Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Webfoot Wednesday: OR-7

Oregonians -- and animal enthusiasts across the United States and even the world -- have been enjoying the rambling journey of OR-7, a radio-collared gray wolf who has made a 730-mile journey from the Wallowas in northeastern Oregon to become the first wolf in 60 years to set up residence in the southwestern part of the state. Recently, the wolf has even crossed into Siskiyou County, California, becoming the first wolf to penetrate the state since the 1920s. This famously elusive animal defied photography until recently, when a hunter appears to have captured him using a trail camera: see wolf here.

Wolves and humans lived in tension from the earliest days of Oregon settlement. Bounties were offered to eliminate these threats to ranchers' livelihoods into the 1940s, and the last native wolves disappeared from the state no later than the 1970s. Declared an endangered species in 1976, wolves were able to reestablish population numbers that pushed them back into eastern Oregon in 2007. The official count for wolves in Oregon currently stands at 24.

Wolves' return to Oregon, and especially to the more densely settled western half of the state, illuminates the long memory and complex calculus that governs human-wildlife interactions. Richard Cockle of the Oregonian reports, for example, that the concerns of the outgoing president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Bill Hoyt of Cottage Grove, extend beyond the purely academic: Hoyt's great-great-grandfather was chased by wolves sometime after he founded the family ranch in 1852.

Does the threat to livestock (and perhaps, in some cases, humans) outweigh the benefit of a diverse ecosystem? Does saving a space for these impressive creatures merit the inherent dangers to cattle? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between. Eradication is not the answer, among other reasons because it presumes that untrammeled human control over the landscape and everything in it is both justifiable and enlightened -- a "truth" proven demonstrably false on innumerable occasions. On the other hand, it is important to remember that wolf kills damage livelihoods, ranching and farming remain an important component of the state economy outside the Portland metro area, and that suspicions are often founded, as in Hoyt's case, upon historical foundations. Historically informed decision-making necessitates answers in shades of gray--not unlike the furry coat of one of Siskiyou County's newest residents.

For more on OR-7, recently named "Journey" in a contest organized by the conservation group Oregon Wild, see Richard Cockle's December 11 story here and other Oregonian coverage.

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