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By Richard Cockle
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.
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