The Howling

The return of wolves stirs up old hostilities between rural and urban Oregonians.

In March, Rob Klavins and his wife, Emily, picked up their life in Southwest Portland and moved to Enterprise, a town with 1,888 people and zero stoplights in the northeastern corner of Oregon. Rob grew up in Wisconsin, a scruffy-bearded, sharp-eyed and talkative son of concert violinists. He fell in love with the rural West during his college years. He and Emily realized a dream when they bought Barking Mad Farms, a bed-and-breakfast situated in a century-old farmhouse with a wraparound porch and an eye-popping view of the Wallowa Mountains. 

"It's one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world," he says. "It's got Hells Canyon, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. You've got Eagle Cap, which is Oregon's largest wilderness area and alpine region. You've got the Zumwalt Prairie, which is the biggest bunchgrass prairie remaining in the lower 48. But it hasn't been loved to death. It's like Jackson Hole before it was discovered."

Settling in Wallowa County isn't easy. Winters are brutal. It's isolated. The county has eight times the landmass of Multnomah County, yet contains only 7,000 residents.

And it's been harder for the Klavins clan, because Rob has a very controversial second reason for moving here—wolves. 

Wallowa County is cattle country. For every resident, there are an estimated 10 cattle, many owned by third- or fourth-generation ranchers. Cattle are as central to the area's economy and identity  as Yamhill grapes.

And wolves are not considered friends of cattle. 

Once hunted to extinction in the American West, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Over the past 10 years, packs have spread across the Northwest. Controversy has followed.  In Wallowa County, where about half of Oregon’s 64 wolves live, there’s vocal resistance to the “fanged menace.”

And to people like Klavins. In addition to operating his B&B, he works for Oregon Wild, a group that's taken the lead in defending wolves. 

"Wolves are captivating and interesting animals, to be sure, but I wouldn't say I'm necessarily any more into wolves than sea otters," he says. "Why is Rob Klavins the wolf guy? Because there isn't a campaign against bald eagles."

Klavins has been harassed. Earlier this month, he was the first on a hall-of-shame list posted by the Oregon Outdoor Council, a hunting group, which also targeted leaders of the Portland Audubon Society and the Humane Society. 

Klavins has also been the subject of threatening posts on Facebook and anonymous forums.

"Some of it is shrill and childlike, then there's more violent and nasty stuff," he says. "When you see some of this stuff, it's unsettling."

Tensions between environmentalists and Eastern Oregonians are hardly new. Back in September 1994, an effigy of Oregon Wild's former head, Andy Kerr, was tarred, feathered and lynched in Joseph during a conference sponsored by the local newspaper.

Klavins has also fared better than the former owners of Barking Mad, Diana and James Hunter, who were harassed for hosting an Oregon Wild campout. They were denied a zoning variance to build a bunkhouse in a fight that had very little to do with actual zoning issues.

"I liken this to building a mosque at ground zero," a neighbor testified.

While the battle over Oregon's wolves is nothing new, it appears to be entering a new chapter as they establish themselves across the state. Last year, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, new packs gained footholds near Pendleton, La Grande and Baker City. In May, a collared wolf wandered from the Wallowas to Northern California, found a mate and sired pups in Southern Oregon. Last December, wolf tracks were confirmed on the eastern slope of Mount Hood, only about 60 miles from Portland city limits—no one knows what happened to that wolf, or if it might be living in the area now. If the situation in Enterprise is any indicator, the wolf issue may ignite old tensions between Oregon's urban and rural populations.

Anti-wolf sentiment has simmered since Canadian wolves, collared for tracking, were driven past sign-carrying protesters into Yellowstone almost 20 years ago. There's a cottage industry of blogs like, which includes photos of an Alaskan jogger allegedly killed by wolves, and, where a blond model toting a machine gun sports a black "SHOOT ON SIGHT" T-shirt and you can buy sweatshirts that read "SMOKE A PACK A DAY" or a sticker of Calvin, in a cowboy hat, pissing on the word "WOLVES."

Lately, the tensions seem to be boiling over.

Earlier this month, Eastern Washington ranchers came to a state hearing, urging the relocation of wolves to Western Washington. "We want them gone," one man testified. "Take them to Olympia." On Oct. 10 near Pullman, where a protected endangered species can be killed only in the act of harassing livestock, a farmer allegedly tracked a wolf in his car for several miles before shooting it. He's under investigation.

In Montana, a man named Toby Bridges runs an anti-wolf blog called Lobo Watch, with posts about how to poison wolves with artificial sweetener. He also organizes "Vigilante Wolf Control" groups and was investigated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after he bragged of running down two wolves with his van, then posted pictures on Facebook.

Earlier this month, Oregon ranchers began lobbying the ODFW to disclose the GPS location of collared wolves. Ranchers claim they want the information so cowboys can protect cattle, but environmentalists say the information will be used to hunt and kill wolves. 

Things are particularly tense in Enterprise. Aelea Christofferson, a Bend Democrat running for Congress against incumbent U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), recently attended an Enterprise candidates forum, where she got an earful.

“The level of anger the ranchers have at the federal government for reintroducing wolves in that area is huge,” she says. 

Until recently, Oregon was united on wolves. The territory's first meetings, memorialized in a statehouse mural, passed a local bounty for the scalps of coyotes (50 cents), lynxes ($1.50), bears ($2), wolves ($3) and mountain lions ($5). Whites could collect full bounties; Indians received discounted rewards.

It was a rousing success. In 1917, the state upgraded the bounty system by hiring full-time hunters, which was even more successful. "FEDERAL PLAN TO WIPE OUT PREDATOR BEASTS SUCCEEDS," The Oregonian trumpeted later that year. The final bounty was paid out in 1947.

For 50 years, Oregon was wolf-free.

This pattern of wholesale extermination continued across the American West. In Yellowstone National Park, elk populations skyrocketed and nibbled furiously at the preserve's saplings. Yellowstone's ecosystem was thrown into flux, and research, much of it done at Oregon State University, attributed a near-collapse of the food chain to the absence of an apex predator, such as wolves.

In 1995, the federal government reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone and unpopulated areas of central Idaho. Fourteen wolves were captured in Alberta's Jasper National Park, west of Edmonton, and released with tracking collars into Yellowstone. Within two years, there were nine packs and 51 wolves inside the park. Two years later, one wolf, B-45, swam across the Snake River into Oregon. Authorities promptly darted him and helicoptered him back to Idaho.

By 2007, packs were established in Oregon's lightly populated northeastern counties. A collared gray wolf named OR-7 made international news by wandering all the way to California, then back into Southern Oregon, where he found a previously unknown mate and sired a litter, establishing the first tentative pack west of the Cascades since the Truman administration.

The Oregon Cattlemen's Association leads the opposition to this state's wolves. The group operates a Wolf Task Force headed by Todd Nash, a 51-year-old rancher who's lived in the Wallowas since 1967.

Nash was one of those who testified against the Hunters' proposed bunkhouse at Barking Mad Farms, because the B&B allowed the pro-wolf Oregon Wild to camp there. "I object to the Hunters promoting tourism detrimental to their direct neighbors," he told county commissioners. "It's tacky and a directly negative economic impact."

Nash is exactly the sort of man you'd want if you were forming a posse—stout and strong, with the soft drawl ubiquitous in rural towns across the Far West. He's tried his hand at cowboy poetry, writing about the time he had to euthanize his injured horse at knifepoint. The walls of his office are covered with paintings of cowboys galloping on horseback and a stagecoach fending off Apaches.

Nash seems like a man content with nearly everything—except when it comes to wolves. In 2013, the ODFW claims wolves were responsible for 13 cattle kills (the technical term is "predation"), a number that has remained steady over the past few years even as more wolves have appeared. Nash, who has never seen a wolf, believes the true number of predations is up to eight times that—but the numbers are beside the point.

"We didn't want wolves here to begin with," he says, "because we knew what the outcome was going to be, and that's been realized now. So anything that has to do with a wolf being here at all is a compromise."

For ranchers, one big compromise was cleaning up bone piles: pits where cattle lost to disease or the cold were left for scavenging coyotes. Biologists warned such pits might give wolves a taste for beef. 

"We've been told we're sloppy ranchers, that we're leaving our carcasses out, and it's attracting wolves, and it's our fault," Nash says. "I have always stayed on the side of 'If they're eatin' dead ones, they aren't eatin' live ones.'"

The state has tried to calm ranchers by funding predator deterrent programs, the latest one to the tune of $63,820. Most of that went to pay for plastic streamers that frighten off wolves, and range-rider programs, which keep a human presence among livestock. The state also compensates ranchers for cattle lost to confirmed wolf attacks.

"We're ashamed when we lose cattle. I know ranchers who are so ashamed they don't tell anyone all winter," Nash says. "Now, when they have a dead one, they have to haul it out through Joseph, through Enterprise, and out to the county dump.

"I don't think people understand our relationship with the animals we raise," he adds. "There's this idea that we're raising them to be killed anyway. But what would people think of me if I grabbed a calf and I stood out in front of a bunch of people and I just started ripping on that thing until it was dead?"

Klavins challenges Nash's assessment of wolves' impact. There are 1.3 million cattle in Oregon. Even if Nash's maximum estimate is right, that wolves kill 100 cattle each year, that represents less than two-tenths of 1 percent of cattle lost before slaughter.

"Approximately 55,000 cattle die before reaching the slaughterhouse in this state every year due to a variety of causes," Klavins says. "Rustlers in Malheur County stole 1,200 cattle between 2006 and 2009. In 2012, 44 unattended cows were hit and killed by trucks outside of Madras. By contrast, five cows were killed by wolves this year, and every one of them was newsworthy.” 

Such figures do little to sway the Cattleman's Association, which in a letter to the ODFW complained that ranchers are having "horrific experiences," finding cattle "with blood dripping from their mouths, broken legs, bite marks, badly torn udder."

Under Oregon state law, ranchers are permitted to kill wolves in the midst of an attack. Those are lottery odds: Of the dozens of people interviewed for this story, very few had ever even seen a wolf. The ODFW shares generalized information with ranchers on the location of tagged wolves, but not specific GPS coordinates. That's because the agency worries about people like Bill and Tom White of Twisp, Wash., who killed two wolves from the state's first pack in 2008. They were caught after they tried to ship a still-bloody wolf pelt to Canada in a dripping FedEx box. The Whites, who also sent e-mails about eradicating wolves with traps and poison, pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill the wolves and were sentenced to probation and house arrest.

More restrained voices, like Nash, say the ranchers just feel cut out of the loop, subject to the whims of lawmakers on the other side of the Cascades.

"I've made numerous trips to Salem, but Salem doesn't come here. We don't feel represented," he says. "There was never a vote to see what Oregonians wanted."

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire polled Wallowa County in 2011 and found that 41 percent favored total elimination of wolves—10 percentage points higher than in neighboring counties. Another 36 percent of Wallowa County favor some wolf presence with limited hunting. Statewide, a poll funded by Defenders of Wildlife ("how ridiculous is that?" Nash asks) found that 68 percent of Oregonians favored protecting wolves.

We're an hour north of Enterprise, and Rob Klavins' pickup is fishtailing in the slushy ruts left by another automobile.

We speak mostly of the land, in awed whispers and wordless, wide-eyed pointing. The stubbled grandeur of Zumwalt Prairie undulates for miles, one of the last intact remnants of grasslands that once sprawled across the high plains west of the Rockies and north into Canada. We're a few miles east of Hells Canyon, where the Snake River carved the deepest river gorge in North America, and where, in 1887, bandits tortured and killed at least 30 Chinese gold miners, an act discovered only when residents downriver spotted the floating bodies. Six men were indicted for the crime. Despite a confession from one of the killers, all walked free.

Behind us, in an arc of granite and basalt peaked with a thick layer of snow, the Wallowas are an alpine row. Every few miles, a raptor perches on a fence post. Every other few miles, there's a barn or shack in disrepair, a forgotten outpost from the valley's industrial heyday in the early 1900s.


Klavins points to a pattern of tracks across the road. Coyote marks have been skirting the edge of the road for a mile or so, but this is a new, much larger set. We slide to a stop and step out. Rob hunches over the prints pressed into slush, then refrozen by the early morning cold. These tracks, nearly the size of his hand, are from a wolf.

"Even with relatively fresh tracks, the wolf could be 15 miles away by now," he says. "Still, we should howl. Sometimes they’ll pop their heads up to take a look.” 

Rob howls low and clear over the rolling white expanse. It's so quiet we can hear the breeze and feel the blood in our ears. He asks if I want to howl. I try. Not even an echo returns. Whether a wolf is secretly watching two soft pink apes mangle his native tongue, we have no idea.

Russ Morgan leans back with hands steepled over his chest at a conference table in the ODFW building in La Grande, 84 miles west of Enterprise. Morgan is the state's "wolf coordinator," with a strong jaw, a neatly trimmed, sandy goatee and eyes Tom Clancy might describe as "flinty." He appears orderly, an important trait for a man smack in the middle of the storm.

"Livestock depredation is a real concern, even if it's not real high in the rest of Oregon," he says. "If you're a person who is losing livestock to wolves, we need to be sensitive and address that. Wolves aren't as good as some people think they are, and they aren't as bad as others do. We don't need to manage their image. They're wolves."

Morgan is well-respected on both sides of the wolf debate, but he's a burdened man, busy monitoring wolf populations and investigating predation. When a pack exceeds its limit of livestock kills, and if the order comes down, he'll be sent out to kill the wolf responsible. Four wolves have been killed by various government agencies, all prior to the current management plan.

"Most folks don't have a strong feeling either way; they just don't want 'em to eat their livestock," he says. "They understand the reality, which is, they're here now, and they aren't going away."

Rob Klavins is back in Multnomah Village, swinging through Portland after a trip to Salem to testify at a wolf hearing. Tourist season in Enterprise was a boom, he says, and he's feeling optimistic, and more at home in Enterprise.

"Frankly, we feel more connected to the community there in seven months than we did during our time in Portland," he says.

But the ranchers are up in arms about wolves again, honing a new argument. At the hearing Klavins just attended, ranchers pushed the ODFW to release the exact location of tagged wolves. The subject will be addressed in next year's wolf plan. In spring 2015, the state will decide whether wolves should remain on the state's endangered species list.

Wolves will certainly end up dead if they're delisted. Two years ago, after a controversial decision by the Obama administration—at the request of Montana's Democratic senator, who was in a tough re-election fight—the gray wolf was federally delisted as an endangered species. Since then, approximately 1,700 wolves have been killed in states like Idaho. Biologists estimate there are only between 1,600 and 1,900 wolves left.

Klavins is confident momentum is on his side. He thinks the light impact of wolves on the cattle industry will eventually be established, and the fear mongering will stop. 

"There are 64 wolves in this state, and we're already talking about killing them," he says. "Four out of five Oregonians are OK with some presence of wolves, and somehow this is still being presented as a two-sided issue."

Secretly Canadian?

Frequently asked questions about oregon's burgeoning wolf population.

Some ranchers claim Oregon's wolves are a non-native species because they came from Canada. Set me straight, are these wolves Canadian?

The wolves now in Eastern Oregon are descended from packs brought into Yellowstone National Park and rural Idaho from the Canadian Rockies in the mid-'90s. You could call them wolves of Canadian descent. Animals, however, are generally exempt from human nationality.

Are these wolves of Canadian descent bigger or meaner than Oregon's extinct native wolves?

Probably not, according to Oregon State University professor Bill Ripple. "Across Western North America, there were originally different subspecies of gray wolves, but they're all gray wolves. They have slightly different traits. In some areas they might be a little bit larger than in other areas," he says. "There is some possibility they were slightly larger, but these interior wolves—I think that they're pretty similar. We can't know, because by the 1930s, there were no wolves in Oregon to weigh."

So what do we know about Oregon's now-extinct native wolves?

In Eastern Oregon, it's common to hear people claim that Oregon's native wolves were as small as cocker spaniels. There's no reason to believe that's true. The smallest North American wolves, from Canada's Baffin Island, weigh between 50 and 100 pounds, roughly the size of a Siberian husky. We do know that Portland wolves were gingers—the predominant subspecies west of the Cascades, Canis lupus fuscus, had cinnamon pelts. 

Is it true wolves kill for sport?

Many predatory species, including wolves and orcas, have been known to engage in what is called "surplus killing." Essentially, when prey is easy to kill, satiated wolves may hunt anyway because the meat may or may not keep until they're hungry. –JORDAN GREEN.

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