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What Does Species Recovery Look Like For Northwest Wolves?

Oregon Fish & Wildlife

Since wolves first started returning to Washington and Oregon in the late 1990s, the population has been increasing steadily – especially over the past few years.

In late April, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission started the process of removing the predator from the state’s endangered species list.

All this brings up questions of whether the wolf has actually recovered enough to dial back protections.JPR’s Liam Moriarty spoke with Jes Burns, from the EarthFix environmental news team. 

LM: So, Jes, why is this happening now?

JB: This is all laid out in Oregon’s Wolf Management plan - basically the state’s roadmap for wolf recovery.  In that plan, there are three phases – three levels of protections - based on how many breeding pairs there are.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf Coordinator Russ Morgan explains it pretty well:

Russ Morgan: “When the plan was developed, it was believed that if we achieved a minimum of four breeding pairs for three consecutive years in the eastern part of the state, that would represent a population that is able to function.  Function in the future, function on its own.”

Morgan says four breeding pairs is not actually an optimum number. It’s just the number that triggers this review.

LM: Now, I keep seeing this number  “77” number getting tossed around. What's that about?

JB: That’s the number of individual wolves currently confirmed in Oregon – undoubtedly it’s a low estimate.  It’s the number that many conservation groups have cited as a reason not to delist the wolf in Oregon.

Rob Klavins: “Would we consider delisting, or reducing protections for elk or cougar or salmon or deer if there were only 77?  It’s not appropriate to be treating wolves differently just because they may be controversial to some people.”

That was Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild – and he has a point, but there’s another angle to consider as well.  This comes from wolf biologist Dave Mech, who’s with the US Geological Survey:

Dave Mech: “The Oregon population is really just part of a much larger population of wolves that extend back into Idaho, and up into Washington and over into Montana and Wyoming. Not to mention that all of these wolves are connected to the huge population in Canada. So you can’t really think in terms of just the number of wolves in Oregon when you’re speaking of a wolf population.”

The wolves in Oregon don’t exist in a vacuum.  They travel around.  And they don’t care about state lines.  The broader Northwest population from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades is right around 1,800.  So 77 wolves may not be the best number to latch onto.

LM: Are there other indications wolves are recovering?

JB: Well, a definition of a healthy population is that it is growing.  For the past five years wolf growth has been about 30-40%.

The other positive is the wolf dispersals we keep hearing about. Young wolves from the packs in Northeastern Oregon have been going full-hobo, if you will, striking out to establish new territory and to find mates.

Just in the past few months, we’ve seen traveling wolves near Klamath Falls, in the forests around Mt. Hood and rather surprisingly for biologists, in the high desert of Malheur County. And last week in Washington, an animal thought to be a wolf was hit and killed by a vehicle on a highway in Western Washington about 50 miles from Seattle.

LM: Well, I guess this raises the question of how many wolves are enough wolves?

JB: That depends on who you ask as much as it depends on your definition of “enough.”  Oregon Cattlemen’s Association is going to give a far lower answer than conservation groups.

Biologically it’s squishy as well.  ODFW says right now, wolves have a 1% chance of going extinct in Oregon in the next 50 years.  So if your definition of “enough” is “to not disappear from Oregon,” then we likely have enough.

But… If your definition is “to reestablish populations in available habitat,” the state has a long way to go.  One study a few years back put that number at over 1400.

LM: Are there other ways to think about wolf recovery?

JB: Definitely.  An interesting one comes from Ecologist Bill Ripple of Oregon State University. He’s well regarded for his work in Yellowstone, where he found the reintroduction of wolves affected the entire ecosystem in surprising ways. For example, the threat of wolves influences where deer and elk fed, allowing certain plant communities to thrive.

Bill Ripple: “I think it’s important to think about ecological interactions and the functions that predators have, rather than just the total number that may be in a state, or on a landscape or in a region.”

Ripple says it would be good to consider this “ecological effectiveness” in setting recovery goals.  But this science is relatively new and exactly how many wolves it would take to be ecologically effective is unclear.

LM: At this point, what are the barriers to wolf recovery?

JB: Wolves are actually great candidates for population recovery because they can live anywhere and eat just about anything.  So as long as there’s enough food, the only real barrier to wolf recovery is us.

This concept is something Dave Mech calls “social carrying capacity.”   How many and where will people allow wolves to live?

Neither Oregon nor Washington has hit its capacity.  In both states the population continues to expand both in numbers and geographically and will until the public as a whole says “no more.”  

This can come through legislation and the actions of state wildlife managers.  And this is basically what’s playing out in Oregon right now, with the Fish and Wildlife Commission deciding whether or not to delist the gray wolf.


Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.