Maggie Rulli: Once upon a time, the gray wolf lived all over the Northern hemisphere – in North America, Europe and in Asia. But as farming and ranching expanded, wolves were hunted down and killed to prevent them from attacking livestock. And the gray wolf came to the brink of extinction in the United States, Mexico and Western Europe.
Apple Goeckner: We have exterminated these populations and we need to bring them back. They’re really important because they are a very charismatic animal and to a lot of people they embody the idea of freedom and wilderness and the American West.
Maggie: By the mid 1970s, the federal and state government began trying to save the wolf with ambitious and expensive conservation projects. And it worked. Gray wolves have made a comeback, even in states where they had completely disappeared, like Oregon.
Now, what was it like when people started to see wolf scat like this?
Wally Sykes: Frankly, I was quite excited! I mean, I never thought in my whole life I would ever see wolves in the lower forty-eight.
Maggie: Wildlife expert Wally Sykes works with the conservation group Oregon Wild. He took us on a hike through Wallowa County, Oregon, an area that is known to be popular with wolves. Right now, it is estimated there are more than fifty gray wolves living in Oregon.
It is almost as big as my hand.
Gray wolves play an important role in nature, keeping down the populations of other big game animals, which allows other plants and animals a chance to thrive.
Environmentalists say protecting the gray wolf is not just about sustaining a species, it is also about righting a wrong.
Apple Goeckner: We’ve screwed up a lot in the history of the world and we’re starting to realize that we need these resources here. We killed the wolves off by the 1940s in the state of Oregon. And bringing them back symbolizes us trying to make things right.
Maggie: But the land these wolves are coming back to, nearly sixty years later, is no longer wilderness. Wallowa County ranchers graze cattle right beside the wolves. And the wolves sometimes see the cattle as a meal, and attack. Ranchers complain the return of the wolves is threatening their livelihood.
Signs like this one are seen all over Wallowa County, Oregon, and show the clash between wolves and ranchers.
Dennis Sheehy and his grandson Zyler are part of a long line of cattle ranchers. They have been working here in Wallowa County for generations.
Dennis Sheehy: Wolves happen to be within half a mile of you right now.
Maggie: So, as you put your cattle into land where you know there is a wolf pack, are you nervous about your livestock?
Sheehy: It’s stressful. I mean, we do worry about it a lot.
Maggie: They say a single wolf attack can cost them thousands.
Zyler: Each cow is worth at least a thousand dollars, so every time a wolf takes one and just scatters it all over the hillside, that’s just like looking at ten one-hundred dollar bills fluttering around.
Maggie: To protect their cattle, many ranchers are asking for hunting licenses to cut down the number of wolves. In states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Idaho and Minnesota, it is now legal to hunt wolves. So far, Oregon is relying on other measures, like a state program that reimburses ranchers for livestock killed by wolves. That means ranchers continue living on land that belongs to both wolves and cattle.
Maggie: Do you think there is a way to, sort of, coexist?
Sheehy: I can honestly say that the cattlemen in Oregon have honestly been trying to find a way to coexist.
Maggie: Coexisting to protect the wolves, the ranchers and the beautiful land they both call home, and helping to stop wolves from becoming part of the next great extinction.
Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.