Oregon authorities are seeking help after the state’s dwindling gray wolf population was hit with a string of fatal poisonings — deaths that come at a time when the United States is embroiled in an ongoing debate over how to protect the species.

Within five months this year, eight wolves were found poisoned in the eastern part of the state, some alongside other dead animals. An entire wolf pack, made up of three male and two female wolves, was found dead in February and later determined to be poisoned, state police said. A dead magpie was found near the wolves. About a month later, a female wolf from a different pack was found in the area, as were a deceased skunk and magpie. Two more wolves, an adult male and a young female wolf from separate packs, were found in April and July.

The mysterious poisonings — Capt. Stephanie Bigman, a state police spokeswoman, said “poisonings do occur, but not to this extent” — have left investigators stumped. State police said in a news release that fish and wildlife troopers have investigated but “exhausted leads in the case,” and authorities are now asking the public to call a tip line with any information. Numerous conservation and animal protection groups are also offering a combined $26,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the poisonings.

“We were shocked and appalled by these incidents,” Sristi Kamal, senior northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, told The Washington Post. In a recent appeal for help, the group called the “targeted attack” a “significant blow” to the recovery of a wolf population that Kamal said was reported to have 173 wolves in the state as of last year.

“These incidents of poaching highlight how vulnerable our wolf population is in Oregon,” Kamal said. She said she also expects the reward amount to increase in coming days.

The poisonings in Oregon this year, which follow other recent gray wolf deaths in the United States, come amid an intense legal and policy fight over how to manage the species. Late last month, an Oregon-born gray wolf was killed after it was struck by a vehicle after a lengthy trek into California. Environmental experts also say the recent poisonings highlight an underlying attitude about the predators that could be troubling for the species if left unchecked.

“Catching the culprit is critical, but Oregon also needs to think hard about what more can be done to protect these incredibly vulnerable animals,” Sophia Ressler, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement regarding the reward.

The deaths of eight wolves in the Oregon gray wolf population may not have a “significant impact,” Michael Paul Nelson, a professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University, said in an interview. But he said it signals a broader concern for the animals.

“I would say this instance isn’t a threat for the population, but I think what is a threat to the population is the attitude or the worldview that underpins these kinds of actions,” he said. “What might be a one-off thing … say they don’t get caught, all of a sudden, it’s okay.”

The northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population — which includes wolves in eastern Oregon, where the poisonings occurred, Kamal said — lost federal Endangered Species Act protections a decade ago. Other gray wolves in the state lost protections in 2020, when the Trump administration announced it would strip the animals of their protections in the Lower 48 states. At the time, about 1,800 gray wolves were reported present in western states such as Oregon, California and Washington.

In September, the Biden administration said it would conduct a review considering whether to restore federal protections for gray wolves in the western United States.

Nelson said what’s happening in some states like Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin is a “more serious threat to wolves.” In February, Wisconsin held a wolf hunt a few months after the Trump administration removed the endangered species protections, exceeding its kill quota of 119 wolves and killing 218 in 63 hours. Other states have made it easier in recent months to kill the predators.

Kamal said that without federal protections, “it becomes especially important to strengthen our anti-poaching laws in Oregon.”

She argued the state has “made big strides” in the past couple of years, passing an anti-poaching measure in 2019 and launching an anti-poaching campaign to curb illegal wildlife killings.

“I don’t want to say if you relist wolves [under the Endangered Species Act], that will prevent instances like this,” Nelson said about the poisonings. Still, he said, “that’s the most important thing for wolves is to relist them.”

He said that at the state level, a critical way to try to prevent wolf killings like the recent ones in Oregon is to “take it very seriously,” which he said state authorities are doing.

“Nothing’s a guarantee — people calculate risk,” Nelson said. “But what they’re doing now by being serious shows there is a risk if you do this, there’s a very good chance you will get caught. A lot of the signals that we send as a state and as state agencies are probably just as important as anything like listing.”

Nelson said incidents like the poisoning “bring into sharp relief” that there’s a “culture that thinks of nature in this way.”

“There’s a lot of, I guess I would call it worldview remediation, that needs to take place at the same time,” he said.

Kamal echoed that wolf poaching incidents “highlight that work needs to be done on the ground in promoting coexistence between our human communities and wildlife so we can share the landscape.”

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