First of two stories: Read part 2, Wolves on the Move, in Wednesday's Chronicle.
Cattle are raised for human consumption but it goes against the creed of any cowboy to have the animals mauled by wolves and die in terror.
“We treat our herd as humanely as possible. It isn’t in our character to have our cows ripped apart and stand by while something kills them. This violates our way of life,” said Enterprise rancher Todd Nash at a recent meeting in Maupin.
Members of the North Central Livestock Association, which serves Wasco and Sherman counties, nodded in agreement as Nash continued, painting a picture of what will likely become an all-too-familiar scenario in the region as wolves continue to move through and eventually settle in the area.
Nash has a 650-head herd and chairs the Wolf Committee for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, of which the North Central association is a branch. He told the 60 area ranchers gathered in mid-February to expect problems down the road as the wolf population in Eastern Oregon continues to grow and regulatory roadblocks make it difficult to hunt depredating packs.
A brutal reality
His presentation included graphic photos of cattle killed by wolves, including pregnant cows. Evidence at one kill showed that a cow had attempted to crawl away as her fetus – a delicacy for wolves – was eaten right out of her womb.
“What would animal rights people say if we ripped our cattle apart?” asked Nash. “Yet they are not only willing for wolves to do that, but they don’t want us to even be able to defend our domestic animals from an attack.”
During a late snowstorm, one Eastern Oregon rancher found wolf tracks on his porch in front of the kennel where the family dog spends the night, he said. Because the shelter was sturdy enough to thwart an attack, the dog was uninjured.
If the pet had been on a chain in the open yard, Nash added, the rancher would not have been able to protect it from certain death. It is not allowable by state protection rules to even hit a wolf with a rock to drive it away, he explained. The most a landowner can do in that situation is throw a rock in the general direction of the wolf, or use some other non-injuring measure, to scare it off.
If a wolf is caught in the act of biting, wounding or killing livestock, or a working cow dog, the animal can be shot under current rules, but that is an unlikely scenario given that wolves are secretive and hunt at night, said Nash.
“Our reality is horrifying; it is a really frightening situation for a lot of people now,” said Nash, who has lost multiple cows and calves to wolves, and has suffered the economic and emotional toll of that predation.
A compromise plan
Rob Klavins, wildlife advocate for Oregon Wild, a conservation group, said the state has come up with a “compromise plan” to prevent ongoing litigation, first filed by Oregon Wild (and other conservation groups) about five years ago, over wolves in Oregon.
He said the legislature currently allocates $200,000 per biennium for compensation of livestock losses due to wolf predation. Thirty percent of any claim must be used on nonlethal defenses, such as electric fencing, that will aid in the co-existence of wolves and livestock.
Nash said the cattlemen’s association walked away from the table when the plan was being put together because it was “disingenuous.” The “compromise” allows conservationists to claim that they are working with ranchers — but that is not the reality, he said.
For example, he said it is extremely difficult for a rancher to have a livestock kill qualify for compensation. On large ranges, the carcass is usually missing altogether, or has started to decompose by the time it is found, making it more difficult to spot signs of a struggle, tracks or scat.
Officials then have to determine whether the animal was actually killed by a predator or if it was just scavenged by one after dying of a disease or some other cause.
Last year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture paid $62,820 in seven counties for livestock kills by predators.
Nash said a study performed in Idaho by John Oakleaf, an academic researcher, and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2003, found that only one in every eight wolf kills could be confirmed in more remote areas.
In addition to direct losses, which can run as high as $1,500 for a full-grown steer, Nash said there are other economic losses caused by stress after wolves have attacked a herd. He said uncompensated damages can be several times higher than an actual kill and include lower weight gain in calves and reduced fertility among cows.
A January report by the University of Montana faculty and graduate students found that, after a confirmed wolf kill for a ranch consisting of 264 head of calves, a decrease of 22 pounds in average weight took place. That implied a $6,679 loss at sale for the affected rancher.
Nash has calculated the costs of “running with wolves,” which includes injuries and health problems among the herd, as well as manpower, prevention measures and fuel, as averaging about $260 per head.
A long way from recovery
Klavins noted that wolves were nearly wiped out of the lower 48 states by the 1930s due largely to the problems they caused for ranchers.
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 35 Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the same number in central Idaho.
By 2011 the wolf population in those two states, plus Wyoming, Oregon and Washington, had topped 1,600 and the federal government dropped the Endangered Species Act listing for the Northern Rockies.
Wolves remain on Oregon’s protected species list and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife manages eight packs comprising 64 wolves east of U.S. Highways 395, 95 and 78. Wolves are still federally listed to the west of that area and a no-kill rule is in place.
“We’re a long way from meaningful recovery, but I generally think we’re doing things right in Oregon,” said Klavins. “There is huge support in this state for wolf recovery and I think we’re doing it in a way that also factors in the needs of ranchers.”
A moving target
Nash disagrees, and noted that once a pack has learned to hunt cattle, nonlethal methods are ineffective at stopping them. Ranchers have tried fladry, strips of fabric tied to fences that flap the breeze, electric fences, range riders and electronic alert systems keyed to wolf collars, among other methods, but none has proven more than temporarily effective.
State rules to allow the elimination of wolves that kill cattle are a “moving target” that is rarely attainable, he added.
The landowner of a confirmed kill must prove that he or she tried to use nonlethal measures to thwart an attack, and no action can be taken until there are four confirmed kills by the same pack within a six-month period. After six months, the process starts anew. The state has also set a 45-day limit to complete any hunt that does take place.
“I don’t know how much more you can do to protect your animals; these packs are dynamic,” he said. “When this was happening in Idaho, I thought it would never happen here but it did and now I tell ranchers across Oregon that it’s going to be them some day.”
To date, four wolves have been killed by ODFW or authorized agents since 2009.
Klavins said conservationists filed a legal challenge about five years ago against further killing of wolves and the current management plan is a mitigation measure.
He said no party was entirely happy with the outcome of negotiations in 2013, but it is the most workable solution to the challenge.
“The wolf plan allows us to kill an endangered species on behalf of the livestock industry and I think that’s significant,” he said.
“For many, wolves are a symbol of freedom and hikers and campers want to hear their howls as part of the outdoor experience,” said Klavins. “We see a lot of wolf hysteria out there. There are a lot of people who want to vilify them.”
Nash noted that it would be educational for hikers and campers to see the aftermath of gore left by a wolf pack that has literally torn a cow apart.
“Wolf tourism should include dead and wounded game and livestock as well as the horrified look on the rancher’s face,” he said.