Ranchers say documentation is key to confirming wolf kills

Jun 25, 2010

As the Canadian gray wolf expands its territory further into the western states, many ranchers in previously unaffected regions find themselves facing a steep learning curve regarding how to manage their herds with the new threat in mind. Further complicating the issue, differing laws between states have created confusion with regard to what a rancher’s options for control are, and how and when state agencies must be notified.

Though still under federal protection in most areas, wolves have been removed from the Endangered Species List in four western states, Montana, Idaho, and portions of eastern Oregon and Washington. In these regions, the individual states have control over how these predators are managed. Though the regulations regarding how problem wolves are handled vary from state to state, all are based on one basic concept, the number of confirmed wolf kills. In order to be a confirmed livestock kill, say officials, a carcass must have sufficient evidence to prove that wolves were responsible for killing the animal. Because it is also necessary to prove that the wolves actually killed the livestock, rather than simply feeding on an already dead animal, confirmation can often be hard to obtain. In addition, say ranchers, there is often not enough left of a carcass to determine cause of death at all, a situation that can lead to a lack of confirmation, even when wolves are obviously present in the area. According to Casey Anderson, a rancher from Bear, ID, confirmation is particularly difficult in areas where wolves are a relatively new problem. This is due to inexperience on the part of officials, as well as ranchers.

At a symposium held on the Eastern Oregon University campus in La Grande, OR, last month, Anderson, who manages a ranch on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon, related his experience with the predators, a significant number of which now call his ranch home. According to Anderson, although problems with missing animals had been apparent for several years, wolves were not immediately identified as the cause.

"We were having problems all along," he said. "But we didn’t realize how much of it was wolves until last summer." In 2008, the ranch had just one confirmed case of depredation by wolves. During the summer of 2009 however, they had 18 confirmed cases, and Anderson asserts that there was an additional loss of at least 35 calves that they were unable to confirm. In response to the killings, 13 wolves were removed through the course of the year. Some of this, says Anderson, is the result of a greater understanding of how the wolves are behaving. However, he also feels that at least some of the increase is due to changes in the wolves’ own habits. "There’s a learning curve for the wolves, too," he says. "Primarily, they fed on deer and elk. As the habits of those animals changed, and as their numbers dropped, the wolves started looking for other opportunities."

According to Anderson, the first signs that something was amiss came as changes in the actions of the cattle. "At the time, we knew we had wolves, but we weren’t seeing a lot of predation," he says. "The way it started for us, cow behavior patterns started changing. The way the cattle were distributed in the pasture, their attitudes, and their habits were all changing." The second thing the ranch noticed was an increase in missing cows, thought to be the result of cows attempting to protect their calves, and getting killed for their trouble. "These cattle are getting very aggressive," says Anderson. "They’ll muck out cow dogs, they will even come after a person horseback, they’re just a lot more aggressive." In light of this aggression, he points out; it’s not hard to imagine a cow turning to face her attackers, even as the main herd leaves the area. "Suddenly she’s alone with four or five wolves," he says, "in that case, she’s going to die."

Frustrated by the growing problem, Anderson agreed to take part in a study, supported by the Oregon Beef Council and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, in an attempt to more closely examine the behavior changes brought on by the wolves’ introduction to the area. Governed by an adaptive management committee, the project involves researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and various agencies. In order to track cow movements, cattle were fitted with GPS collars, devices that recorded their position via satellite, at five-minute intervals. Collars with this level of capability, say researchers, are state of the art, and were designed by the researchers themselves. In Anderson’s case, 10 cattle within a herd of 450 were collared. In a rare stroke of luck, a wolf was also collared in the area, and researchers were able to retrieve data that recorded his position at 15-minute intervals. Positions of all the animals were tracked from the end of May through the end of November. The study is still in its preliminary stages, and is scheduled to continue for at least two more years. The early results, however, have yielded a few surprises for researchers and ranchers alike. Perhaps most surprising was the wolves’ willingness to maintain a close proximity to human activity. Long thought to shy away from humans, the GPS data has shown, in this case, that the wolves were often occupying ridgelines and covered areas overlooking human activity. The data also shows that the wolves were not afraid of passing near houses.

"It’s amazing how close they come to the houses, and how often they come," says Anderson. He points to one instance where wolves apparently passed by just 25 yards from his own home. Equally unexpected was the frequency at which the wolves encountered the collared cattle. "(The researchers) were thinking that, of the 10 cows we collared, maybe only two or three would come in contact with the collared wolf," says Anderson. In fact, all 10 cows came into contact with that wolf numerous times." Because of the time delay between the wolf’s collar and the collars on the cows, researchers defined contact as encounters where the wolf was 100 yards or less from a collared cow. According to last summer’s data, such encounters occurred 54 times. "You can understand why we’re having the behavior and distribution problems that we’re seeing," points out Anderson.

Based on his experience, Anderson says there are several things ranchers should start doing in order to provide agencies with the information required to confirm a kill, practices that may have ranchers feeling like investigators, but that may ultimately lead to a confirmation when a wolf kill does occur. "You’ve got to become a CSI agent," he says. "You’ve got to be aware of tracks at all times." In addition, Anderson suggests that ranchers begin carrying a digital camera and, if possible, a GPS unit on a regular basis. Maintaining solid records, particularly of death losses and missing stock is also important, as is taking note of behavior changes as they begin occurring rather than after the fact. "You need to have this stuff," Anderson stresses. "The documentation on this is so critical."

Rod Childers, Wolf Committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, points out that the carcasses can be inspected for bite marks. Bites on the tail head, flank and shoulder are most common. "Often, they won’t puncture the hide," he says, but they will leave characteristic scratch marks." Such marks can indicate trauma beneath the skin, he points out, adding that the marks from their canines should be roughly two inches apart. In addition, Casey Anderson points to a need for producers to keep track of basic production data as wolves move in. "We’re noticing that our pregnancy rates are going down," he says. "We are also seeing cattle coming off the summer range a full body condition score less than normal. Most ranchers know, coming out of summer, how hard it is to feed these cattle to maintain body condition. These are things that we’re not being compensated for."

Like many other ranchers who have faced wolf predation, Anderson feels that compensating merely for the market value of a dead calf does not reflect the true cost of the losses incurred by a ranch. He points out that once a calf is killed, the cow must also be sold. "As we lose calves, we’re having to get rid of those good middle-aged cows," he says. "We’re taking the heart and soul out of our cow herd and hauling it to town. On top of that, we’re having to keep more replacement heifers." He points out that the cost of raising heifers to breeding age, and integrating them into the cow herd, is significant. In addition, he points out, there are costs associated with doctoring wolf attack survivors, as well as questions about what to do with injured cattle that are not healthy enough to sell. "These costs are not addressed in any way by compensation, but they are real costs, and they are huge," he says. Many ranchers, Anderson included, feel the government should be helping to solve the problem that they created. "What this amounts to is a taking of our property by the federal government," he says. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent