Oregon governor signs wolf compensation bill

Aug 12, 2011

With the addition of his signature on Aug. 2, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has taken the final step in the ratification of a bill authorizing the use of state funds to compensate ranchers and other landowners for losses incurred as a result of wolf depredation. Known as the Livestock Compensation and Wolf Co-Existence Act, Oregon House Bill 3560 directs the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to establish and administer a $100,000 relief fund. At the producer level, the funds will take the form of grants provided to individual counties dealing with wolf interactions. According to supporters of the bill, by allowing livestock compensation to be authorized at the county rather than the state level, HB 3560 sets a precedent for collaboration that goes beyond compensation programs enacted in other western states. "We are optimistic that the fundamentals of the program are positive and that they will provide some relief for ranch families in northeast Oregon suffering from wolves interacting with their livestock," said Bill Hoyt, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) president. Hoyt and OCA were among the primary supporters of the bill.

In order for a county to receive funding under the new law, it must first establish a county level program, governed by a committee. The members of the committee are explicitly laid out, and must consist of one county commissioner, two livestock producers, and two members who support "wolf conservation or coexistence with wolves." Additionally, the bill also intentionally brings together state agencies to cooperatively manage the funds. Under the law, ODA will be in charge of managing and dispersing the funding to the counties while the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) will maintain its traditional role determining whether or not a wolf kill has taken place. During the final negotiations of the bill, Kitzhaber expressed his praise to the wide variety of groups, which included the Defenders of Wildlife and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, in addition to OCA and several state agencies, for their efforts to collaborate and reach a workable solution. "At a time when Congress is cutting controversial backroom deals to undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other states continue to fight the same tired fight on wolves, Oregon is proving that people can find common ground on even the toothiest of issues," said Kitzhaber. "When it comes to solving seemingly intractable problems, it takes a commitment to collaborate and break the mold, and that’s what we have here."

In addition to providing funds for livestock depredation reimbursement, the bill also authorizes the newly formed county committees to provide funds for other issues related to wolf/landowner interactions. For example, the committees are directed to provide compensation for stock or guard dogs injured or killed by wolves. Additionally, money is supposed to be available to assist with the cost of changes in management practices or other non-lethal methods to deter wolves from attacking. In areas designated by ODFW as regions of known wolf activity, the use of such deterrents by ranchers is a prior requirement to their receiving compensation when a kill does occur. In areas outside those known to contain wolves, however, compensation will occur regardless of whether or not the rancher had previously been utilizing nonlethal methods of deterrent.

In another innovative move, the bill authorizes county committees to make payments based on missing livestock above the level based on loss or injury attributable to causes other than wolf depredation." This decision, which is largely without precedent in previous compensation programs around the West, may mean that ranchers will be able to receive at least some compensation, even when a carcass is not available for ODFW to examine and make the all important kill confirmation, based on livestock disappearance above the ‘normal’ level established by the county committee. However, utilization of the funds in this manner does not come without strings attached. In order to receive funds based on this type of loss, a rancher must have been utilizing approved methods of nonlethal deterrents. The bill also clearly states that priority for available funds must be given to kills confirmed by ODFW and for the installation of nonlethal control methods.

The new law comes at a time of much turmoil surrounding wolf/livestock interactions in Oregon. So much so that, within the text of the bill, it is pointed out that this measure is necessary "for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety." As a result of this urgency, the bill declares a state of emergency, meaning that the new law took effect immediately upon the governor’s signature. In contrast to Rocky Mountain states such as Idaho or Montana, the federal ESA still provides protection for wolves in much of the state. In those areas where federal protections have been lifted, wolves remain under the protection of ODFW as a result of Oregon’s own ESA regulation. Many Oregon ranchers feel their ability to defend their property is sharply curtailed in comparison to their Rocky Mountain counterparts. More than 40 kills have been confirmed by state agencies in recent years and ranchers in the afflicted portions of the state argue that far more are occurring, but cannot be confirmed through investigation. In addition, recent sightings have confirmed the presence of wolves far deeper into the central portions of the state than previously supposed. This increase in activity, coupled with the ranchers’ inability to respond, has led to considerable conflict between ranchers, wolf supporters, and state agencies since the first confirmed kill occurred in 2009. Many are hopeful that the new compensation program will help mend this rift. Although, as Kitzhaber points out, the bill represents a collaborative effort, potential pitfalls exist that may still lead to dispute between the state and affected ranchers. As with previous programs enacted elsewhere, compensation must be based on the fair market value of the animal, a value that ranchers often point out is insufficient, particularly with young animals who may have more than their market value invested in them at the time they are killed. Additionally, in the majority of cases, payment will still rely upon the confirmation that a wolf kill has occurred through investigations by ODFW. Repeated disagreements between ranchers and that agency concerning kill confirmations in recent years have led to considerable unrest between the two parties, particularly in Wallowa County where wolves are the most prevalent.

Despite these potential roadblocks, ranchers and state officials remain optimistic that the new law will provide some relief as wolves expand their territory into Oregon. "OCA is looking forward to a reasonably seamless rule-making and implementation process and, as with any new policy, I expect it will take time to determine if any adjustment to the program will be needed in the future," says Hoyt. Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent