Wildlife officials say a lone wolf "probably" killed nearly two dozen sheep between Feb. 23 and March 4 at the Oregon Coast, and according to local ranchers, it might not be the first time.
An investigation by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows 23 sheep — 22 lambs and one ewe — were killed in four separate incidents on private property in the White Mountain area of Curry County in the far southwest corner of the state.
Biologists determined the deaths were caused by a "probable" wolf attack, but could upgrade the ruling to "confirmed" if they can positively identify the culprit on camera.
Oregon is home to at least 124 wolves as of the last count. Most of them are east of the Cascade Range. An updated population estimate is expected to be finished by April.
ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said the department is not currently monitoring any wolves in Curry County, though last year they did investigate what appeared to be wolf tracks along the Pistol River.
A photo of what might have been a young wolf was also captured by a trail camera not far from where another rancher reported finding dead sheep in neighboring Coos County last October.
"It was a blurry picture but could have been a wolf or dog," Dennehy said. "It was a single individual."
John Stephenson, Oregon wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said they are working with ODFW to put up additional trail cameras to confirm the presence of a wolf. He said the evidence points to a single wolf that probably dispersed from another pack — possibly the Rogue pack near Crater Lake.
"These dispersing wolves, they travel such long distances, they can show up just about anywhere," Stephenson said.
While they did not necessarily expect to see wolves at the coast, Stephenson said there are plenty of elk and other prey. He said he is working with the rancher to set up flashing strobe lights as a deterrent to prevent future attacks.
Dusty McCord, the Coos County rancher who reported the dead sheep last year, said he believes it was the same wolf that frequented his pasture from late September to October.
McCord, who raises mostly sheep about two miles north of Langlois, Ore., estimates he lost between 30 and 35 ewes, including replacement ewe lambs that sell for about $300 a head.
On Oct. 18, 2018, ODFW investigated three dead and two injured ewes at the property. Signs did point to a canid — a member of the dog family — of some type, but investigators said they could not differentiate whether it was a wolf, coyote or dog and ruled the death a "possible/unknown" wolf attack.
McCord said the non-lethal deterrents seem to have worked. The wolf disappeared for months, he said, until the most recent "probable" depredations in Curry County.
"I think everybody is kind of scared if wolves are here," McCord said. "There's nothing they can do about it."
Rick McKenzie, who also ranches just a few miles from McCord, said he worries it could be the end of the local livestock industry if a pack becomes established in the area. Non-lethal deterrents, he argued, only serve to push the wolves from neighbor to neighbor.
"You don't know when you come to work whether you've been decimated or not," he said. "I don't know how long people will put up with that."
Wolves are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act in Western Oregon. Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon propose a rule for delisting wolves, which drew cheers from ranchers and outrage from environmental groups who argue such a move would be premature.