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Wolves settling in to parts of state

Protections for Oregon’s gray wolves could be rolled back after wildlife biologists counted more than four breeding pairs in eastern Oregon for the third straight year.

Under the state’s wolf plan, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission can consider removing the eastern packs from the state’s endangered species list once that population bar is met.

Numbers from the annual wolf count released Tuesday afternoon by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicate seven breeding pairs of wolves made it through 2014 – six of them in the eastern management area bounded by highways 97, 20, and 39.

Protections for wolves west of that boundary, including Southern Oregon’s famed OR-7 and his Rogue Pack, are unaffected by the latest population figures.

Biologists on Tuesday also confirmed the presence of two new wolves in the Keno Unit, in an area of eastern Jackson County and western Klamath County. The wolves had been spotted on trail cameras over the past couple of months.

State wolf coordinator Russ Morgan said the two wolves were probably a male and female, which could mean another breeding pair in Southern Oregon. 

Of Oregon’s nine known wolf packs, only the Imnaha pack lacks a breeding pair. The Umatilla River pack still needs to be surveyed.

Conservationists and cattle ranchers hailed Tuesday’s news as proof that the state’s wolves are recovering, but their opinions diverged from there.

Rob Klavins, wolf advocate for Oregon Wild, argued that wolf numbers are still too low to consider delisting.

“We’re still a ways away from meaningful, long-term, sustainable recovery,” Klavins said.

Todd Nash of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said from his perspective, wolves in Oregon never should have been protected in the first place.

“There’s nothing delicate about their population,” he said. “I’m all for delisting them.”

Fish and wildlife commissioners who will decide Oregon wolves’ fate have offered no hints at their opinions on the matter, but Morgan of ODFW said both scientific data and public opinion will influence the commission’s eventual vote.

Before a vote can happen, Morgan said, wildlife biologists must complete a “status review” detailing how wolves are faring inOregon. They will present their findings to the commission in April, along with a recommendation on whether wolves should remain listed.

“We have to do first things first, and the first thing here is to evaluate our data,” Morgan said.

In addition to triggering a review of Oregon wolves’ protected status, theincreased number of breeding pairs triggers a new step in the wolf plan, giving ranchers more leeway to shoot wolves found mingling with their cattle.

Before the new population threshold was met, ranchers could only take wolves caught in the act of injuring or killing livestock. Now they can take wolves caught chasing livestock under some circumstances. Ranchers on private land also no longer need a permit to use beanbags, rubber bullets or other “non-lethal injurious harassment,” on wolves.

Nash, of the cattlemen’s association, said he’s happy the new rules give ranchers more options, but he doesn’t expect it to prevent many predations.

“Wolves kill at night,” he said. “There’s not much chance of catching them in the act at 2 a.m. in a remote area.”

The next step in assessing wolves’ recovering in Oregon will come in March, when fish and wildlife officials release their best estimate of the number of wolves in the state. They expect a significant increase from last year’s count of 64 known wolves.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

The wolf OR-7, captured here by a trail cam in May, settled down with a female wolf in Southern Oregon and had pups, establishing the Rogue Pack. A second pair of wolves have now also established themselves in the Southern Cascades, says the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. AP Photo / ODFW