Wolves in the Wallowas: wildlife terrorists, or climate-change warriors?

Whitman College students, through an innovative program mixing environmental and political studies, camp out in northeastern Oregon for an up-close look at wolf packs.

A male wolf from the Wenaha Pack in Wallowa County, Oregon.

A male wolf from the Wenaha Pack in Wallowa County, Oregon. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

A Whitman College student and a rancher discuss wolves in the Wallowa region of Oregon.

A Whitman College student and a rancher discuss wolves in the Wallowa region of Oregon. Theo Barnhart

The Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon

The Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon Marc Shandro/Wikimedia Commons

Whitman College professor Phil Brick was in town the other day to talk about wolves in the Wallowas. The Wallowas are a rugged mountain range in an isolated but stunningly beautiful region of northeastern Oregon, Wallowa County.

Brick and his Whitman colleagues are the creators of an innovative experience for about 20 Whitman students each year. Known as “Semester in the West,” the course is a term-long field study sited in the Wallowas or northern Nevada, but including study of other western lands from the Canadian Rockies to Mexico.

SITW, as the venture is known, takes an interdisciplinary approach, with students gaining credit in environmental studies, writing and politics. The idea, as Brick put it, is “to see landscape whole,” as a complex and integrated system of land and watersheds, animals wild and domestic, as well as people and their history and culture.

Brick had begun his career at Whitman in 1990 as a politics prof, specializing in Communist nations. That was about the time most Communist nations, with the exception of a few like Cuba and North Korea, up and disappeared. Faced with the need to re-tool, Brick turned to environmental studies and politics, now among the most popular of majors at the Walla Walla campus.

Speaking at Seattle Central Library recently (March 12), Brick took his listeners to the Wallowas via photos and podcasts, exploring the controversial reintroduction of wolves that began there in the last decade. There are now two wolf packs in the Wallowas, one in the north part of the county, the Wenaha Pack, another in the east, the Imnaha Pack. Brick estimates that each pack includes about a dozen wolves.

But the Wallowas are also home to cows and cattle ranches. Early in spring and summer of 2010 a series of calves were taken down and killed by wolves, which stirred age-old passions as well as calls to exterminate the packs. Driving around Wallowa County you can see signs posted on fences and in local cafes that read: “Government Sponsored Terrorism: Canadian Wolves.”

Brick and his students understand the ire of cattle ranchers and other local residents. They have spent a good deal of time sitting down with them to hear their concerns, which not only include the costly loss of stock, but the general mental duress of wondering what’s happening to your herd as the nights wear on and the wolves howl. Of course, not all Wallowa County residents are down on the wolves. Some imagine a small town like Joseph, Oregon, becoming a center of eco-tourism, a jumping-off place for people who want to catch a glimpse or hear the howl of the wolf in the wild.

But Brick also developed another perspective, that of the wolf as a crucial link in the chain that might help us to withstand and adapt to seemingly inevitable climate change and warming. Really? How are wolves going to fight off climate change? Howling at the sun instead of the moon?

The science was developed mostly in Yellowstone, where wolves have now had 15-plus years to become re-established. It works like this:

Barren arroyos and streambeds that may flow full and fast with water in the spring are dry as a bone by early summer (Brick's photos captured this familiar sight). Climate warming has exacerbated this problem because it means that runoff from snowpacks happens more rapidly in most parts of the West. Snow melts earlier and faster and runs off quicker. With each rushing flow the channels are cut deeper and the water moves off the land faster.

Areas that once were a combination of lakes and ponds or boggy meadows are now cut by these deepening channels and left dry.

Enter the wolf. In Yellowstone the presence of wolves has regulated the once uncontrolled elk and deer populations. With elk in check something happens along streams and rivers — namely willows and cottonwoods begin to reassert themselves where they had been chomped into oblivion by the elk and deer.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 21, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Political science + Environmental science = Political science

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Mar 21, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

My dentist is an Elk hunter for him the wolf equation is this: Once a day the pack eats an Elk, that's 360 less Elk for him to hunt. Ego: since he didn't get an Elk last year, it must be wolf predation that took "his" elk.

Nice to see that less Elk & Deer means more beavers. Probably once the beaver ponds are back, the Elk and Deer populations will do better because of more abundant water, and it's likely that the number of willow will increase because if they live at the edge of water, a pond has a larger edge than the creek that used to run through it. That would either allow more Elk for hunters or another wolf pack. A virtuous cycle.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Mar 22, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Tony Robinson brings to mind Barry Lopez's must-read classic, "Of Wolves and Men" (1978). Lopez explores the mythology, biology, and behavior of wolves and, beyond illuminating their natural necessity, argues for the inherent relationship between a cosmic disaster and the decline of wolves! (Do not read the last pages first: their credibility rests on what has preceded.)

Posted Mon, Mar 28, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

I live in Wallowa County. I've read a lot about this issue, as you might imagine, but even I didn't know that wolves were water activists!
That's nice to know. I will heartily support the wolves in their campaign to correct the (very real) water issues here, and on my property in particular, if they will be kind enough to distinguish between our ubiquitous deer/vermin and the children in my wife's pre-school playground!

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