GPS-collar failures hinder wolf-tracking in Oregon

Killing gray wolves in the western two-thirds of Oregon is a violation of the federal Endangered Species Act and of Oregon state game laws.

SALEM, Ore. — The number of wolves in the wilds of Oregon increased slightly last year, but state wildlife officials lost track of one pack because none of its members is outfitted with GPS collars.

Furthermore, four of the 11 tracking collars that were secured around the necks of other wolves last year failed within six months.

A draft report released on Tuesday by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife described the challenges of monitoring the state’s growing wolf population.

The species returned to Oregon in 1999 when one wolf that had been re-introduced into Idaho walked across the state line. GPS tracking was an issue in monitoring wolves, and so was the severe winter weather.

The minimum known wolf population in 2016 was 112, a 2 percent increase from 2015, the report said. That’s much smaller than the previous three years in which the population increased by 27, or 36 percent. The weak increase could be caused by wolves being present but not counted, decreased births, human-caused deaths, diseases affecting pups, and wolves leaving the state, the report said.

Twelve wolves from five different groups were captured by traps or teams on helicopters during 2016. Eleven of them were fitted with Global Positioning System collars. But four of the new collars failed within six months.

Wildlife officials lost track of the South Snake Pack, which has no radio-collars. Three wolves were located in their area last January, but it is unknown if they are new wolves or part of the South Snake Pack.

Wildlife experts monitored 21 radio-collared wolves during 2016, but contact with 13 was lost because three wolves died, three wolves dispersed out of state, and a total of seven radio collars failed.

“GPS collars collect large quantities of valuable location data, but have a high failure rate due to their technological complexity and the batteries are only expected to last three years,” the draft report said. The life span of GPS collars placed on Oregon wolves since 2011 was even shorter, going dark after only 18 months on average.

The department noted that VHF radio-collars must be monitored from the field, but are less likely to fail. Their batteries are expected to last 6.5 years.

Nick Cady, legal director at Cascadia Wildlands, which seeks to restore wild ecosystems, called the slow-down in wolf population growth alarming.

“The trend provides all the more reason to strengthen safeguards for wolves during the Wolf Plan update, which will allow them to continue back on the historic path toward recovery,” Cady said.

A draft wolf plan, also released by the wildlife department, would continue to allow controlled killings of wolves only in situations of chronic livestock depredation, or if wolves are causing declines in populations of deer, elk and other ungulates. The draft plan adds additional guidelines and specific prerequisites for those types of killings, and it continues the policy of not allowing general seasons of wolf hunting or trapping in Oregon.

“We are incredibly discouraged with the provisions in this plan to kill wolves in response to conflict with ungulates, like deer and elk,” Cady said.

Cascadia Wildlands Executive Director Josh Laughlin said the wildlife department wants to deputize members of the public to kill wolves that have met the definition of “chronic depredation.” He suspects that it is a foot in the door for future wolf public hunting and trapping.

Oregon Wild, another conservation group, said the wildlife department seems headed toward the hunting and trapping of wolves, at a time when “people killing wolves is the number one danger to a meaningful recovery.”

Seven wolf deaths were documented in 2016, including three radio-collared wolves. Two wolves were killed in suspicious circumstances. Both cases are still being investigated by the Oregon State Police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the report said.

Five of the wolves were killed lawfully — four because of chronic depredation and one when a sheepherder shot a wolf that he saw killing a sheep and fighting with a livestock protection dog.

The draft wolf report and draft plan will be presented at a meeting on April 21 in Klamath Falls. The draft plan will also be presented on May 19 in Portland for public comment.

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