Potential For Wolf Restoration In Oregon

I wrote this review of the potential for wolf restoration in Oregon back in 1998. It is interesting to see that many of the predictions I made have materialized.

Author: George Wuerthner

ABSTRACT: Wolves (Canis lupus) were native to Oregon, and reported from throughout the state. Like much of the West, wolves were persecuted and eventually extirpated from the state, although presence of wolves occurred well into this century. The last documented Oregon wolf was killed in 1963. With an abundance of public lands, growing prey populations of elk (Cervus canadensis), deer (Odocoileus sp.), and beaver (Castor canadensis), plus low rural population density with fewer people per square kilometer than areas currently supporting viable wolf populations in the Rockies, plus a large concentrated urban population likely to be supportive of wolf recovery, Oregon has tremendous potential for reestablishment of viable wolf populations. Areas with high probability for successful wolf reintroductions and recolonialinazation are identified, and potential obstacles, as well as advantages that Oregon offers to wolf recovery are discussed.

Wolf Photo George Wuerthner


Wolves (Canis lupus) were once native to Oregon (Young and Goldman 1944). With growing wolf populations in the surrounding region including the states of Idaho, Montana, and Washington, it is only a matter of time before wolves begin to recolonize Oregon. Despite the likelihood for wolf recolonization of Oregon, little attention has been given to the state’s potential role for aiding in the recovery of the species and the suitability of Oregon for sustaining wolf populations has largely been ignored by both the scientific and conservation communities.

There is a general perception among the public as well as many professional biologists that Oregon lacks suitable habitat to support viable wolf populations. Indeed, a recent publication by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (1993) asserts that “… Oregon does not have sufficient contiguous wolf habitat of adequate size to support wolves without potential livestock damage problems.” Although it is doubtful that any state outside of Alaska is large enough to support wolves without some conflicts with livestock producers, it would be wrong to conclude Oregon could not support viable wolf populations and contribute to wolf recovery goals.

Compared to other wolf recovery areas in the Rockies, Oregon has a number of geographical, political and physical traits that favor wolf recovery. These include large tracts of public lands with high densities of potential wolf prey species such as deer and elk.

Willamette River and Portland, Oregon Photo George Wuerthner

Furthermore, although the state has a higher overall population than other recovery areas in the Rockies, Oregon’s human population is highly concentrated with significant portions of the state virtually devoid of human settlement.

All these factors suggests that Oregon possesses the biological and habitat suitability to support and sustain viable wolf populations, thus contribute to goal of wolf recovery.

Finally, given the politically liberal persuasion of Oregon’s large urban population, there may be greater potential support for wolf recovery in the state compared to the more rural and conservative Rocky Mountain states.


Historically, Oregon once supported large numbers of wolves. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were the first whites to note the occurrence of wolves in what would later be Oregon. The explorers recorded that wolves were present at the mouth of the Columbia River where they wintered in 1805-1006 (Bailey 1936). In the 1830s, the famous naturalist John Kirk Townsend (1839) visited the Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver across the Columbia River from present day Portland, and noted that a trapper brought in an “enormous wolf”. Lansford Hastings (1845), an early settler in Oregon’s Willamette Valley stated…”deer and wolves are the most numerous game” and he goes on to say, “the latter of these animals are very numerous, and troublesome to the surrounding settlers…” Young and Stanley (1944) quote Suckley who concluded that wolves were “exceedingly numerous in Oregon and Washington Territories, from the Cascades to the Rocky Mountains divide…”.

Despite their early abundance, as Oregon was settled, wolves were trapped and hunted for fur or to reduce their impact upon livestock and game animals. Between 1827 and 1859, the Hudson Bay Company buyers in Oregon Territory (which included not only the present state of Oregon but also Washington and parts of Idaho and Montana) purchased 7,761 wolf pelts from trappers (North Cascades National Park 1996).

The lush and fertile Willamette Valley attracted settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail. Photo George Wuerthner 

But fur trapping was only the first pressure on wolf populations. With the opening of the Oregon Trail from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in 1841, Oregon’s white population grew rapidly. During the peak of migration between 1843 and 1859, hundreds of thousands of people traveled over the trail to settle in Oregon, primarily in the Willamette Valley west of the Cascades. One of the first political organizational actions of the new settlers were so-called “wolf meetings”. The first such meeting, held in 1843, levied a $5 assessment on each settler to pay for bounties on predators, including wolves (Gulick 1991).

Although the first white settlement was concentrated in the Willamette Valley, mining discoveries in mountain regions after the 1860s, as well as growing ranching operations east of the Cascades expanded human populations throughout the state bringing human and wolves into greater conflict. Many of these miners and settlers depended upon wild game to supplement their food supplies. Elk, deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep were nearly driven to extinction by unregulated hunting (ODFW 1992), depriving wolves of their main source of prey. Elk, for example, were so decimated that they had to be reintroduced into several parts of the state (ODFW 1992).

There were five times as many domestic livestock grazing NE Oregon in 1911 than today. Photo George Wuerthner

At the same time that wild ungulate populations were declining, domestic livestock herds were expanding to record numbers. For example, by 1911 there were 5 times the number of domestic animals grazing the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in northeast Oregon as there are today (Schommer 1991). These large herds of domestic livestock served as a substitute prey for the state’s remaining wolves. As occurred elsewhere in the West, this led to ever-increasing hostility and persecution of the predators.

By the 1930s wolves were nearly extirpated from the state. Young and Stanley (1944) reported that in 1929 the U.S. Forest Service estimated that only 90 wolves still resided on national forests in the state. Biologist Vernon Bailey (1936) reported that a handful of wolves were killed around the state during the 1930s including one on the Umpqua National Forest in the southern Cascades, another on the west slope of the Cascades near McKenzie Bridge just east of Eugene, and a third east of the Cascades near Klamath Falls. The last documented wolf killed on the Fremont National Forest east of the Cascades occurred in 1927 (Per. Com. Carly Gage, Fremont National Forest).


The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (Puchy and Marshall 1993) confirms that several wolf specimens have been taken in Oregon during the past 10 years. However, the Department does not believe they represent viable, reproducing wild populations.

Nevertheless, all through the 1990s, sightings of large canids were recorded in different parts of Oregon. At least one pack, and several other single or small groups of large canids have been observed, tracked, heard, and even photographed by numerous persons for the past five years on the Rogue River National Forest (Per. Com. Joel Pagel, Biologist, Rogue River National Forest) in southern Oregon. The occurrence of young among the pack suggests they may be reproducing.

Three sightings of large canids in the Chemult area of the Winema National Forest east of the Cascades have also been recorded recently (Per. Com. Brent Frazier, Biologist, Winema National Forest).

Whether any of these records are captive wolves released into the wild, a relict wild indigenous wolf population, or recent colonization by wild wolves from Canada or adjacent states is not known at this time. Nevertheless, the presence and persistence of large, wild canids in the state does suggest that Oregon can support wild wolves if reintroduced, or should natural recolonization occur or continue.


If wild wolves aren’t already in Oregon, it appears only a matter of time before wolves naturally recolonize Oregon. Wolves are known to disperse long distances, sometimes up to 800 km (Fritts, 1983, Boyd et al. 1994). Expanding wolf populations in adjacent states of Idaho, Montana, and Washington, as well as migrants direct from British Columbia or Alberta in Canada could be source animals for Oregon wolf repopulation.

Wolves have been sighted in a number of locations in Washington’s Cascade Range including the Pasayten Wilderness, Twisp River drainage, Glacier Peak Wilderness, and by Stevens Pass slightly north and east of Seattle. Successful wolf reproduction in the North Cascades of Washington was reported in the summer of 1990 (North Cascades National Park 1996), indicating that wolf sightings are not all non-reproducing dispersers.

It is no more than 200 km from the most southerly of these Washington wolf sightings to the Oregon border, although any colonizing wolves from northern Washington would have to cross two Interstates (I-90 and I-84) and swim, or otherwise cross the Columbia River, a major physical barrier.

The only physical barrier to wolf recolonization of Oregon from Idaho is the Snake River. Photo George Wuerthner 

An even more likely source for Oregon wolf recolonization is Idaho. Wolves are presently found in central Idaho and the only physical barrier of any consequence for wolf migration to Oregon from Idaho is the Snake River. During the summer of 1996, a litter of wolf pups was born to a pair of wolves just east of McCall, Idaho (Loftus 1996), not more than 100 km from the Oregon border.

It appears as wolf populations in adjacent states grow, wolf dispersal into Oregon is almost a certainty.


Oregon has several factors that may contribute to the success of wolf recolonization. More than 60.4 percent of the state is in public ownership, one of the highest percentages in the West. Management of these holdings is equally shared between the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM (Puchy and Marshall 1993). Although much of this land has been altered from natural conditions by roading, logging, and livestock grazing, these public holdings potentially could be managed to favor wolf recovery. Road closures, removal or reduction in conflicting land uses such as livestock production could pave the way for sustained wolf recovery and repopulation.

Canyon by Pot Creek, Blue Mountains, Umatilla National Forest, Oregon Photo George Wuerthner

Managing some public lands to sustain wolves is also favored by the distribution of Oregon’s human population. Though the state has more than 3 million people, and a population density of approximately 12 people/sq. km, such generalized statistics, mask some important subtleties. Only 1.2 percent of the state is dominated by urban development (Puchy and Marshall 1993). The most urban counties have more than 532 people per sq. km, but the average state-wide is only 1 person per sq. km. (Puchy and Marshall 1993). Some eastern Oregon counties where wolf recolonization is likely to occur have a population density less than .39 people per sq. km.–equal to that of Alaska. Indeed, more than 50 percent of the state’s population reside in the Portland metropolitan area, and 86 percent of the state’s population lies in the urban centers located in the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua valleys west of the Cascades (Puchy and Marshall 1993) leaving much of the state virtually uninhabited.

Land use zoning urban growth boundary Willamette Valley by Eugene Oregon Photo George Wuerthner

Oregon also has state-wide land use planning that concentrates development within urban growth boundaries. Lands outside of the urban boundaries are zoned either as farmland or timberlands, and cannot be subdivided under most situations. These laws help to restrict development to existing urban centers, and limits sprawl.

Due to the highly concentrated human development and great expanses of public land, Oregon supports some of the largest big game populations in the West. Unlike some other states such as Montana where the majority of critical low elevation winter range is in private ownership, a significant proportion of Oregon’s big game winter range is in public ownership, further enhancing the potential for supporting a large wolf prey base.

Elk in snowstorm. Photo George Wuerthner

The primary potential wolf prey species in Oregon include two sub-species of elk and three species of deer. Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) occur east of the Cascades, and the statewide average between 1979-1990 was 272,000 (ODFW 1990). State-wide population estimates for black-tailed deer (Odocoileus columbianus) exceed 372,000 animals (ODFW 1995). There are also limited numbers of whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), concentrated primarily along the Columbia River and several major tributaries. Oregon supports some of the largest elk herds in the nation. There are two sub-species of elk–Roosevelt (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) found west of the Cascades and Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) east of the Cascades. In 1995, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that some 56,000 Roosevelt elk and 63,800 Rocky Mountain elk roamed the state (ODFW 1995). Clearly there is sufficient prey to support viable wolf populations.


There are three physiographic provinces of the state likely to support viable wolf populations: Siskiyou Mountains, Blue Mountains, and Cascade Range. All are characterized by large public lands holdings, low human population density, and good numbers of ungulate prey.


The Klamath Siskiyou region of Southwest Oregon continues into northern California providing a large roadless complex. Photo George Wuerthner 


The Siskiyou Mountains make up the southwest corner of the state just north of the California border. These mountains are rugged with deep river canyons carved by the Rogue, Checto and Illinois Rivers. Elevations vary from sea level to over 2,400 meters on Mount Ashland (Loy 1976, Wuerthner 1988). Rainfall varies from over 254 cm along the coast, to less than 50.8 cm in rainshadow interior valleys. Snow is common at higher elevations in winter, but the lower valleys remain snow-free year round. The Siskiyous are known as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the nation, with the highest number of vertebrate species in Oregon (Puchy and Marshall 1993).

The major economic activities are logging, tourism and some commercial fishing on the coast. Due to the limited amounts of level terrain, agriculture plays a smaller role here than nearly any other part of the state, with less than one percent of the province in cropland or pasture (Puchy and Marshall 1993). Most of the land is heavily timbered and in public ownership as part of the Siskiyou National Forest, or under management from the BLM. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness and surrounding roadless lands make up a core undeveloped area of over 101,250 roadless hectares that adjoin other large roadless tracts in California.

Terrain also limits human settlement, and the province has only 27,000 residents–less than one percent of the state’s total (Puchy and Marshall 1993). The region supports approximately 79,000 black-tailed deer and 12,000 elk (ODFW 1995).

The Three Sisters Wilderness in the Central Oregon Cascades. Photo George Wuerthner 


The Cascades Range runs north-south dividing the state into two biologically distinct halves–a wet western slope and a drier eastern slope. Roosevelt elk and black-tailed deer are found on the west slope, while Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer are east of the Cascade crest. The range is drained by numerous large rivers including the McKenzie, Santiam, and Deschutes (Wuerthner 1988).

The width of the range is narrow in the north by Mount Hood, but gradually widens south of Bend forming a high timbered plateau that extends up to 60 km east of the main crest of the range. The west side foothills are no more than 200 meters above sea level, while the general crest of the range is approximately 2,000 meters. Nevertheless, a number of prominent high volcanic peaks rise above this general crest including the state’s highest peak, 3429.7 meter Mount Hood. Although rainfall is common all winter at lower elevations, winter snow accumulations are significant at higher elevations, often exceeding 7 meters or more. Timberline lies between 2,000 and 2,500 meters, considerably lower than mountains of a similar latitude in the Rockies. Permanent snowfields and glaciers dominate the highest peaks. The range creates a formidable barrier to travel with the lowest passes all above 1200 meters in elevation (Loy 1976, Wuerthner 1988).

The Western Slope of the Cascades is low elevation and nearly snowfree all winter. Most of it is public land or large private timber holdings. Photo George Wuerthner

Despite their proximity to major urban populations in the Willamette, Rogue and Umpqua valleys, the Cascades themselves are sparsely settled. Although logging roads terrace nearly every major river valley, much of the landscape remains surprisingly remote since little human settlement exists in the Cascades themselves. Indeed, due to this effective remoteness, large canids suspected of being wolves have managed to persist in the southern Cascades for a number of years (Per. com. Joel Pagel Rogue River National Forest biologist) despite the extensive logging road network.

A tributary of the McKenzie River on the western slope of the Cascades. Photo George Wuerthner 

Land ownership is primarily under public control, with the majority under Forest Service management, although a significant amount of timbered BLM lands are found in the foothills and along valley bottoms including lands as low as 120 meters elevation. Such low elevation lands ensure significant amounts publicly held ungulate winter range habitat in public holdings. Outside of small holdings in the few communities, most of the private land in the Cascade Range is held by timber corporations, and used primarily for timber production. Timber production also dominates the public lands in the Cascades as well. Despite this emphasis upon resource extraction, most of the Cascade crest, as well as significant portions of the mid to low elevation forested flanks of the range are protected from resource development within federally designated wildernesses and one national park–Crater Lake. These wilderness areas potentially provide a nearly continuous core protected area stretching north-south along the entire length of the range.

Although the extensive logging road network poses some potential risks for wolves, the overall remoteness and distance from settlement counters the negative effects of road access to some extent. An aggressive road closure policy could significant improve security for wolves in this region. Livestock production is only significant in the southeastern portion of the region between Klamath Falls and Bend, thus reducing the potential conflicts with the ranching community.

Potential prey in the Cascades includes elk and deer, plus limited amounts of pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) east of Crater Lake National Park. An estimated 25,000 elk, 149,000 black-tailed deer, and perhaps another 60,000 mule deer (ODFW 1995) are found in this region.


The Wallowa Mountains in NE Oregon hosts Oregon’s largest wilderness area–the Eaglecap Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 


The last, and perhaps best potential region for wolf recovery in Oregon lies in the Blue Mountains. Taking in nearly the entire northeast portion of the state, the Blue Mountains is a catch-all name for a mountainous uplift more than 200 km wide and 300 km long that stretch in an east-west arch from the Snake River nearly to the Cascades near Prineville.

Ponderosa pine in Mill Creek Wilderness, Ochoco Mountains. Photo George Wuerthner

The Blue Mountains are sometimes further subdivided into the Ochoco, Blue and Wallowa sub-ranges. The lowest elevation, just under 300 meters lie along the Snake River, while the highest peaks in the Wallowa Mountains rise to nearly 3,000 meters (Wuerthner 1988). With the exception of the heavily glaciated Wallowa Mountains, most of the Blue Mountain complex is rolling terrain, although cut by many deep river canyons. With a more continental climate, the Blues are drier, and less snowy than the Cascades. The Blues are dominated by bunchgrasses and ponderosa pine at lower elevations, grading into mid-elevation forests dominated by western larch, subalpine fir, and grand fir (Wuerthner 1988).

More than half of this region is under public ownership–primarily within four national forests. In general, less of the region is protected as wilderness than in the Cascades or Siskiyous, nevertheless, there a number of large roadless core areas, particularly the area making up the Eaglecap Wilderness–Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA) that combined make up a 624,000 hectare area along the Idaho-Oregon border that would likely support viable wolf populations. Outside of protected wilderness, timber production has been quite extensive. But as with the Cascades, an aggressive road closure policy could significantly improve security for both wolves and their prey base.

Unlike the Cascades or the Siskiyous, livestock production is significant in the region, particularly at lower elevations, posing the potential for greater human-wolf conflicts. Nevertheless, as with other areas of the West, livestock losses to wolves are likely to be minimal. Conflicts could be further minimized by removal of livestock from public lands, or by requiring all public lands livestock operators to protect their animals by use of herders or other non-lethal methods to reduce predator opportunity.

Imnaha River Canyon, Hells Canyon NRA, Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Oregon Photo George Wuerthner

Much of the Blue Mountains geographic area is lightly populated. Only 53,000 people reside in the region (Puchy and Marshall 1993), and human development is concentrated in a few larger population centers like LaGrande and Baker City. The Blue Mountain region accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s population. Many of the counties in the region are losing population.

Prey populations in this region are among the highest in the state. Mule deer populations exceed an estimated 100,000 animals, while an estimated 59,000 or so elk populate the same region (ODFW 1995).


Eugene seen here has about 300,000 people. Photo George Wuerthner 

As mentioned previously nearly 86 percent of the state’s population resides west of the Cascades, chiefly in the urban centers of Portland, Eugene, Salem, Medford, Ashland, and Corvallis. Most of these communities tend to be politically liberal. These is less identification with the livestock industry in the state compared to say Wyoming–the “Cowboy State”, and hence potentially more support for wolf reintroduction or colonization. Surveys have demonstrated a strong disapproval of wolf reestablishment within the livestock community, but stronger support among the public at large (Bath 1991). Similar support for wolf recolonization or reintroduction could be expected from Oregon’s urban dwellers.


Photo George Wuerthner

Oregon has sufficient habitat and prey to support viable wolf populations. Given the expanding population of wolves in nearby states, it’s likely that wolf recolonization of Oregon will occur in the near future. Due to the extensive public lands holdings, concentrated human population, a largely urban population likely to be supportive of wolf reestablishment, and a sufficient prey base, Oregon could likely support viable wolf populations in three major physiographic regions. Management policies that promoted wolf security and a reduction in human-wolf conflicts such as road closures and termination of livestock production on some public land could further enhance wolf recovery potential. Oregon should be considered in future wolf recovery plans and efforts.


Bailey, Vernon. 1936. North American Fauna # 55: The Mammals and Life Zones of Oregon. U.S.D.A. Bureau of Biological Survey, Washington DC.

Bath, Alistair. 1991. Attitudes about wolf restoration. In The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America’s Wilderness Heritage. R. Keiter and M. Boyce (eds.). Yale University Press, New Haven.

Boyd, D.K., P. Paquet, R.R. Ream, D.H. Pletscher, C. White, and S. Donelon. 19914. Dispersal characteristics of a recolonizing wolf population in the Rocky Mountains. In: L.D. Carbyn. S.H. Fritts and D.R. Seip (eds.) Ecology and conservation of wolves in a changing world. Canadian Circumpolar Institute.

Fritts, S.H. 1983. Record dispersal by a wolf from Minnesota. J. Mammal. 64:166-167.

Gulick, Bill. 1991. A Roadside History of Oregon. Mountain Press, Missoula, Montana.

Hastings, Lansford W. 1845. The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and Washington. Applewood Books, Bedford, Mass.

Loftus, B. 1996. Wolf pups discovered in Idaho. Page 3A, Register-Guard, July 27, 1996, Eugene, Oregon.

Loy, William. 1976. Atlas of Oregon. U of Oregon Press, Eugene.

North Cascades National Park. 1996. Wolves in the North Cascades: Questions and Answers. North Cascades National Park, Sedro Wooley, WA.

ODFW. 1990. Mule deer management plan. Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Portland, Oregon

ODFW. 1992. Oregon’s elk management plan. Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Portland, Oregon.

ODFW. 1995. 1995 Bio-meeting Information Report–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Portland, Oregon.

Puchy, Claire A. and David B. Marshall. 1993. Oregon Wildlife Diversity Plan. ODFW, Portland, Oregon.

Schommer, T. 1991. Analysis of Big Game Statistics 1965-90 Wallowa Whitman National Forest. U.S.D.A. Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Oregon.

Townsend, John K. 1839. Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Wuerthner, G. 1988. Oregon Mountain Ranges. American Geographic Publishing, Helena, Montana.

Young, Stanley P. and Edward A. Goldman. 1944. The Wolves of North America. Part 1. Dover Publications, New York.



George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner