Curry and Coos county commissioners plan to ask state officials if they can form a committee to address the management of wolves, recently blamed for the killing of 23 sheep in the White Mountain area near the Coos-Curry county line.

The deaths have not yet been “confirmed,” according to Michelle Dennehy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), but are considered “probable,” a designation strong enough to justify forming a County Wolf Advisory Committee.

Such a group must be first be approved by the state and is typically created to provide advice and guidance to county commissioners regarding wolves’ interactions with livestock operations. Such a board can also request the state, through the federal government, to compensate the livestock owner for his or her losses.

“This is a serious problem for our community, our citizens, our ranchers,” said Commissioner Court Boice, who said he wants aggressive measures taken to keep wolves out of the area. “I’ve been trying to notify the public that this was coming… I just didn’t think it’d be this quick.”

ODFW biologists say the wolves are gray wolves, but Boice believes they have interbred with so many others and have become larger and more aggressive.

“This brand of wolf, whatever species it is — it makes my head spin to even think about having another predator species here,” he said.

Supporters declaim this, but admit mass killings sometimes occur if there has been an exceptionally difficult winter and a wolf encounters easy prey — like sheep.

A task force

Curry County Planning Director Betty Crockett suggested commissioners work with Coos County’s Farm Bureau to form the committee to address the wolves and help farmers who are affected by wolf kills.

The state Department of Agriculture requires such a committee to be comprised of seven members, including a county commissioner, two livestock owners and two who support the idea that wolves and humans can coexist.

If a committee is created, she noted, farmers who lose livestock to wolf predation can be reimbursed for the value of the animals killed.

Wolf controversy

The issue of wolves is contentious, with ranchers wanting to protect their valuable livestock and conservationists believing humans and wolves can co-exist.

As of last April, Oregon was home to about 124 wolves in 12 packs, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. And they’re expanding their range.

Gray wolves, which used to be common in Oregon, killed three cows last year and again in January on a ranch northeast of Medford. In the same period, four cows were killed at a ranch near Fort Klamath in the Wood River Valley at the eastern end of the wolves’ territory, and that pack also killed three calves and a guard dog 10 miles north of that.

Three wolves whose movements were monitored via tracking collars and that lived in Klamath County were killed in the past two years, according to wildlife data. Gray wolves in Western Oregon are federally, but not state-listed, as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced his intention March 7 to delist the animal at the federal level since they have reached minimum population numbers. That decision is likely to be contested in court.

Some 1,700 wolves live in the Pacific Northwest; in Oregon, they are concentrated in the northeast corner of the state. Only one pack exists in the southwest corner of Oregon, ODFW maps show. But they can roam hundreds of miles.

The pack in Southwest Oregon, the so-called Rogue Pack — named for the Rogue River Valley — established itself there in 2014 with wolf numbered OR-7; that pack is now up to seven or eight members.

David Barnes of Gold Beach, who used to farm in New Jersey and believes humans and wolves can co-exist, told commissioners the pack in Jackson County merely hasn’t moved this way yet.

He also said he wasn’t sure addressing the issue as an emergency is warranted, either, especially since the sheep killing here has yet to be confirmed. Michelle Dennehy of the ODFW said Thursday the likelihood sheep killed at the north end of the county is now considered “probable,” meaning there is a high likelihood wolves slaughtered the animals.

“I don’t believe we can co-exist,” Boice said. “And we spend thousands of dollars to bring visitors here; you want to talk about bad publicity …”

“I’d rather be proactive than reactive,” said Commissioner Chris Paasch, who also has livestock on his ranch. “Having things in place before they happen isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Barnes also suggested that Boice, given his prejudice against wolves, not be appointed to a committee to address them; Boice concurred.

Wolves, deer and fire

Boice, who has fought hard to implement mitigation measures in the backcountry to better protect communities from wildfires, notes that cougars alone have decimated the regional deer and elk population that keep the grass cropped. Local hunters concur, often commenting that there are more deer walking around in town than found in the woods.

The wolves in Oregon today are part of the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population, Dennehy said, and are descendants of wolves that naturally recolonized in northwest Montana in the early 1980’s and those captured in Canada and released in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s.

Boice said when wolves were introduced into Yellowstone, the elk population plummeted from about 20,000 in 1994 to 4,000 in 2012.

The ODFW says there are 6,000 cougars in Oregon, which collectively need 300,000 deer and elk each year to survive. The big cat’s population in Oregon was estimated to be growing at a rate of 12 to 15 percent in 2015, according to ODFW.

Here, Boice said, there are twice as many cougars than the habitat can handle, and he is concerned that without deer and elk grazing and keeping forest fuels down, forest fires could be even more fierce.

“They say plantation (timber farms) burn like gasoline,” he said of monoculture timber stands in the forest. “And grass burns like gas on steroids.”

The lack of deer and elk, too, is attracting predators — cougars, bobcats and possibly wolves — closer to town, he said.

“Their food source is drying up; their impact on deer and elk is apparent and quantified,” Boice said, citing the Jackson County livestock kills in January. “And here, two months later — we were caught off guard.”