Court order allows wolf pack to continue depredations

Dec 23, 2011

The killing of two cows by wolves along northeast Oregon’s Imnaha River last week brings the official count of wolf related livestock deaths in Wallowa County to 20 head since March of last year, and is the sixth such event following the issuance of a court injunction preventing Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials from removing the problem predators.

Since its first confirmed case of livestock depredation in March of last year, the wolves that make up the Imnaha wolf pack have been the source of considerable strife between ranchers and agency officials in Oregon’s northeast corner. Under Oregon’s wolf plan, removal of problem wolves hinges on the number of livestock kills confirmed by ODFW personnel. However, ODFW was unable to confirm several livestock deaths over the past two years, often rendering them unable to act under the provisions of the wolf plan, despite assertions from ranchers and federal wildlife officials that wolves were the likely culprit. This led to considerable dispute regard ing

the actual number of livestock killed by wolves in Wallowa County. While OD- FW stands by its tally of 20 head, area ranchers argue that, due to unconfirmed kills, the actual count is much higher. Numbers aside, one thing that both parties can agree on is the likelihood of the problem continuing if nothing is done. “The latest incident reaffirms that the pack is in a chronic pattern of depredation,” said ODFW wolf coordinator Russ Morgan in a recent press release. “While we believe the appropriate response is lethal removal under the chronic depredation rule, that option is off the table due to litigation.”

The suit Morgan refers to was filed in September of this year. In May, following repeated livestock losses near the community of Joseph, ODFW officials authorized the removal of two members of the Imnaha pack, killing one wolf nine days later. On Sept. 23, OD- FW announced plans to remove two more wolves, including the pack’s alpha male, in response to continued depredation. In the wake of this announcement, four conservation groups filed a petition with in Federal District Court, calling for a review of the wolf plan, and requesting that no wolves be killed while the investigation was underway. Judge Micheal Mosman of Portland granted the request and issued an order preventing ODFW from removing the problem wolves. This decision was upheld by the court following an appeal on Nov. 15, despite continued livestock depredation by the pack. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the litigants in the case, hailed the decision as a victory for wolf preservation.

“Killing wolves is a senseless and brutal act that does little to nothing to save livestock,” said CBD’s Noah Greenwald at the time. “There are much better non-lethal options, including fencing, guard dogs and removing the carcasses that attract wolves in the first place. Shooting down these animals is wrong, and it doesn’t solve the problem.”

The most recent case, however, involved cattle belonging to Wallowa County rancher Eric Porter, who was praised by ODFW for his attempts at non-lethal control, to little avail. “This is a good example of a situation where the landowners had done everything right,” said Morgan. “I don’t think that there are other measures that could have been reasonably taken in this case, so it is a very frustrating situation for livestock producers and wildlife managers.”

The first attack on Porter’s cattle occurred on Dec. 11 in a group of heifers being held on a small pasture awaiting shipment. The wolves scattered the heifers over a wide area, killing one in the process. According to Porter, the heifers were scattered again the next morning. “We were kind of concentrating on those heifers, and (the wolves) went down and chewed on a second calf cow in another pasture,” says Porter. That cow died of her injuries roughly 24 hours after the attack. This case, says Porter, underlines the point that the non-lethal methods proposed by conservation groups and agencies are not always effective. “They’ve got all these bril liant ideas on how we can run cows with these wolves,” he says. “They tell us to bunch them up and keep them close, but it doesn’t work; we showed that out here the other night. There were 20 cows in a 15-acre field, and those wolves went right to them.” Porter added that the second killing occurred within 350 yards of a ranch residence. “Yet they’re so knowledgeable on how we should run our business,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Oregon State Legislature directed the Oregon Department of Agriculture to establish a wolf compensation program, which is likely to go into effect in early 2012. When this plan does go into effect, the Porters may be entitled to compensation for some of their losses. Additionally, in his Nov. 15 decision, Mosman directed the conservation groups to put up $5,000 to defray the cost of livestock losses until the case is decided, which may not occur for some time. It is not clear how much of that fund remains, however, following several depredation cases earlier in the year.

Whether available or not, Porter points out that compensation for direct losses does not address the entire impact felt by the rancher. As an example, Porter explains that he had weighed his heifers prior to their planned shipment. When he weighed them again on shipping day, the day of the second wolf attack, he found them 20 pounds lighter. That loss in weight translates to a value loss of roughly $2,200, none of which is compensable.

Although ODFW cannot directly remove the wolves, they are not prevented from issuing ‘caught in the act’ permits to ranchers, allowing them to remove a wolf if they are able to catch it in the act of killing livestock. However, area ranchers have long regarded such permits as useless ‘feel good’ measures due to the difficulty of actually catching an attack in progress. “I think those things are kind of meaningless,” says Porter. “They do it in the dark, and it’s tough to do anything with them. You just never see them at it.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent