Wolf conflict returns to northeast Oregon

Feb 25, 2011

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) confirmation of two wolf kills near Joseph, OR, last week marked the predator’s return to calving grounds in Wallowa County. The event also has area ranchers concerned that they may be faced with heavy livestock losses similar to those felt in the region during last year’s calving season.

The animals killed were fully grown bred cows, both belonging to Joseph-area rancher Karl Patton. Patton made the discovery on Feb. 15 while out looking for wolf tracks. According to Patton, the two cows, which were found within 75 yards of one another, made for a grisly scene.

"They were eating one cow as she was crawling downhill," he said. "We were finding little bone chips 30 feet above where she finished up, and you could see where she was crawling as they were eating on her."

The second cow, though less mutilated, also showed signs of a major struggle.

"You could see it was quite a battle," said Patton. "They finally got her flipped upside down in a rut, where she couldn’t get up."

Adding to the insult, Patton noted that one of the cows had been carrying twins, and that the fetuses had been removed and dragged for some distance down the hill.

Though this is his first loss of adult cows, Patton and other area ranchers are no strangers to wolf predation. Attacks during the 2010 calving season yielded 26 suspected calf kills, 13 of which were confirmed by officials from the Wildlife Services division of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. While only one of the calves killed that year belonged to Patton, the wolves crossed his property to access his neighbors with such frequency that locals took to calling it a "wolf freeway." The event also does not come as a surprise. Ranchers and official began noticing wolves returning from nearby mountains as early as last November, and last year’s string of attacks was heralded by wolf sightings on Patton’s ranch. Also like last year, this year’s mitigation efforts have begun, despite requests from local cattlemen, with non lethal deterrent methods. These methods currently include "Turbo Fladry," or electrified wire festooned with flags, as well as guard boxes designed to emit noises in the presence of the radio collars worn by some of the wolves.

Though eerily similar to last year’s disastrous chain of events, at least one thing has changed. In May of 2009, wolves in much of the West, including northeastern Oregon, were removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act. This meant that during the wolf attacks of 2010, wolf management in Oregon was administered by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Last August, Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy issued a ruling placing wolves back under protected status, effectively placing wolf management in Oregon in the hands of USFWS and Wildlife Services. Under Oregon’s wolf management plan, producers quickly discovered that the use of lethal force as a means to protect their stock was only possible under very specific circumstances, which were related to the number of confirmed kills within a time period, as well as their proximity to one another. Additionally, on several occasions, ODFW was unable to confirm kills that had been previously confirmed by federal officials at the scene. The lack of kills confirmed by ODFW meant that lethal methods of protection often could not be employed, leading to friction between ranchers and state officials.

Now that wolves have been returned to federal oversight, many producers remain concerned that deterrents may again prove inadequate, and that lethal measures will not be taken until heavy losses have been felt. However, Gary Miller, field supervisor for USFWS based out of LaGrande, OR, points out that federal rules allow for a more varied approach than ODFW was able to employ last year.

"It’s definitely more discretionary," he said. "I would say that if we have another depredation, it would definitely qualify us to take the next step. One of the things that we’re trying to do is see that there’s some additional opportunity for these preventative measures to work, but we also realize that they definitely aren’t foolproof. At some point, we’re going to have to go to lethal control."

In addition to the placement of fladry and guard boxes, Miller points out that ODFW has scheduled additional captures in the area to attempt to get more wolves fitted with radio collars.

"That will not only give us more information regarding real time locations, it makes the use of the radio activated guard boxes potentially more helpful," said Miller.

Of the four wolves in the pack originally collared, explained Miller, just two remain. One collar simply stopped working at some point, and one collared wolf left the area, eventually turning up near Walla Walla, WA. Though the total current population of the pack is not known, at least 11 of the original 16 wolves associated with the pack are still in the area.

In light of last year’s events in the region, area ranchers and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association have requested that government officials move directly to lethal measures, pointing out that area wolves already have an established behavior pattern, and hoping that early intervention may lessen the blow. While USFWS has so far declined to take that step, Miller provides some assurance that past interactions will not go ignored.

"At least right now, we’ve made the decision not to go to lethal control," he said. "This is going to be done on a case by case basis, but looking at the depredations that occurred last year, and obviously the first one this year, that’s something we definitely will be looking at."

He adds that this approach is also consistent with Oregon’s current conservation plan, which was subject to some policy changes following last spring. As was the case last year, area ranchers have again pointed out the need for an ability to protect their livestock from predation themselves, a step that state and federal officials have so far been unwilling to take. Though unlikely to occur anytime soon, Patton points out that by not allowing ranchers to address the problem themselves, agencies are delaying a stable relationship between stock growers and wolves in the region.

"That’s the toughest part of the whole thing, really," he says. "Turn us loose, let us do our thing and defend our property, and we can deal with the wolves. But tying our hands and punishing us like this is a crime." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent