At the Apex

A cougar, silent and unseen in the thick understory, is emitting a beacon from its tracking collar. “She’s close, about a hundred meters to the north,” says Beth Orning, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University. Orning has evidence that cougar No. C216 is raising a litter in this hidden ravine.


February 3, 2016

Wildlife researcher Elizabeth Orning searches for a GPS collared cougar in the Umatilla National Forest, Oregon.
Wildlife researcher Elizabeth Orning searches for a radio-collared cougar in the Umatilla National Forest, Oregon.

By Lee Sherman Gellatly

Photos by Jim Yuskavitch

BETH ORNING WALKS ALONG THE RIM OF A STEEP RAVINE, the brittle, rime-crusted grasses crunching under her boots. A chill mist shrouds the surrounding hills, where autumn-yellow larches pierce the deep-green stands of Ponderosa pine like golden spears.

From a holster on Orning’s belt glints a blood-red canister of Counter Assault Bear Deterrent. The pepper spray is standard field gear, just in case she blunders into an aggressive black bear. She stands still for a moment, her gloved hand holding up an aluminum pole fitted with horizontal crossbars. Resembling a ‘50s-era TV antenna, the instrument is in fact a very-high-frequency (VHF) radio receiver. She’s picking up a signal. A cougar, silent and unseen in the thick understory, is emitting a beacon from its tracking collar, placed by researchers two years before.

“She’s close, about a hundred meters to the north,” says Orning, a Ph.D. student studying wildlife biology at Oregon State University. Waiting for her to give the go-ahead is her team of two animal handlers and master houndsman Ted Craddock, a frequent partner in the collaborative big-predator research of Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Craddock’s dog Spur, a “high-tan” coonhound bred and trained for moments exactly like this, is hyper-alert, his nose greedily sucking in the musky scents of this wild place on the edge of the “Blues,” the sprawling mountain range on Oregon’s northeastern flank that includes the Elkhorns and the Strawberries.

“OK, she’s moving away from us,” says Orning. Having closely monitored the big cat’s movements for months, plotting them point-by-point on a “cluster map,” Orning has strong evidence that cougar No. C216 is raising a litter, born in this hidden ravine four or five weeks ago.

A coonhound named Spur sniffs out the cougar den site. (Photo: Jim Yuskavitch)
A coonhound named Spur sniffs out the cougar den site.

Today’s mission, finding and collaring the kittens, will add significant new data to a study of cougar-wolf coexistence in the Mount Emily Wildlife Management Unit. One of Oregon’s densest cougar populations prowls the unit’s forested slopes. Now the cats have competition. Three wolf packs — the Mount Emily, Meacham and Umatilla River packs — have taken up residence here in the past few years. Because these powerful meat-eaters command the very top of nature’s food web, biologists call them “apex predators.” Orning and her team want to know how the interspecies members of the area’s “carnivore guild” compete with each other from atop their shared pinnacle for territory and for food, especially “ungulates” — hooved animals such as mule deer and elk — some of whose numbers have been dropping steeply in this corner of the state.

“Estimating accurate predation rates and determining prey selection for wolves and cougars is critical to understanding the role that both of these top predators play in ungulate population dynamics,” says Katie Dugger, assistant unit leader for the Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and lead scientist on the wolf-cougar study. “We want to know how expanding wolf populations affect cougar populations, and how predation risk for elk and mule deer populations may be affected by the return of a second top predator to northeast Oregon.”

But getting the data is tough. Cougars (Puma concolor) lead secretive lives scattered over miles of wild and rugged terrain. “Cryptic” is how Dugger characterizes their behavior. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is somewhat easier to study, she says, but their densities are low. So to find and study these elusive creatures, researchers from OSU, in partnership with the ODFW and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, are using pursuit hounds, rubber leg-hold traps and helicopters. Once they’ve been captured, the animals are sedated, sexed, aged and collared with GPS and VHF devices for long-term monitoring.

Broadly, such research will help inform wildlife policy and management decisions as wolf numbers grow in Oregon. Since lone wolf OR7 made headlines with his journey across Oregon into California five years ago, wolves have gotten a fast foothold — so fast, in fact, that the target numbers for delisting under the Oregon Wolf Plan were reached several years sooner than expected.

In November, Oregon’s wolves were removed from the state endangered species list by a 4 – 2 vote of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Most commissioners accepted the report made by Oregon’s wolf coordinator, OSU alumnus Russ Morgan, that Oregon has enough breeding pairs, healthy pups and genetic diversity among its 81 confirmed wolves to ensure viability. With the federal Endangered Species Act still in force for western Oregon, along with hefty fines for poaching, the commission was comfortable delisting wolves for eastern Oregon (roughly east of Highway 97). It will be another year or so, Morgan notes, before wolf populations grow large enough to reach the next phase of the eastern Oregon plan (seven breeding pairs for three consecutive years), which would give ranchers more flexibility in dealing with problem wolves. For now, however, killing wolves anywhere in Oregon remains illegal unless authorized by fish and wildlife officials.

A mule deer, one of the primary prey species of cougars, browses in the Umatilla National Forest. (Photo: Jim Yuskavitch)
A mule deer, one of the primary prey species of cougars, browses in the Umatilla National Forest.

But critics question the metrics for sustainable wolf populations. The science of “how many wolves are enough wolves?” is uncertain, they argue. OSU wildlife researcher Luke Painter describes one sticking point for wolf defenders: the distinction between a “minimum viable population” and an “ecologically effective population,” built on a more rigorous set of possible threats, such as genetic bottlenecks, disease and widespread poaching. Conservation organizations argue that the ODFW’s benchmark of eight breeding pairs (four in the east and four in the west) for three consecutive years takes the minimalist approach, one that may not be adequate to sustain wolves over the long term.

In December, conservation groups filed suit, seeking to reverse the decision to delist. Meanwhile, beyond the political and legal fray, researchers like Orning are collecting and analyzing data about wolves and cougars — a duo she calls “charismatic megafauna times two” — in pursuit of data to inform future management decisions.

Sound of a Hound

Spur’s sinewy neck is ringed with multiple collars, each sprouting a spiky antenna for receiving GPS or radio signals so that, as Craddock says, “I know how far away he is at all times.” As the dog leads the team into the ravine, Orning’s long legs effortlessly clear the boulders and deadfall that litter the slope. Suddenly, Spur lets loose a piercing aurUUGH! aurUUGH! aurUUGH! He scents a cougar. The sound, somewhere between a roar and a howl, emanates, it seems, from some genetic vestige of a primal hunt, the age-old struggle of life, death and survival. Spur’s full-throated baying ensures the team’s safety. That’s because the big cat, invisible but most certainly watching warily from some not-so-distant promontory, won’t come near the den while the dog is on duty.

“OK, we’re really close,” Orning says quietly. “Now listen for the kittens. It’ll sound like songbirds chirping in the underbrush.” Then, “I hear them!” The next moment she’s bounding up the slope with the team at her heels. A chorus of plaintive mewling leads her to a densely needled tree, its lowest boughs brushing the ground. Orning kneels to peer beneath the branches. From the shadows, three pairs of dark-blue eyes look back at her.

Working quickly, she tattoos an ear, confirms the sex, and takes the weight of each stocky, big-pawed kitten (they range from 4 to 7 pounds). Once their collars are in place, Orning returns the little cougars to their lair. The collars will drop off as the kittens grow. Before she gets back to the truck, she takes a quick look at her radio signal. The mother cat already is hurrying back to check on her offspring and move them to a new, safer, den. As for the wolves, Orning’s tracking gear tells her that, at this very moment, the Meacham pack is loping across a neighboring range.

The study is an outgrowth of the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan (the Oregon Wolf Plan for short), crafted by ODFW and approved by the commission 10 years ago when wolves were still just a rumor in Oregon. It was only a matter of time, wildlife managers knew, before gray wolves — reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park under the federal Endangered Species Act two decades ago — would expand their range into Oregon. After holding a series of technical workshops and public meetings, the commission laid out a framework, not only to conserve wolves but also to improve their public image once they made their inevitable comeback.

Along with broad protections for wolves, the plan mandated research of the kind Orning is conducting under the guidance of Katie Dugger. Monitoring wolves via radio and GPS collars is “critical” for the future success of long-term wolf conservation and management, the plan’s authors stressed. The Mount Emily study began several years ago when ODFW wildlife research project leader Darren Clark (then a Ph.D. student at OSU) collected baseline data on cougars. Now that the wolves have come back, the study has expanded to include wolf data, which will overlay the cougars-only data for comparative analysis. Next summer, OSU wildlife ecologist Taal Levi, an assistant professor of Fisheries and Wildlife, will add bears and coyotes to the carnivore guild under investigation.

Eye of the Storm

By the time Oregon’s first documented breeding pair took up residence in the piney passes of the Blue Mountains in 2009, wildlife managers were ready. They had a blueprint, one that straddled the clashing interests of ranchers and hunters on one side and environmentalists on the other. Those splintered views — voiced at a series of emotional town hall meetings around the state — were a perfect microcosm of the rural-urban, east-west rift that long has characterized Oregon opinion and politics.

Beth Orning puts a radio collar on a 5-week-old cougar kitten
Beth Orning puts a radio collar on a 5-week-old cougar kitten

Dan Edge was smack-dab at the eye of the storm. “As you might imagine, the conversations in Eugene were very different from the conversations in Elgin,” says Edge, an OSU wildlife ecologist and associate dean for the College of Agricultural Sciences. He served on the wolf advisory committee and on the wildlife commission while the plan was being crafted.

Five main fears surfaced. Ranchers worried about wolves killing their cows and sheep. Hunters worried about wolves killing too many of the elk and deer they hoped to bag. Parents wondered if wolves would harm their kids. Pet owners feared for their dogs and cats. And might wolves carry diseases that could infect livestock and other wildlife? These were roughly the same fears that gnawed at the early settlers in the Oregon Territory. They organized hunting parties, offered bounties and posed for photos alongside dozens of dead wolves. By the late 1940s, Oregon’s wolves were gone.

Distilled, the nub of the wolf question in 2016 is pretty much the same as it was back then: the level of human tolerance for large carnivores. “It seems like it’s more a question of values than science,” says Levi, who studies bears and other big meat-eating mammals. “It’s a question of whether and how we want to live with wolves.”

Characteristically, OSU professor Bob Lackey minces no words when he labels the debate “nasty.” As a fish and wildlife ecologist who specializes in ecological policy analysis, Lackey challenges his students to solve case studies that mirror real-life ecological conundrums. “There is no right answer scientifically,” Lackey says. “Science is not the core of the issue. You can start with the same set of facts, and people will come to opposite political positions. It’s a value question in a very, very polarized society.”

A Hundred Voices

It was a windswept October day in the coastal town of Florence. Ragged sheets of rain whipped around the parking lot outside the Driftwood Shores motel and conference center. Inside, the meeting room was packed with more than 100 Oregonians sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in tight rows. Along the walls, several Oregon State Police guards wearing handguns scanned the crowd. There were burly guys in cowboy hats and string ties. There were guys wearing camo gear and plaid flannel shirts. A few men had on suits or blazers; one of them sported a red-white-and-blue lapel pin in the shape of a donkey. There were gray-haired women in bright scarves and handmade earrings and quilted vests. There were 20- and 30-somethings wearing designer hiking boots and T-shirts stamped with slogans like “I SPEAK FOR WILDLIFE.”

More people were wedged into the 1,700-square-foot meeting room that day than the total number of wolves in the entire 100,000-square-mile state of Oregon. The crowd — a spicy cross-section of Oregon’s wildlife stakeholders, from the Oregon Cattleman’s Association to the Sierra Club — was here to tell the wildlife commission their views on large carnivores, especially the proposed wolf delisting. Tensions were running as high as the surf outside.

After a fierce morning tackling the ethics and biology of thinning cougar populations in counties with lots of big cats, the commission turned to whether wolves should be taken off the state Endangered Species list. “We’re not basing our decision on emotion,” Chair Michael Finley cautioned the audience. “We’re basing it on facts and analysis.”

Beth Orning and Nigel Seidel determine the sex of a cougar kitten. (Photo: Jim Yuskavitch)
Beth Orning and Nigel Seidel determine the sex of a cougar kitten.

Nonetheless, emotion was at full throttle. A mother from northeast Oregon came forward carrying a towheaded toddler in her arms and described a “probable wolf attack” that had injured the family’s working dogs, Scooter and Tom. Another rancher from the same eco-region argued that livestock producers, whose cows and sheep are at risk, are being made to bear an “extreme burden” from wolf activity. Unlike Oregon’s urbanites, he said, ranchers have “skin in the game.” A representative of the Oregon Hunters Association summed up the position of the majority of the ranchers and hunters in the room, saying, “I’m in favor of delisting as soon as possible.”

On the other side of the debate was a representative of the Center for Biological Diversity, who argued that “it’s premature to delist” when nearly 80 percent of suitable habitat remains devoid of wolves. “We need peer review, verifiable science, outside experts,” he said. A man trained as a biologist stated that 70,000 head of livestock die every year in Oregon from causes other than predation. Wolf coordinator Russ Morgan confirmed that as of that day, verified wolf kills for 2015 accounted for seven domestic animal deaths (six sheep, one cow), a level of loss that a Southern Oregon herb farmer characterized as “the cost of doing business.” A leader of the nonprofit group Oregon Wild said, “Delisting is not supported by law, science or the public.” Urging an independent scientific review, he called the current analysis “specious and speculative,” adding that 81 wolves is a “ridiculously low” number, given that research shows Oregon has enough prey and habitat to support 1,400 wolves. “Delisting could be a green light for killing,” he warned.

Several wolf defenders, citing the research of OSU’s internationally recognized ecologist Bill Ripple, pointed out the protective effects of big carnivores on entire ecosystems — trees and plants, birds and bugs, fish and frogs. In places like Yellowstone or Zion National Park, where wolves and cougars were wiped out in earlier decades, elk and deer had the luxury to linger lazily beside streams, browsing new shoots and seedlings without fear of predation. As a result, willows, aspen and other riparian species died back severely. But when the fierce meat-eaters were returned to their former hunting grounds, the ungulates were once again alert, on edge, moving briskly across the landscape. The trees regenerated. The lush, green groves created shade and cooled creeks. Fish and amphibians flourished. Birds foraged and nested, bees and butterflies distributed pollen, beavers felled trees and built dams.

This “ecology of fear,” along with the direct killing of ungulates by large carnivores, limits populations of deer and elk, which in turn releases plants from over-browsing. Biodiversity cascades through the food web, triggered from the apex by wolves and meat-eating beasts, said a woman from Eugene, citing Ripple’s research on “trophic cascades.” She urged the commissioners to “stand up for science.”

Something for Everyone

From his office at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union, director Tim DelCurto picks up his phone one November afternoon after the commission’s vote to delist. Reluctantly, he agrees to make a few comments for the record. As a seasoned rangeland researcher, DelCurto is hyper-aware of the issue’s extreme sensitivity out here on Oregon’s eastern edge. “When someone asks me about wolves, I don’t really like to talk,” he says with a mirthless chuckle. “There’s so much emotion on all sides.”

With a bit of prodding, however, DelCurto lays out a perspective that, like the Oregon Wolf Plan itself, seems to offer something for everyone. “I do believe that a healthy balance of predators can have positive ecosystem effects,” he says. “But for people who live and ranch out here where the wolves are, it’s a source of concern and economic loss.” He notes that while the Wolf Plan authorizes monetary compensation to ranchers for documented wolf kills, cows and sheep may suffer other, equally damaging impacts — ones that are more or less invisible and thus much tougher to prove. OSU research has shown, for example, that the mere proximity of wolves to herds (simulated during experiments by recorded howls and wolf urine) can raise stress hormone levels that reduce fertility in livestock.

“Still, the general attitude is that wolves are here now,” says. “We have to minimize the impact between wolves and cattle producers by using good practices like burying the carcasses of anything that dies on the ranch, and using other non-lethal measures to keep wolves away. At the same time, the ranchers want to see the state follow the plan, which calls for delisting. My sense is, no one’s going to grab a gun and go hunt wolves now that they’re delisted. But right now, if wolves are harassing cows, you can’t do anything about it. Delisting is a step toward giving them more flexibility, more options, to deal with problem wolves in the future.”

Anatomy of a Carcass

Beth Orning, her hair tucked under a baseball cap, steps down from the driver’s seat of her OSU-issued Ford pickup near Mount Emily’s 4,500-foot summit. Miles to the south, the Elkhorns bump the sky in a plum-colored haze. It’s hunting season, so Orning hefts a bright red backpack as an extra measure of visibility.

As she strides across the ridge top, her eyes are locked onto her GPS tracker. Having plotted the previous week’s satellite signals onto a “cluster map” in her La Grande lab, she’s following her coordinates to locate a “prey acquisition site” — “kill site” for short. In an overgrown patch of shrubby pine, the white bones of a ribcage lay on a bed of fallen needles and cones. Other remains are strewn around the “cougar cache”: a hoof, a pelvis, a clump of hair, a jaw with teeth.

“This,” she says as she snaps on a pair of purple latex gloves, “was a mule deer.” Kneeling in the duff, she sets to work assembling what she calls her “prey puzzle”— figuring out the species, sex, age and condition of the dead animal. Using a small saw, she cuts open a leg bone and scoops out about a teaspoonful of pinkish marrow. “This should look fatty and white,” she says, transferring the gelatinous sample to a test tube. “The pink color tells me that this deer was in poor condition, not much body fat. The cougar could have been targeting sicker deer, or the whole herd might have been in bad shape.” When she’s back at her lab, Orning will weigh the sample, dehydrate it and then weigh it again to quantify the ratio of water to fat.

Mount Emily in the Umatilla National Forest has one of Oregon's densest cougar populations. (Photo: Jim Yuskavitch)
Mount Emily in the Umatilla National Forest has one of Oregon’s densest cougar populations. 

For the next three years, Orning will continue to capture, collar and monitor cougars and wolves. She’ll comb through carcasses at hundreds of kill sites. She’ll record her hard-won findings on the cryptic carnivores of northeast Oregon. “We predict that the arrival of wolves is altering cougars’ prey selection and use of habitat,” she recently told a gathering of about 50 scientists and community college students at the Pacific Northwest Research Station Forestry and Range Sciences Lab in La Grande. “Our ultimate goal is to figure out how these behavior changes affect elk and deer.”

Whether people perceive wolves as scary and dangerous or as noble and mysterious, they have come home to Oregon — returned of their own volition, here to stay, under the protection, however imperfect, of a plan that honors the animals’ right to exist while also acknowledging ranchers’ rights to safeguard their herds. While tolerance may trump data for those tasked with quelling fears and making laws, researchers like Orning carry on the science that will help Oregonians better understand, and live with, their wild brethren in the years to come.

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One thought on “At the Apex

  1. I really hope this is not a tool in support of hunting elk and deer, but rather a study to save and protect Oregon’s ecologies that have been destroyed by irrupted numbers of ungulates (cattle and sports hunting) due to the removal of the apex predators. We do not have the HRV of what a functioning predator to prey ecology was before we started killing the wolf and suppressing the cougar and bear. ODFW does not address the loss of eco-services and functions in any of their cougar, wolf or bear plans. It is all about killing them for profit, not protecting them and the ecosystems they sustain (which in comparison is price- less). Furthermore, I am a rancher and grew up on our family’s seven thousand acre cattle ranch in Oregon. Dad ran our ranch according to Aldo Leopold, and it worked. We lost cattle to humans and their dogs, but not the predators. Dogs kill more livestock than wolves, so in being true to that, why are we not taking care of the issue of dogs instead of the minuscule issue of the wolf? Dogs far outpace wolves, cougar and bobcats (combined) in the killing of livestock, and lets not even mention how many humans (and their pets and small livestock) are killed or disfigured yearly from pet domestic dogs. There are an unknown amount of livestock kills that are actually blamed on meso or apex predators when they were actually killed by the dogs. I know what a dog kill looks like. I lost fifty head of my sheep in one night from pet domestic dogs. I have seen photos of apex predator and mesopredator kills that were actually killed by dogs and not the apex or mesopredators. I fear that this study is a victim of steth policy making on the behalf of ODFW. Cougar populations will decline with the wolves and cannot sustain social or population numbers with the current flawed (cougar populations need to be calculated from available land mass and not the predator to prey ratio) model count (see Dr. Weilgus ODFW peer review out of Washington’s Ecological College or Pebble thesis). Existing hunting policies, trapping and current poaching (expected to increase if M100 passes) will bring Oregon’s cougar population down to unrealistic numbers and probably genetic extinction. There is more hunting available for cougar now then there was during the bounty when there was also less disrupted land mass and less ungulate. We cannot go back just a few generations, we need to go back several hundred years and look at the bigger picture – when the entire United States had cougar and before Oregon started killing them. You cannot make sound policy off of flawed numbers.

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