Ranchers and agencies disagree as wolf kills mount

May 28, 2010

As dead calves become a more common sight in Oregon’s Wallowa County, area ranchers are growing increasingly concerned about the safety of their livestock and their livelihoods. There is little doubt, they say, that wolves are killing their cattle. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and representatives of the USDA’s Wildlife Services Division agree that wolf predation is occurring. Exactly how many cattle the wolves have killed, however, has become a hotly debated subject in Oregon’s northeast corner.

Since the region’s first confirmed kill on May 5, three more calves, dead and partially eaten, have been reported by area ranchers. The first of these, a calf belonging to Joseph, OR, rancher Tom Schaafsma, was found on Thursday, May 12, in a pasture within sight of their home. After examining the carcass and the scene, Wildlife Services representative Marlyn Riggs confirmed the kill as a case of wolf predation. ODFW officials, upon their arrival, conducted their own investigation, but were unable to confirm that wolves were responsible.

"We closely examined the carcass, but found no evidence that the calf had been killed by a wolf," said Russ Morgan, ODFW wolf coordinator, in a press release. In the same release, he detailed the evidence required for confirmation, which includes visible trauma associated with wolf bite marks, bruising, and signs of a struggle.

The disagreement between the two agencies raised previously unaddressed questions as to who carries the responsibility of confirming livestock depredation cases within the state. Both agencies are acting in accordance with the Oregon Wolf Plan, a document drafted in 2005 to address the influx of wolves from neighboring states. Under the rules set forth in the plan, confirming the kills as wolf depredation is a key step in the process leading to the eventual resolution of an ongoing depredation problem. In this case, however, different interpretations of the language in the plan led both agencies to believe they were the ones with the final say in determining a wolf depredation. Though Wildlife Services hasn’t conceded on the point of providing their expertise, they have stated that ODFW is ultimately the agency with management authority over the state’s wolf population. Exacerbating the situation, another dead calf, found on May 16, resulted in the same split decision, with ODFW again unable to provide confirmation that the killing was done by wolves. Frustrated by the lack of action, ranchers expressed their disagreement with ODFW’s stance, arguing that the Wolf Plan clearly designates Wildlife Services as the lead agency. Ranchers were also quick to point out that the Wildlife Services’ investigation of these two cases involved an investigation of the scene, while ODFW examined just the carcasses. Rod Childers, area rancher and wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, also notes that in neighboring states, Wildlife Services is the agency charged with determining these types of cases.

"In all of the other states, even after they’re federally delisted, it’s Wildlife Services that makes the call," he says. "But now, ODFW thinks that they are the ones qualified to do that."

Concerned that the ODFW investigation may not have been sufficiently thorough, producers turned to the local sheriff’s office for assistance.

"(The ranchers) were less than satisfied," recalls Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen. "They felt that the state has a motive to manage these wolves, and so they felt there was a lack of motivation to confirm a wolf kill. Given what the producers were seeing in terms of circumstantial and physical evidence, and the unwillingness of the state agency to accept that, they were extremely upset."

Steen has agreed to provide assistance, treating the incidents as he would any other private property case.

"I said I would look at these predation cases as crimes, and bring whatever I can reasonably bring to bear to investigate them as crimes," he says. "So that’s what we’ve started doing."

Steen began the investigation by collecting samples from the second unconfirmed kill and submitting them to a local veterinarian in order to determine if the requisite trauma had taken place. The samples were subsequently sent to specialists at Washington State University’s college of Veterinary Medicine, where results are still pending. The eventual goal, according to Steen, is to hold ODFW accountable for its investigations. Steen has pledged to stay involved and intends to seek further training in order to better assist wildlife officials in examining a kill scene. As a member of the law enforcement community, Steen views the cases not as ‘depredations,’ but as simple violations of private property laws.

"You’re talking about private property rights and destruction of personal property," he points out. "If it was the neighbor’s dog that was causing the problem, you would have far more rights, which is ridiculous to me."

On May 20, yet another calf was found dead, this time by rancher Todd Nash. Nash notified the sheriff, who called Riggs and ODFW biologist Vic Coggins. Riggs, Coggins, and Steen examined the scene, and ODFW officials were called in from nearby La Grande to conduct further examination of the carcass. At 4:30 that afternoon, after a two-hour examination, ODFW issued a press release stating that the dead calf was a confirmed case of wolf predation. The second, by their count, in a two-week period. In response, they issued "Caught in the Act Lethal Take Permits" to five area landowners. According to ODFW rules, these permits allow the landowner, or a designee, to shoot a wolf caught in the act of biting, wounding, or killing livestock. It does not, however, grant the landowner the privilege of shooting wolves that are merely "testing" stock, or those found scavenging a dead animal. According to Childers, the permits are important as the next step in the process, but they are unlikely to provide the ranchers with any actual relief.

"You have to catch them after they draw blood on an animal before you can shoot one," he points out. "Then you have to prove that the wolf you shot is the one that was doing the biting; how is that going to work?"

Childers adds that similar permits, when they were used under the same circumstances in other states, met with little success.

"I haven’t talked to a rancher yet, in any state, who has been able to catch one at it," he says. "They’ve seen wolves running away from a scene, but to catch one in the act is unheard of." Childers still feels that a major overhaul of Oregon’s wolf plan is the only thing likely to bring some relief. He points out that just across the Snake River, Idaho ranchers are given far more latitude to protect their herds.

"In Idaho, they don’t have the wolves on a state ESA [Endangered Species Act] list, and ranchers can shoot wolves that are running cows," he says. "Here, we’re stuck with this rule, and it doesn’t make any sense."

"We’re just going through the motions," he adds, "and watching our cattle die."

Childers also stresses the need for forthright communication between agency officials and the ranchers, pointing specifically to the marathon investigation that followed the finding of the Nash calf.

"After all of that, they didn’t have the courtesy to call the livestock owner and tell them that he had a confirmed kill," he says.

Instead, Nash found out via a telephone call from a friend several hours after the press release had been issued. Childers points out that this lack of communication leaves area ranchers feeling that their concerns are being discounted.

"We want to work with these guys," he says, "but we’ve got to get real, and we’ve got to be professional about this. This is a serious business to us." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent