A wolf from the Snake River pack wanders in Wallowa county, Oregon, in 2014. Eight wolves have been found poisoned in Union county since early February. Photograph: AP
Wed 8 Dec 2021 11.00 GMT The dead wolves began turning up in Oregon in early February.
First, state fish and wildlife troopers found an entire pack of five wolves – known as the Catherine pack – killed by poison in Union county. Then, between March and July, authorities found three grey wolves, two females and a male, similarly poisoned to death within the same county about 275 miles east of Portland.
The Oregon state police suspect the deaths are connected, and for months led an investigation into the poisonings before announcing in December that they had exhausted all leads. Now investigators are appealing to the public for help in solving the crime, a suspected case of poaching, while a group of animal protection and conservation organizations are offering a reward for any information that leads to a conviction.
“It has been absolutely shocking and heartbreaking for us,” said Sristi Kamal, senior northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the conservation organizations putting up the reward. The groups have received a number of donations related to finding the perpetrators, and on Tuesday upped the reward from $36,000 to $43,000.
Conservation and repopulation efforts around wolves are often contentious. A longstanding government-sanctioned campaign to eradicate wolves practically wiped out the grey wolf from much of the United States by the 1950s, and in recent decades there have been efforts to repopulate or protect the wolves. Today, Oregon’s wolf population is rebounding, with 173 wolves counted in 2020, up from 158 the previous year.
Unlike other states where wolf populations have grown in recent years, none of Oregon’s wolves were directly reintroduced into the state and instead are the result of natural migration from other parts of the country. In the mid-1990s, 31 grey wolves were shipped from western Canada to Yellowstone national park. The new group of wolves thrived and multiplied, with some of its packs spreading into other states such as Oregon.
But the wolf rewilding has been met with backlash from hunters and livestock producers who view them as a threat.
If you know anything about wolves, you probably know that they’re very controversial,” said Michelle Dennehy, a spokesperson for the Oregon department of fish and wildlife.
In Oregon, killing a wolf for reasons apart from self-defense is against the law and livestock producers are instructed to use nonlethal means to deter wolves from taking their animals. The department of fish and wildlife can also authorize lethal force or kill wolves in specific circumstances when other options have been exhausted.
Wolves are frequently misunderstood and viewed as a greater threat than they actually represent, advocates argue, leading to vilification and illegal killings. Poaching is a concern not just in Oregon but any state where wolf repopulation efforts have led to increased interaction with humans, Kamal said, although the number of wolves killed in Oregon this year stands out.
“This is definitely a case where we have not seen wolves being poached at this scale before,” Kamal said.
The eight wolves poisoned this year represent around 4.5% of the state’s total known grey wolf population.
“It’s terrible. It’s a very egregious case and we hope that someone will step forward for that monetary award,” Dennehy said.
The reward is being offered in part because poaching crimes often heavily rely on tips and information from the public, Kamal said. Oregon, for instance, has an anonymous phone line intended for people to report anything they have seen or heard related to illegal wildlife killings.
“Poaching is one of those really difficult and challenging crimes where it’s really hard to even know where the victim is, locate the crime scene or identify suspects,” Kamal said.
Animal protection advocates have pushed for stronger anti-poaching legislation and enforcement in recent years, with Oregon expanding protections and developing anti-poaching programs. Meanwhile, the Trump administration removed federal protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states in 2020 in a move conservationists widely opposed. After wolf hunting expanded in a number of states, the Biden administration announced in September that it would review that decision as it pertains to western grey wolves, which occupy areas including Oregon and Washington.
It’s not yet known what effect the string of poisonings will have on Oregon’s overall wolf population, according to the department of fish and wildlife. Wolves are social animals with complex pack hierarchies, however, and advocates argue the killing of one wolf can have a destabilizing effect on a larger group.