The Wasco County Wolf Compensation Committee voted 4-2 Wednesday to oust Debra Lutje, one of two wolf advocates, for comments she made in an opinion piece that was published Jan. 29 in The Dalles Chronicle.
The committee’s vote is a recommendation that will go to the Wasco County Commission for consideration.
“I heard the message of our committee members loud and clear,” said Wasco County Commissioner Steve Kramer, who chairs the committee, in a follow-up interview.
He abstained from a vote at March 9 meeting, but said the matter would be forwarded to the county commission as soon as possible.
“At the end of the day, we need to respect each other,” Kramer said. “We certainly can’t get any work done if we’re insulting folks — and that applies to all our committees.”
Mike Urness, a local car dealer representing the business community, made the motion to remove Lutje.
The committee met at Dufur City Hall, its first meeting since fall of 2014.
“What you said was defamatory and insulting,” Urness said to Lutje before taking action.
Lutje replied that she had not said “anything that was not true.”
“So, you want to make a motion to remove me because you think I’m uncooperative?” she asked. “I am the wolf advocate.”
“It’s more than uncooperative,” said Urness.
“I don’t think you even have a clue, I don’t think you understand,” said Mike Filbin, one of two cattle ranchers on the committee.
At issue was Lutje’s guest column to refute a rancher’s claim that wolf attacks constitute an act of terror on cattle herds.
In it, she called ranchers “whiny,” said the state cattlemen’s association was filling their heads with “vile and stupid ideas” and said ranchers were just upset that they were “no longer allowed to rape the land for their own personal profit.”
Toward the end of her column, Lutje said “…ranchers need to get out of their comfy pickup trucks and get back into the saddle…You know, like real cowboys.”
She defended those words at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The purpose of the wolf advocate is to provide the dissenting opinion and to make sure the committee gets things done and gets on with it,” said Lutje.
She said the opinion piece had been shared by people across the state and she had received compliments on her honest assessment of the situation, as well as a warning that she should fear for her life for being so outspoken.
“I’m not a politician, I don’t have to be politically correct, I’m entitled to my opinion,” she said. “I didn’t get in the way of the work (done by the committee) other than the fact it upset you.”
Brandon Ayres, owner of a guide service who joins Urness in representing the business community, disagreed with Lutje’s assertion.
“This may deter a rancher from coming in and dealing with us,” he said.
Ayres said Lutje’s writing became a problem because she identified herself as a member of the committee.
“To bring our committee into this is where I have a problem,” he said.
Sherlene Bowen, the second wolf advocate, said she also had a problem with Lutje making that connection.
“Any time you sit on a committee and use that committee’s name, it’s automatically assumed it’s that committee,” she said. “That’s where I felt she was out of line.”
Rancher Keith Nantz was president of the North Central Livestock Association and spearheaded formation of the local wolf committee.
He reminded Lutje that the mission of the committee was to work with livestock owners to prevent wolf attacks and make sure they were compensated for losses.
“To advocate for or against the wolf here is immaterial,” he said.
Urness, Filbin, Ayres, and Nantz voted to have Lutje removed from the committee. Bowen and Lutje voted for her to stay.
In other business, the committee discussed how a $2,000 grant should be used on behalf of livestock owners, if funds are awarded by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Because the committee had not met for more than one year, Kramer had applied for the grant to meet a Feb. 29 deadline.
“I had a chat with Keith, he felt it was a fair number to get started with,” Kramer said. “I applied for bone pile removal because that seems to be the biggest deterrent to wolves sticking around.”
Kramer said Wasco County Landfill had offered to bury carcasses for $20 per animal. He said cleaning up bone piles would deter wolves from looking for food during their travels.
Two collared wolves have been tracked by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in the area. Ranchers in Grass Valley and several other locations have reported other sightings, including a group of five black wolves traveling together.
Urness suggested the grant funds be used to cover mileage costs, and the service fee, for livestock owners hauling carcasses to the landfill.
The group agreed and the price was set at 50 cents per mile. Kramer said the application forms would be amended to include that information.
Filbin and Nantz said it was unlikely that many ranchers would utilize the program since it would be less labor-intensive for them to deal with remains on site.
Nantz agreed that steps had to be taken to show that the county was trying to prevent wolf attacks before compensation would be granted for losses.
“If we don’t go through this process we can’t apply for depredation dollars,” he said.
Lutje reminded the committee that the wolf plan had been set up to accommodate the interests of all stakeholders and ensure the rules were uniformly applied.
She said removing bone piles might not have been standard practice on ranches in the past, but times had changed.
“Change is hard, change is always hard,” she said. “But things change and you’ve got to be flexible, to change with them.”
The committee has decided to seek fair market value (based on the price the day of the kill) as compensation.
Nantz asked Jeremy Thompson, biologist from Oregon Fish and Wildlife’s field office in The Dalles, when area ranchers would be able to sign up for text alerts about wolf movement.
Thompson said the agency only sent out alerts in locations with “known wolf activity” and not for migratory behavior.
“When you have known [residential] wolves we’ll set up the program,” Thompson said.
ODFW reported 110 wolves in Oregon during 2015, a 36 percent increase over the 2014 population. Ranchers believe the actual count of wolves is much higher.
Lutje pointed out that, while wolf numbers have increased, ODFW reports that depredation has not risen. She said non-lethal measures taken to deter the presence of wolves, such as cleaning up bone piles, appeared to be working.
“The unfortunate thing,” said Nantz, “is that the number used by ODFW is only for confirmed kills and that process is incredibly difficult. So, as far as I’m concerned, you can throw that number out.”
He said if a kill is not fresh enough to be investigated, or the remains are missing, then government officials won’t confirm a wolf attack.
Vicki Ashley, a south county rancher who was at the meeting, agreed with Nantz.
“If you don’t see the kill, you end up not being able to count it and that’s why the numbers are skewed,” she said.
Filbin said the rules set up by agencies to enact the wolf management plan were unfair to livestock owners, the ones who truly bore the cost.
“This whole thing’s a phony set up,” he said.
Kramer said the rules governing wolf reintroduction were negotiated in the management plan and had to be followed.
“If we want to have a wolf compensation committee in Wasco County, we’re going to play by the rules,” he said.
Thompson said area ranchers and farmers who see wolves should report the sighting to his office at 541-296-4628. He said that information helps ODFW track movement of individual animals and packs.