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

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

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.

Turns out willow and cottonwoods are the raw materials needed by the best dam builders in the world: beaver. Beaver had themselves been trapped to the edge of extinction in many parts of the American West in the 19th Century. But when the stream-side growth of trees returned to Yellowstone so did the beaver. The beaver quickly began the process of restoring the ponds and lakes and boggy meadows that function as natural water-holding facilities. With the water staying on the land longer, vegetation is renewed and erosion arrested; as a result, water needed for agriculture in late summer is more plentiful.

One proposed alternative way to hold water in the area is to build a dam on a tributary of the Columbia, redirecting water from the river when it is running highest. Already $13 million has been spent on feasibility studies for such a dam, one that would be far larger than Grand Coulee. The studies indicate the cost-benefit ratio for such a federally funded water project would run 16-to-1 — that’s $16 in cost for every $1 in benefit. Wolves, willows, and beavers seem quite a bit less expensive and probably a good deal more efficient at this work. Still, the wolves aren’t a welcome addition to the landscape for all.

The Whitman program is described by Brick and others, including the environmental magazine High Country News, as demonstrating what a liberal-arts college and approach can bring to issues of environment and ecology. The students do see landscape as a complex web of relationships that includes human beings, their culture and economy, as well as geology, water tables, vegetation, bird, and beast.

How this will all play out in a place like the Wallowas remains to be seen, but in the meantime college students at Whitman are having an educational experience that is rich and challenging, and also looks like a huge amount of fun.

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