So, just how many wolves are out there roaming the hills of northeastern Oregon? Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists and economists are trying to answer that question within the proposed revisions to the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.
Craig Ely, ODFW northeast regional manager, and wolf coordinator Russ Morgan briefed the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on the proposed plan revisions Thursday, Sept. 2, in Hillsboro.
Eastern Oregon is currently in what ODFW calls Phase I of the wolf recovery plan, hosting up to three breeding pairs.
Department biologists estimate that each breeding pair produces an average of 14.8 offspring. Given that average, the current wolf population in the eastern portion of the state is about 44 wolves.
Beyond this initial phase of the recovery plan, Phase II of the plan involves up to seven, and Phase III up to fourteen breeding pairs.
"It's difficult to say when wolf recovery will move onto Phases II and III in northeastern Oregon," said Ely. "There are some places where wolves can exist in northeastern Oregon and the wolves will just have to find those areas," he said.
Ely mentioned the possibility of the lethal removal of wolves that roam into areas of human conflict and explained that Oregon has been slow to reach wolf population goals largely because of management conflicts.
ODFW's recovery goal for eastern Oregon is four breeding pairs.
ODFW defines the eastern Oregon region by following the line made by Highway 395 going south from near the Wash. state line to Highway 20 jogging east of Burns and back on 395 going south to the Cal. state line.
"Four breeding pairs for three consecutive years east of that line could trigger a delist proposal. Four breeding pairs for three consecutive years shows a stable population and is a move toward delisting," said Ely referring to the possible removal of the wolf from the state's endangered species list.
The revisions include department economist projections for what eastern Oregon ranchers and hunters can expect given the ODFW goals and the move towards the different phases of wolf recovery.
The Wolf Management Plan was written in 2005, before ODFW had confirmed the existence of any resident wolves in northeast Oregon. Since that time ODFW has monitored two resident packs and has used the events in Keating and upper Wallowa County to evaluate the plan's approach to wolf depredation on livestock.
ODFW economists ran a complex set of calculations based on wolf depredation rates over the entire Rocky Mountain region. The numbers are based on 59 wolves from four breeding pairs and show a livestock kill rate of between one and 10 head of cattle and between zero and 20 sheep per year in this region.
The 2009 Oregon Agripedia report puts the value of cattle at $850 per head and a value of $122 per head for sheep. This works out to a potential annual loss of between $850 and $8,500 for cattle and between $0 and $2,440 for sheep per year due to 59 wolves in eastern Oregon, according to ODFW calculations.
Department economist also give numbers on the economic impact felt as the hunter competes with the wolf for big game in this region.
Each wolf consumes almost eight elk and about 23 deer per year in eastern Oregon, according to ODFW. The department estimates that 59 wolves in the Blue Mountain region will consume about 1,030 deer and 343 elk per year. Because of dense local deer populations, this ratio of elk to deer is somewhat a departure from what would normally be expected considering the wolf's preferred diet tending a little more toward elk than venison, as explained within the proposed revisions.
ODFW figures that this level of wolf depredation upon big game costs northeastern Oregon $617,900 per year based on lost opportunities for hunters.
This total loss amount is derived from figuring the net economic benefit of $92 per hunter day for elk hunting and $68 per day for deer hunting. Economist then factor in lost hunter days caused by wolf predation on wildlife.
ODFW is well into the process of the scheduled five-year update and evaluation of the plan. Department commissioners have scheduled a pubic hearing on Sept. 30 in Bend, and then will decide on Oct. 1 whether to accept the proposed revisions.