By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Police said on Thursday they have opened an investigation into the deaths of two Oregon wolves that wildlife activists believe could have been poached in an area where the animals have previously come into conflict with ranchers.
The two wolves, one of which was collared for tracking purposes, were found dead in August, about 50 yards apart in rural Northeast Oregon, after the device emitted a so-called mortality signal, the Oregon State Police said in a statement.
Sergeant Chris Hawkins of the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division declined to comment on the cause of death for the two wolves, saying only that an investigation was "going to take awhile."
Gray wolves, native to Oregon but wiped out in the state by an eradication campaign in the early 20th century, first returned there in 2008 and have now spread to several parts of the Pacific Northwest state.
With at least 77 wolves now living in Oregon, ranchers and farmers have increasingly raised concerns about the predators, which killed at least 30 sheep and cows last year, according to a state tally.
“Wolves have been killed illegally in Oregon before, and there is a very vocal minority that enthusiastically encourages it,” Portland-based wildlife advocacy group Oregon Wild said in a statement about the recent wolf deaths.
“This incident speaks to the need for continuing protections,” the group said.
The tracked wolf, known as OR-21, had been roaming on private lands with her mate for most of the past year, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman told Reuters.
(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Beech)