Oregon. If they kill a wolf without one — even if it's attacking cattle — they face a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail, a $6,250 fine and $1,000 in restitution.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife this spring authorized government hunters to trap and kill two uncollared wolves — but they must spare the Imnaha pack's alpha male and female, the state's only known pair of breeding wolves. The agency also issued "kill permits" to nine ranchers.
Last September, federal hunters killed two young gray wolves in Baker County in the first authorized hunt of its kind in Oregon after they killed 27 sheep, a goat and calf on two ranches.
Ranchers can apply for compensation from Defenders of Wildlife for the value of cattle killed by wolves, but they complain that it can be difficult to get confirmation that a cow or calf fell prey to a wolf
Joseph rancher Rod Childers claims that on average around the West, only one of eight cows killed by wolves is confirmed as such. "For the other seven, the rancher gets nothing," he said.
Ranchers also say they have little political clout and don't get much empathy for the everyday hardships that living with a new predator poses.
"We are against the world," said Wallowa County rancher Karl Patton, standing beside his mud-spattered four-wheeler, a holstered revolver on his hip, after checking some of his 400 cows on a lonely section of his ranch. "Those people over there" — in the Willamette Valley — "who do the voting, they don't have an idea what we are up against."
Ranchers must change the way they operate because of wolves, they say. Some are keeping their cows away from private timberlands that have been grazed for decades because they fear wolves can get at the cattle too easily in those remote reaches. That translates to less income for some landowners and greater potential for wildfires because the grass will grow tall, become parched and more easily carry flames.
Ranchers Charley and Ramona Phillips of Joseph said they may switch from cattle ranching to farming to avoid potential financial losses. "We were told these wolves would be in the high country, and they wouldn't be a problem," Ramona Phillips said.
Ranchers Dick and Kerry Tienhaara's daughters, ages 17 and 19, no longer bicycle a 5-mile loop near their home near Joseph. Wolves have been seen running on the roads, and the teens decided bicycling is too dangerous, they said.
Jesse Timberlake, a Defenders of Wildlife spokesman in Boise, said it will take time to adjust to the wolves.
"They are a native species, they come from the natural system," said Timberlake, whose agency recommends fencing, lighting, alarm systems and other non-lethal ways to separate wolves and livestock.
"We have had two or three generations now where we haven't had wolves," he said. "I think people haven't learned to live with them."
Wolves usually try to avoid humans, said Todd Rinaldi , a wolf biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Most Alaskans have never seen a wolf in the wild, he said, but the recent death of an Alaskan schoolteacher who was killed by wolves has aggravated fears in Wallowa County.
Still, Rinaldi said: "For the most part, wolves present very little threat to humans."
For now, the gulf between wolf advocates and ranchers is unlikely to change anytime soon if the experience in other states with growing wolf numbers is an indication.
Bangs, the federal wolf expert, is characteristically philosophical about the rural-urban divide.
"Wolves don't always make everybody's lives better, but they make them more interesting," he said.