Oregon ranchers doubt effectiveness of "take" permits

Jun 4, 2010

As wolf depredation escalates, ranchers in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County may have found a little comfort in the fact that seven wolf "take" permits have been issued by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), authorizing a handful of ranchers to shoot wolves caught in the act of preying on livestock. Yet with two additional wolf kills confirmed on Saturday, May 29, one at a ranch in the Upper Prairie Creek area east of Joseph, OR, and the other east of Enterprise, wolf depredation seems only to be gaining in momentum.

New kills have occurred despite area ranchers’ cooperation with ODFW officials in implementing non-lethal methods of wolf control. According to the Oregon Wolf Plan, which lays down the process for managing problem wolves, making the step to lethal control measures is clearly in order. Yet it is doubtful whether the highly restrictive ODFW "caught in the act" permits will have any real impact on the situation. Permit holders can only shoot a wolf if they catch it in the act of biting, wounding or killing livestock. Because wolves typically hunt at night, and because cattle are typically not confined to close quarters, the chance of catching a wolf "in the act" of killing cattle is vanishingly small. Further, because of the permits’ highly restrictive nature, they could place ranchers at considerable risk for unauthorized take of an endangered species if they mistakenly shoot a wolf that is only chasing or testing livestock. As wolves are protected by the Oregon State Endangered Species Act, a mistake could result in considerable fines, or even a prison sentence.

The procedure for implementing lethal control of problem wolves is laid out in the Oregon Wolf Plan, which is currently up for review. Rod Childers, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Wolf Committee chairman, identifies two key issues regarding lethal control which are in need of revision. One is the process of determining when lethal action by an agency is warranted. The second is whether issuing "caught in the act" take permits constitutes any kind of a usable tool for ranchers to protect their property.

The plan indicates that wolves can be lethally removed by agency personnel when there is "chronic depredation" of livestock. But chronic depredation is defined in a very site-specific way, as consisting of two confirmed wolf kills, or of one kill and three woundings, all of which are on a single or adjacent properties. Childers points out that the definition is not realistic, given the wide-ranging activity of wolves. In essence, producers have to wait until problem wolves visit neighboring ranches before ODFW is authorized to implement lethal action by an agency, despite the fact that depredation may be occurring repeatedly in a small geographical area. This scenario has been playing out in Wallowa County, where wolf kills were close, but did not fit the strict definition of "chronic depredation."

Childers explains, "We went through the five confirmed kills by ODFW before we got adjacent landowners. The plan says you can [issue take permits] at two [kills], but they’ve got to be on adjacent land owners. That’s in the rule. And that’s crazy. They need to take ‘adjacent’ out of that language."

Ranchers are also frustrated that the ODFW-supervised non-lethal control methods they have been faithfully employing since early spring are not being recognized as actual "non-lethal activities." The wolf plan requires that non-lethal control activities be attempted before problem wolves can be lethally taken. Since early spring, ranchers have buried dead piles, hazed wolves, tracked wolves with radio telemetry, and employed radio activated guard (RAG) boxes, all under ODFW guidance. Yet now that wolves have started to kill livestock, ranchers have learned that technically, all their previous efforts were only considered "preventative," and not "non-lethal." The distinction has producers scratching their heads.

Michelle Dennehy of ODFW explained the difference via e-mail: "Before there are any livestock losses by wolves, but wolves are in the area, preventive measures are employed (an example would be removing/burying bone piles). Once a depredation happens, the clock starts ticking to use non-lethal measures (a RAG box would be an example) before moving to any lethal methods against wolves. Preventive and non-lethal measures can be the same thing; there is certainly overlap."

Yet it is unclear why repeating the same actions under a different name is necessary to test their effectiveness. Relating a conversation with ODFW wolf coordinator Russ Morgan, Childers recalled, "They said, ‘Before depredation, it’s "preventative" action.’ And so we said, ‘OK, if it’s "non-lethal" [actions that are necessary], what do we do now?’ And they started naming tools off, and it was the same stuff we were doing."

Childers’ concern is that repeating actions already proven to be ineffective unnecessarily delays using lethal methods of control at ranchers’ expense.

But perhaps the most frustrating of these issues is the issuance of "caught in the act" lethal take permits, which at least appear to give producers the capability to defend their livestock. That appearance, however, is quickly dispelled when the limitations of the permit are made clear.

Childers explains, "[With] these ‘caught in the act’ lethal take permits, you can only shoot the wolf if you see that wolf biting or wounding one of your animals. When you shoot the wolf, you have got to prove that you have got a wounded animal in your herd. You cannot shoot it if it’s just chasing, or if it’s just walking through, or if you come over the hill, and they’re eating on a dead one."

Aside from the fact that a producer must sacrifice one of his animals to make use of the permit, there is considerable risk of using one, since the burden of proof is on the producer.

"If you shoot one of those wolves, you’d better make sure that one of those wolves killed that animal, or you [could] go to jail." At very least, a rancher who shot a wolf under less than textbook conditions would likely have to defend his action in court, potentially losing money on legal fees and spending valuable time away from his operation.

But the most glaring limitation of the "caught in the act" permit is the obvious unlikelihood that a producer will ever have the opportunity to legally kill a problem wolf. Being in the right place, at the right time, would require extremely good luck. Such luck was evidently not had by one of the landowners who lost a calf May 29, who was in possession of a permit.

Comments Childers, "You’re going to get hit by lightning before you’re going to catch one of these wolves [in the act]. That permit is a useless tool. All it is, is it’s going to get somebody in trouble. You’re going to have a rancher think that he sees something bite, and he shoots a wolf. Somebody’s going to end up in jail over this thing. It’s going to be too hard to prove what they’re asking you."

Instead, Childers feels that ranchers should be enabled to defend their property when wolves are among cattle or near homes. He explains, "If [they] feel that we need a permit, that it’s time to give us a permit, give us a permit that will do us some good. Those guys ought to have a shoot on sight permit for their property."

In a more promising development, ODFW has gone ahead with authorizing Wildlife Services to lethally take two uncollared wolves. This comes as a result of the most recent kills, which finally qualified the situation for "chronic depredation."

In a press release, ODFW explained that they are "authorizing USDA Wildlife Services to kill two wolves from the Imnaha pack which are responsible for five confirmed livestock losses in the past few weeks. Wildlife Services has been authorized to kill only two uncollared wolves. This selective removal is meant to protect the alpha male and alpha female, Oregon’s only known breeding pair of wolves at this time. Protecting the collared wolves will also help ODFW, USDA Wildlife Services and ranchers continue to monitor wolf activity."

According to Michelle Dennehy, Wildlife Services will be able to use lethal methods not available to ranchers, such as trapping and aerial gunning. Wolves taken by Wildlife Services do not have to be "caught in the act." The authorization will be good until June 11.

After a month of wolf depredation, the issuance of "caught in the act" permits to ranchers may appear to be a positive development, but the actual utility of these permits is doubtful. Not only are the chances of catching a wolf "in the act" extremely slim, the penalty for shooting a wolf under less than ideal conditions could be severe. The hope is that with the take of two uncollared wolves by USDA Wildlife Services, the situation on the ground will improve significantly for ranchers. But a long-term solution must involve improvements to the Oregon Wolf Plan, to provide quicker, more effective relief to producers who are losing property.

Remarks Childers, "They’ve made it very difficult for a livestock producer out here, and it should not be that way." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent