Wolves come calling in Oregon

Apr 9, 2010

Wolves come calling in Oregon

When Karl Patton was awoken on the night of March 20 by the sound of barking dogs, he instinctively knew trouble was afoot. His dogs were sounding a full retreat, and the 60 cows in the pair pasture adjacent to his house were anxiously calling for their calves. For the past two days, wolves had been sighted on and around Patton’s ranch east of Joseph, OR, by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and hunters. The day before, ODFW had flown the country, and hazed the wolves off Patton’s property and over Little Sheep Creek back to their home range on Little Sheep grade. But at 3:00 a.m. the morning on the 20th, Patton had guessed that the threat had come calling.

"I opened the door and listened, and I could tell something was wrong," recalls Patton. [Then] one of my dogs comes storming back to the house, and you could tell that something was after him ... they came right to the house, chasing him. I could hear him run across the deck. I knew something was not right. That’s when I ... headed out. I got a gun and headed up the hill."

In the moonlight, accompanied by one dog, Patton went out into the night to discover the cause of the trouble. It was not hard to find. Several dark shapes were plainly visible against the new-fallen snow. The wolves were aggressively approaching him at speed down the slope.

"I walked out less than 100 yards from the house, and we had a light snow cover, and you could see those suckers and they were coming hard. I could see four or five animals. They were coming hard at me and my dog. I would say the lead dog was probably fifty feet away, or less. I just went to yelling and shooting, and they headed off."

The wolves retreated north-northeast.

Meanwhile, his cattle, in a state of extreme anxiety, had bunched themselves into a tight cluster in the 10-acre calving pasture. Luckily, no calves were lost; Patton had arrived in time. But wolf tracks were clearly visible inside the pasture. It had been a close call.

Remarked Patton, "I could just imagine dead calves everywhere. I think if nobody had got up, and nobody had been around, I think there’d been dead calves."

Patton phoned 9-1-1 to report the sighting, then returned to the house to reload and grab a four-wheeler. After patrolling the area for half an hour, it became evident that the wolves had left, at least for that night.

The following morning, Sheriff Fred Steen and Marlin Riggs of US. Fish and Wildlife Service arrived, accompanied by Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Wolf Committee Chairman Rod Childers.

"We got there right at daylight," recalls Childers, "and these cows were still piled up in the corner. And I mean they was in a tight bunch. And in the snow, we could see the tracks of the wolves. They had come in from the east, out of the hills."

ODFW Wolf Coordinator Russ Morgan arrived shortly thereafter. Morgan and Riggs were able to provide a positive ID on the numerous wolf tracks that crisscrossed Patton’s property and traversed the pair pasture, but they also made a troubling discovery; the wolves had already developed a taste for beef. A dead cow Patton had buried the previous day had been dug up and eaten on. Wolf tracks were all around it.

"I’m pretty sure the wolves spent quite a bit of time digging and eating on that dead cow," Patton grimly remarked.

Childers emphasized that the cow had been buried properly. "She was a couple feet in the ground. They had chewed on her, and then they had come ... west to the [pair pasture] after that."

ODFW quickly equipped Patton with a number of tools to help notify him when the wolves approach his property. The wolf pack consists of 10 individuals, four of which wear radio collars. If a collared wolf approaches his property, Patton will now be notified by a radio receiver. Additionally, a radio activated guard device, or "RAG box," was installed at the pair pasture that the wolves entered on March 20. The box is designed to emit a piercing alarm of gunshot noises and thumping helicopter blades, along with flashing lights, when a collared wolf comes within range. Patton was also issued rubber bullets.

"Our intention here is to equip these landowners with the tools that will help them," explains Morgan. "We’re trying to [use] as [many] preventative techniques as we can. It’s just about the whole toolbox we have. The intent of all of these is to keep depredation from happening."

ODFW has also made a point of visiting Patton’s ranch frequently since the incident to monitor the situation.

Explains Morgan, "We’ve had a presence nearly every night and every morning over the past week out there, listening for the radio collars so that we can detect them before they come in. [And] we’ve aerially hazed these wolves, very aggressively."

Yet despite ODFW’s best efforts, the wolves managed to make several returns to Patton’s ranch and escape detection. Patton recalls, "After [the 20th], they were gone about a day, and then they were back here. I’ve found tracks [close by] this ... buzz box that they put up to make all the racket and the lights flashing, and I never heard it go off. But I found tracks in the snow."

According to Patton, an uplink to the GPS information confirmed that wolves had indeed returned to his ranch.

Patton also indicated that the wolves returned again the night of March 30. He had removed the dead cow and re-buried her elsewhere more deeply. The wolves returned to dig at the original burial site, which Patton had carefully filled and smoothed over.

On March 31, according to Patton’s report, the wolves went even further west onto irrigated farm ground in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley. ODFW hazed and fired on the wolves with non-lethal bullets, and they have not since been back since.

Childers remarks, "As far as the way that it was handled, everybody did what they were supposed to, but the concern is the wolves are still hanging around ... and everybody’s pretty nervous."

Despite some issues with equipment, Patton speaks highly of ODFW’s response to the situation.

"They’re all over it," he says. "I’ve got a good response. They’re here a lot. They worked on the buzz box, and they think they figured out why it wasn’t going off. It was a battery problem."

"They’ve done all different kinds of things," continues Patton. "They do not want conflict between livestock and wolves. Because, like the Keating wolves, the conflict was why they had to put the wolves down and, evidently, they want the wolves here, so they’re trying their best to get in the middle, keep the wolves back, away from cattle."

In the Keating Valley incident in Baker County, OR, last year, two wolves were destroyed after killing approximately 24 lambs and at least one, and possibly as many as four, calves.

Says Morgan, "We’ve said all along just as we did with the Keating wolves a year ago, we don’t want to allow depredation to happen, and if it does, we will need to deal with it. We need to stop it from happening. Certainly, non-lethal controls are a part of that; that’s what we’re using right now are these non-lethal preventatives ... We will try to use all the non-lethals that we can. But, certainly, we will deal with the depredation as it comes. And if we get to a chronic depredation situation, we have a set of rules that go with that, just like we did with the Keating wolves."

The problem is that a situation of chronic depredation may create economic losses too costly for ranchers to absorb. By the time wolves have done enough damage to warrant their destruction, the remedy may simply be too little, too late. And in Oregon, where there is no state-run compensation program, ranchers have no guarantee that their livestock losses will be compensated. Currently, the only recourse for compensation in Oregon is through the activist group Defenders of Wildlife, which supports the relisting of wolves on the federal endangered species list. Ranchers’ experiences with their stated policy of compensating ranchers at fair market value for livestock lost to wolf depredation have been mixed.

In the meantime, all parties are anxious that the situation in the Wallowa Valley does not deteriorate to the level of having to manage for depredation.

Says Morgan, "We’re trying to get in on this on the front end of the situation where the wolves are hanging around. They might be hanging around because of the dead piles. What we’re trying to do with all of this is just to be ahead of the game, where if we can keep depredation from happening in the first place, it makes everybody happier."

Ranchers, however, feel that waiting and hoping that preventative measures are effective is not sufficient to deal with the problem. The general consensus is that ranchers should be permitted to shoot wolves if they are caught harassing or killing livestock, something which the Oregon State Endangered Species Act does not allow.

Says Patton, "I think that we ought to be able to shoot the wolves when we find them in and around our cattle. Keeping their numbers down is one thing, but making them afraid of humans [is another]."

Childers agrees: "We’re watching it very closely ... It just goes to show yet again that we need the right to be able to protect our livestock when [the wolves] come in. That is, [we need] to be able to have the right to shoot them, which we do not have." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent