Wasco County Commissioner Steve Kramer has applied for a state grant to help ranchers protect their herds from wolf attacks as the population of the predators grows and moves across the state.
Although the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has only tracked two collared wolves, OR-24 and OR-33, passing through the area, ranchers in Grass Valley and several other locations have reported other sightings.
“We aren’t having any problems here right now but we need to be active, we need to be working on it,” said Kramer, who chairs Wasco County’s Wolf Compensation Committee.
On behalf of that group, Kramer has asked the Oregon Department of Agriculture for $2,000 that can be used on non-lethal measures to deter attacks.
Although he is skeptical about whether there is enough money in the compensation and prevention fund to grant his request, Kramer believes it is important for state officials to understand the need for support in all livestock production areas.
According to an ODFW report released Monday, the state distributed $174,428 in grants to 10 counties in 2015 to proactively address wolf-livestock conflict and compensate landowners who lost animals.
Since ranchers in Eastern Oregon are reporting that fladry, flagged fencing, has become less effective in deterring attacks, Kramer has turned his focus on helping ranchers clean up bone piles.
Carcasses left on the range when livestock die of natural causes can attract predators, said Kramer, who is seeking to get a discount price for remains that are hauled to the Wasco County Landfill.
“We need to put the bone piles somewhere secure,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Wasco County Wolf Compensation Committee will meet to discuss use of the grant, if approved, and other issues at 4 p.m. in Dufur City Hall, 175 N.E. Third Street.
Non-lethal management activities top the agenda and Kramer said the group will also look at establishing bylaws, the rules and regulations that provide a framework for operation and management.
He has gathered bylaws from similar committees in Eastern Oregon, where the wolf population is greatest and more depredation occurs.
Wasco County has decided to pay fair market value for livestock losses that do occur and Kramer has obtained a list of rates paid in Wallowa County to further define the local intent. These rates factor in the differential for killed and injured calves versus young adult pregnant cows that have years of fertility left.
At the North Central Livestock Association’s annual banquet and business meeting Saturday in Maupin, Rory Wilson, president of the organization, called upon Maupin rancher Keith Nantz to address wolf concerns.
Nantz, who serves on the local compensation committee, said the predators are now known to inhabit both the northeastern and southwestern sectors of the state.
He said ODFW reported cattle kills and injuries from wolves in both locations. He said wolves appeared to be using Wasco and Sherman counties as a “highway” between the two sides of the state.
In locations where depredation is occurring on a somewhat regular basis, Nantz said livestock owners can sign up to get text alerts from ODFW about local wolf movement.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, was the keynote speaker at the livestock association’s Feb. 27 meeting.
He said a bill to ratify ODFW’s decision in November to delist the wolf as an endangered species in Eastern Oregon had been approved by the House and was “still alive” in the Senate.
He said OCA’s political advocate, Rocky Dallum, was meeting in Salem with elected officials to stress the importance of passing House Bill 4040.
Approval of the bill, said Rosa, would help the state thwart a lawsuit filed by three conservation groups that want to stop the delisting of wolves until the population is much higher.
Rosa said Oregon’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was crafted in 2005 by a broad group of stakeholders, including ranchers and environmentalists, as a way to balance competing interests.
He said ranchers and farmers have lived up to conservation commitments under phase one of the plan by spending time and money on non-lethal deterrents so that wolf packs could become established.
Therefore, he said it is important for conservationists to respect that commitment and allow livestock owners to protect their herds as wolf numbers climb.
Under phase two of the plan, delisting of wolves in Eastern Oregon where the state has jurisdiction can occur when there has been a population of four breeding wolf pairs for three consecutive years, an objective that ODFW says has already been met.
Federal protections remain in place for the western two-thirds of the state where wolf management is regulated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. A “no kill” order is in place.
The 2015 annual report released by ODFW Monday shows that the state’s wolf population has exceeded the goals of the management plan.
According to the report, there are now a minimum of 110 wolves in Oregon, a 36 percent increase over the 2014 population. Many ranchers believe the actual count of wolves is much higher than recorded by ODFW.
The agency documented 11 breeding pairs of wolves last year, up from nine in 2014.
A breeding pair is an adult male and female that produces at least two pups that survive through the end of the year (pups are born in mid-April).
Phase two of the management plan allows ranchers to shoot wolves they find chasing animals on their property.
The threshold for state officials to consider hunting a problem pack drops from four kills in six months to two in any time frame.
Phase three of the plan occurs when there are seven breeding pairs for three consecutive years, a benchmark that might already have been met. When the state deems the numbers have reached that level, the plan calls for controlled take of wolves that consistently prey on livestock, or cause a decline in deer and elk populations, similar to the management plan for cougars.
OCA is also advocating for an extension of the tax credit for wolf kills that is set to expire in 2018.
Rosa said that will be important as the depredation rate grows since the state has limited funds for compensation.
“We’re trying to make a last ditch effort,” said Rosa of the fact that the 2016 legislative short session will come to a close on March 5 and the wolf bill and tax credit are still undecided.
It is tough for legislators from urban areas to understand the needs of food producers, he said, so OCA is also seeking to educate officials about how policy decisions made in Salem affect the agriculture industry.
Although ODFW reports the rate of depredation by wolves as decreasing in 2015, Nantz said at Saturday’s banquet that it remains difficult to get kills confirmed and many times the remains are missing altogether. For that reason, he said ranchers believe the death rate of livestock to wolf kills is much greater.
ODFW investigations confirmed nine incidents of wolves killing livestock in 2015 and two probable incidents.
A total of 10 sheep, three calves and one working dog were killed by wolves, and another two calves and one lamb were injured.
In 2014, there were 11 confirmed incidents and 32 livestock lost.
About 77 percent of depredations occurred on private land and most happened during the months of May, June, August and September, according to ODFW.
Jeremy Thompson, biologist from ODFW’s field office in The Dalles, is regularly consulting with local ranchers about wolf movement in the state.
“We expected wolves to disperse throughout the state, that was the intent of the plan,” he said.
“Everyone is curious to see what will happen next and I want to be a good partner for ranchers in this area, to make sure they have all of the information they need.”
He said while the first wolves in Oregon crossed the Idaho border, there are now established packs in Washington State also, so the animals could be traveling into the area from varied directions.
Because wolves have not seemed to prefer arid zones, Thompson said it is unlikely the animals will make the wheat fields of Sherman County their home.
He said the odds are greater that they will one day settle into the forests of western Wasco County.
“That’s an assumption based on the pattern that we see but they are wildlife and choose what they want to do,” he said.
He said cleaning up bone piles is one way that local ranchers can deter wolves.
The animals tend to return to an area that promises food so it is important not to give them something to scavenge.
He said deterrents that work in one area won’t necessarily work in another and biologists have been baffled by that behavior in animals.
For example, Thompson said deer and elk in Hood River County are repelled from eating tree fruits by a bar of soap hung from a branch.
“Apparently they don’t like the smell,” he said. “However, we have tried the same thing in Wasco County and I swear they eat the soap.”
In some locations, Thompson said fladry is highly effective but it remains to see how flagged fencing will work in Wasco County.
At the moment, he said ODFW biologists have a much more immediate worry than wolves, and that is trying to stop deer and elk from damaging farmland.
When a large herd passes through a wheat field, Thompson said fragile young plants are churned under the soil and destroyed.
To prevent that from happening, ODFW biologists haze herds with propane cannons to keep them off private property, and work to ensure there is better feeding grounds on public lands.
“It’s just about trying to be sure they don’t become comfortable in those situations,” he said.