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Deer and elk seen as wolf buffer

SALEM — They weren't on the agenda when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Nov. 9 to take wolves off the state's endangered species list, but Oregon's elk and deer population likely will be key factors in wolf management decisions in the years ahead.

Mark Henjum, a retired wildlife biologist who was ODFW's original wolf program coordinator, said healthy deer and elk populations are a buffer between livestock and the state's increasing number of predators.

Oregon has 25,000 to 30,000 black bears, an estimated 6,200 cougars and a minimum of 82 wolves, according to ODFW.

Biologists fully expect the state's wolf population to continue growing. Wolves occupy only 12 percent of their potential range in the state, and continued dispersal from Northeast Oregon will put them in contact with elk and deer and possibly in competition with other predators. Bear and cougar are much more widely dispersed in the state.

Sharp, localized drops in ungulate prey, as deer and elk are known, could drive predators to attack sheep, cattle or other domestic animals, Henjum and other biologists say.

Bears are primarily omnivorous but will take young deer and elk, especially in the spring. Cougars, meanwhile, are solitary ambush hunters and can take just about any animal at will, Henjum said. "They're amazingly good at what they do," he said.

Wolves travel in packs and chase down prey. They can kill solitary adult cougars, or females and kittens, and chase cougars off carcasses. Pressure from wolves can force cougars into steeper, brushier terrain. The competition for ungulate prey could produce a bad turn for livestock.

Biologists say wolves prefer elk, but attacks on livestock are what anger cattle and sheep producers and gain media attention. From 2009 through June 2015, Oregon's confirmed losses to wolves stood at 79 sheep, 37 cattle, two goats and two herd protection dogs. Ranchers believe wolves are responsible for much more damage, saying livestock often disappear in wolf country. In addition, many livestock attacks are written off as "probable" or "possible" wolf depredations.

"This buffer thing is one of the main reasons we haven't seen so high a rate of loss of livestock," Henjum said. "I think down the road, trying to maintain the ungulate populations is something that's going to be more important as we move on."

Although wolves were taken off the state endangered species list, their existence in Oregon is still governed by a wolf management plan. Hunting and trapping are not allowed, and there's no sport season for wolves. The plan does allow "controlled take" of wolves in cases of chronic livestock attacks or decreases in prey.

Phase 3 of the wolf plan, the next step after delisting, calls for wolves to be managed "in concert with its wild prey base," a move strongly supported by groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "Oregon's wolf population is rapidly approaching the point where human tolerance and unacceptable impacts upon the wolf's deer and elk prey base must be addressed," the foundation said in a letter to the ODFW Commission.

Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said his organization's members report seeing fewer deer and elk in some areas, and more in others.

What's ahead for wolves might be found in Oregon's cougar management plan, which allows for targeted killings to address problems.

In October, the ODFW Commission authorized killing 95 cougars in four wildlife management units during 2016. One area was chosen because of human, livestock and pet safety concerns, and three were selected to help mule deer recover. The kills, to be done by ODFW employees, federal wildlife service agents, or contractors, are in addition to whatever other cougar deaths occur.

This March 13, 2014, file photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows a female wolf from the Minam pack outside La Grande. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.