By George Plaven Capital Press
ENTERPRISE — Two days after Easter, rancher Rod Childers rode on horseback down Joseph Creek Canyon in far northeast Oregon, herding cattle through the steep and remote countryside.
His dogs were the first to spot the dead calf, its carcass chewed down to the bones. Instinctively, Childers suspected wolves. But rather than report the gruesome discovery to state wildlife biologists, he simply cursed to himself and kept going.
The reason, he would say later, was the rigid criteria state biologists use to confirm whether wolves had indeed killed the calf. That, plus the fact that evidence of wolf-related trauma was already lost to scavengers or the elements, made the effort futile despite the fact the Chesnimnus Pack had been seen in the area.
“You can go murder somebody and be convicted quicker than you would convict a wolf, with the criteria they have,” said Childers, owner of RL Cattle Co. in rural Wallowa County, where livestock and poultry sales totaled more than $23 million in 2017. “It just makes it so difficult that ranchers have given up on it.”
The issue boiled over again April 16, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released its annual wolf report documenting 158 wolves statewide in 2019 — a 15% increase from the previous year.
Yet the report also showed the number of confirmed attacks on livestock decreased 43%, which agency officials described as an indication that modern management techniques and non-lethal deterrents are helping wolves and ranchers peacefully coexist.
Some Eastern Oregon cattlemen, however, say it is less about coexistence and more about being hamstrung by ODFW and its requirements for investigating depredations. By the time a state biologist arrives at the scene, what little remains of a dead cow or calf often cannot be definitively linked to wolves.
Whether wolf depredation is confirmed may impact how much, if any, money ranchers receive in compensation from the state. In some cases, ranchers say it isn’t even worth calling the state to investigate, certain they will not be fully compensated.
“I’m pretty bitter over it,” Childers said. “I’m 20 years into this stuff. It’s not fun. It’s not right.”
InvestigationsODFW investigated 50 suspected cases of wolves attacking livestock in 2019. Of those, 16 were confirmed. One incident was ruled a “probable” wolf depredation, 12 were “possible or unknown,” and 21 were determined to be not wolf-related.
That is a sharp reduction from the 71 investigations and 28 confirmed attacks in 2018, when the state’s minimum wolf population was 137.
While the state’s known wolf population has increased steadily over the last five years, the number of confirmed depredations on livestock has yo-yoed over the same period. In 2015, the agency confirmed nine attacks. In 2016, the total jumped to 24, and in 2017 it fell again to 17.
Derek Broman, state carnivore biologist for ODFW, said investigations are heavily evidence-based. Biologists look for telltale signs of wolves such as tracks and physical trauma to livestock.
A wolf’s bite mark is unmistakable compared to that of other predators such as coyotes and cougars, Broman said.
“If you’re trying to look for wolf signs with a microscope, then it’s not a wolf,” he said. “You’re just going to see, it’s like a bomb went off.”
Reports must be confirmed by ODFW for ranchers to receive direct compensation from the state through a fund administered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The program also pays for missing livestock and for non-lethal tools, such as hiring range riders or installing flashing lights and alarm boxes to keep wolves away from cattle.
Broman said he believes there were two reasons for fewer calls and confirmed depredations last year.
First, ranchers are becoming more experienced at recognizing the evidence of a wolf attack, he said. If it doesn’t fit the bill, they don’t report it.
Second, ranchers are using more non-lethal tools to prevent conflicts.
“A lot of these folks are doing things to keep depredations down, which helps the bottom line,” Broman said.
It also helps protect wolves directly. Under Phase III of the recently updated Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, ranchers can apply to ODFW to kill wolves that prey on livestock two times within nine months — defined as “chronic depredation.”
Losing faithEastern Oregon entered Phase III of the wolf plan in 2017, meaning the region had at least seven breeding pairs of wolves for three consecutive years.
Gray wolves were removed from the state endangered species list in 2015, though they are still protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state, west of highways 395, 78 and 95.
Childers was on the wolf committee of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association when the plan was originally adopted in 2005. He said Phase III was supposed to be the benchmark when wolves would be treated more like other predators around the state, with management zones and population caps up for consideration.
Instead, Childers said, ranchers were largely ignored during the latest plan revision adopted by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission last summer.
“We didn’t get anything we didn’t already have in that plan,” he said.
RL Cattle runs about 400 mother cows and calves on both public and private land. In June 2018, wolves injured three of Childers’ calves in three days, and ODFW granted him a 10-day permit to shoot one wolf in the same pasture. Two months later, after wolves killed another calf, ODFW reissued the permit for 30 days.
However, Childers was never able to fire a single shot. He criticized the permit for being overly restrictive.
“It’s very rare you get a chance to see these things,” Childers said. “(ODFW) wouldn’t come out and help me. I had to do it myself, which is damn near impossible.”
In the case of his dead calf in Joseph Canyon, Childers said it was already too degraded and consumed for ODFW to confirm it was killed by wolves.
“There’s not enough left for them, by their criteria, to say yes, a wolf killed this,” he said. “The criteria is what needs to change.”
Local controlRodger Huffman, who ranches 23 miles southeast of La Grande, had a similar experience.
In April 2016, Huffman turned out his cattle to graze on a 167-acre pasture along Catherine Creek, where the forest meets the meadows. Five days later, he returned to check on the herd, finding one calf eaten all the way through its rib cage. Trampled grass around the carcass indicated a struggle took place.
By that time, though, it was too late. Without enough evidence remaining at the scene, ODFW ruled it a “possible/unknown” wolf attack.
Huffman is no stranger to predators. He worked as a trapper for USDA Wildlife Services for five years and spent 31 years with the Oregon Department of Agriculture running the agency’s livestock inspection and animal health programs.
Though he cannot say with 100% certainty that wolves killed his calf, Huffman said it was unusual enough to raise suspicions.
“This is not a normal range scene,” Huffman said. “This calf did not just lay down and die.”
Huffman now is co-chairman of the Cattlemen’s Association wolf committee. One proposal frequently suggested by the group is to allow local sheriffs and veterinarians to investigate depredations, since they can often respond more quickly than ODFW biologists.
Fred Steen, chief deputy of the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s participated in more than 100 wolf-livestock investigations in his career. Ranchers, he said, want some assurance that wolves will be dealt with swiftly if they prey on livestock.
“I know these producers are frustrated,” he said. “It’s like an act of Congress to get a confirmation.”
New hiresBroman, of ODFW, said the agency is solely responsible for making the final determination on wolf kills since the outcome is tied directly to management decisions and taxpayer-funded compensation.
“We’ve been sued numerous times on wolves,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re doing everything right, consistent and have the evidence to back it up.”
Timely investigations are imperative, which is why Broman said the agency recently hired three new staffers to help implement the wolf plan around the state. Funding for the positions came from the 2019 Legislature, which approved $702,842 as a 25% match for a federal grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Restoration Act.
The full-time employees are stationed strategically in Southern Oregon at Central Point, Central Oregon at Prineville and Eastern Oregon at Enterprise to assist with wolf surveys and investigations.
“Essentially, they do anything and all things wolf-related,” Broman said. “These folks can dedicate themselves especially to those larger time commitments away from the office.”
Sean Stevens, executive director of the Portland-based environmental group Oregon Wild, said he disagrees with the proposition of county sheriffs being able to confirm whether wolves killed livestock.
In 2011, a seven-member panel of wildlife experts from Oregon, Washington and Idaho reviewed ODFW’s investigation processes and found they were conducted at a high standard with determinations based on the evidence collected.
Stevens said ranchers want sheriffs to conduct the investigations because they would have greater political influence over their decisions.
“It’s trying to keep these decisions out of the hands of politicians and in the hands of experts,” he said.
Furthermore, Stevens said he was surprised by ranchers’ reaction to the 2019 wolf report showing depredations were down, even as the population rose.
“If we’re going to make decisions based on best available information, science and data, it doesn’t help the cattlemen’s case to say we don’t trust the numbers and have given up on the system,” Stevens said. “If we focus on non-lethal (management) and continue to put resources and staffing behind it at the agency level, we can have a growing wolf population where we don’t have to turn to killing them.”
CompensationThe stakes riding on final outcomes are high, since they directly impact how much money a rancher might receive in compensation from the state’s Wolf Depredation Compensation and Financial Assistance Block Grant Program.
Ranchers can apply through a county committee for full compensation if an animal was confirmed killed or injured by wolves. Otherwise, counties may request funding for higher-than-usual levels of missing cattle, as determined by officials.
But ranchers say the program does not offer nearly enough to make them whole. Childers, with RL Cattle, said he had 19 missing cattle in 2018, along with the three confirmed depredations. He received just 12% of the value of those animals from the state.
That year, 10 counties requested more than $332,000 in compensation from the program. They received a little less than half that amount, $160,890.
Huffman, the Union County rancher and OCA wolf committee co-chairman, said he previously received just 17% of the value of animals that went missing above normal levels. Now, Huffman said he is uncomfortable turning his cows out before June, until wolves have more natural prey available such as deer and elk.
Instead, Huffman pays $450 a month to rent a pasture farther from wolf territory during the spring.
“I’m not willing to take my cows up there right now and take a chance of only getting a 17% payback,” he said. “There are ongoing costs to us from wolves.”
Steen, the Wallowa County sheriff’s deputy, said there is some “definite distrust” between locals and ODFW, and ranchers “absolutely” are giving up on the agency.
“It has not been a smooth road, for sure,” he said.
But Broman said not reporting attacks does more harm than anything. Even if it’s not a confirmed wolf kill, the fact there is an investigation highlights there is conflict of some kind happening on the landscape. Otherwise, he said, you just assume nothing bad is going on, and that can only hurt producers.
“We’re stuck in the middle. We have to live where we have information and evidence,” he said, adding that with the new staff he remains hopeful the problem can be resolved. “It’s just a matter of time, I think, where we’ll heal a lot of this.”