Wolf depredation confirmed in northeast Oregon

May 15, 2010

A calf belonging to a Wallowa County rancher has been verified as the first confirmed wolf kill in Oregon this year, as well as the first in Wallowa County since the predator’s reintroduction in Idaho more than 10 years ago. According to reports, the calf was part of a herd grazing private property in the Zumwalt Prairie region, near the town of Enterprise, in Oregon’s extreme northeast corner.

The kill, which occurred on May 5, was initially discovered by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) employee Jason Moncrief. While in the process of hazing elk off of the prairie, Moncrief saw four wolves in the pasture and, later in the day, noted carrion birds flying from the same area. Further investigation revealed the carcass of a 2-month-old calf, and the find was reported. Under Oregon law, a wolf kill cannot be confirmed until it is verified either by ODFW officials, or by a representative of USDA’s Wildlife Services division. Marlyn Riggs of Wildlife Services responded to the scene and confirmed the carcass as a case of wolf depredation. This confirmation was later seconded by ODFW wolf program coordinator Russ Morgan.

According to ODFW, the four wolves are almost certainly part of the Imnaha pack, a pack of 10 wolves known to reside in the general area. According to spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy, changes in pack structure typical for this time of year may be at least partially responsible for these four wolves showing up on the prairie.

"It’s a really dynamic situation potentially right now with the Imnaha pack," she says. "The alpha male and the alpha female probably have pups. They would have had these pups about the third week of April, and now is about the time that it’s not uncommon for other pack members to be heading off and fending for themselves, possibly forming a new pack."

Though area ranchers have requested that the offending wolves be destroyed, ODFW has so far declined, citing the rules set forth in the Oregon Wolf Plan, a document drafted in 2005 to address how best to handle incoming wolves from neighboring states. Although wolves in roughly the eastern third of Oregon were removed from federal protection along with those in Idaho and Montana, Oregon’s wolves are still protected by the state’s own Endangered Species Act. Under the law, ODFW officials are the only persons allowed to remove a problem wolf, and are only permitted to do so if non lethal means of protection have proven ineffective. This means that even wolves caught in the act of killing livestock must be reported rather than retaliated against, a situation that frustrates many ranchers in the region. Rod Childers, area rancher and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) Wolf Committee, points out that his organization has never agreed with the rules laid out in the wolf plan.

"When the wolf plan was written, OCA disagreed with it," he says. "Minority reports were written, and we said that the plan needed to be modified, and they chose not to do it."

Childers worries that because the law is written to address specific wolves, they may be in trouble if the most recent offenders rejoin a larger group.

"If these four wolves rejoin the pack, there won’t be any way to tell which wolves were responsible, and we’ll have to start all over," he says.

According to Dennehy, that is at least one concern ODFW will need to address as the situation unfolds.

"One of our jobs is to identify the offending animals and determine the dynamics of the pack," she says, adding; "We’re out there every night to determine what wolves are coming into the valley and be right there if there is a problem."

Dennehy states that, initially, protection methods are planned to center around increased scrutiny of the predators.

"As of Friday, we are really stepping up our monitoring, and we’re also going to be doing hazing of the wolves when the opportunity presents itself. Some of the landowners could also be doing hazing, should the wolves come on their property."

According to Childers, many ranchers in the area feel that they have already done enough hazing, and point out that wolves were harassing area livestock long before the killing took place.

"This pack of wolves, since the latter part of February, has spent 80 percent of its time on private property right here beside the valley," he says. "I think the ranchers have done more than enough."

Claims of wolf harassment have been prevalent in the region throughout the spring, most notably in March when Joseph, OR, rancher Karl Patton was forced to fire his pistol into the air in order to haze marauding wolves away from his stock dogs. Since that incident, says Childers, area ranchers have taken significant measures to prevent further attacks, measures that he feels should not be ignored now that depredation has actually taken place.

"We’re very frustrated. I thought we had been performing ‘non lethal’ activities. But as soon as we had a depredation, suddenly all our previous actions were only ‘preventative,’" he says, pointing out that under the rules, only actions taking place after the killing are regarded as non lethal protection measures. "The sad thing is, nobody wants a calf to be killed, but to get anything done, that is what the agencies are saying has to happen. It’s just crazy."

Childers and OCA feel that key changes need to be made to the state’s wolf management plan in order to provide ranchers with the necessary means to protect their property. Chief among their desires, the ranchers feel that they need the authority to shoot wolves that are caught in the act of harassing livestock, before a killing takes place. They also feel that if a killing does take place, non lethal methods that occurred before the actual depredation should not be ignored.

"If you have a known group of wolves in your area and the producers are doing everything they can to protect their livestock, when you do have a depredation, you ought to immediately go take out the problem wolves," asserts Childers.

Ranchers also feel that while financial compensation would be nice, it is unlikely that compensation would ever meet the actual costs represented by one wolf kill.

"Just paying for the one confirmed kill is not going to do it," says Childers. "We’re going to have to look at it differently."

According to various sources, estimates of the number of wolf kills that are actually verified range from one-in-four to one-in-seven. Compensation plans are also unlikely to incorporate financial losses due to weight loss and behavior changes in the cattle left alive.

"You take a ranch that’s losing five calves, and only getting paid for one," describes Childers. "Then his cows are coming in a body condition score less than they were prior to wolves, reproduction rates are down, and you can’t use dogs anymore."

The inability to use dogs in this region, which is dominated by deep canyons and steep hills, may be the roughest blow of all. According to the ranchers, exposure to wolves causes their cattle to bunch up defensively in response to stock dogs, rather than herding as they used to. With no ability to utilize dogs, ranchers must hire costly additional labor to move their herds between pastures. Childers feels that variables such as these are unlikely to be considered as part of a future compensation plan.

The Oregon Wolf Plan is scheduled to come under a five-year review this year in order to assess its success, but it is not known whether any changes will be made to the current rules. Looming over the entire process is the threat that wolves may be placed back under federal protection. As a result of lawsuits filed by environmental groups, federal Judge Donald Malloy is scheduled to rule in June on whether or not wolves will be re-listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. If that happens, state plans would become irrelevant under federal control. Until that case is heard, says Dennehy, all ODFW can do is proceed as usual.

"At this point, we’ve got our plan, and we’re working under that scenario," she says. "We’re hopeful that these wolves can be kept out of further trouble, but we’ll see." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Field Correspondent