Wolves did indeed kill another llama Jan. 30 on private land in rural Union County, Ore. That much is certain.
But wildlife officials are still trying to figure out which pack is responsible for the death, in an area where the population and distribution of wolves is ever changing.
According to the investigation report, wolves chased and killed the 300-pound adult llama, owned by retired rancher Howard Cantrell, on his property west of La Grande.
Two more of Cantrell’s llamas were found dead last November. One of those incidents was initially ruled a “probable” depredation, but was retroactively changed to “confirmed” on Tuesday by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. The other incident was ruled a “possible or unknown” attack.
The challenge now is figuring out which wolves may be causing the problem. Between the Mount Emily and Meacham wildlife units in the northern Blue Mountains, there are at least four known packs, including the Walla Walla, Mount Emily, Meacham and newly named Ruckel Ridge packs, along with more unnamed groups and pairs roaming the woods.
Hans Hayden, assistant district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife in La Grande, said investigators believe the most recent llama death may have been caused by a group of three wolves led by the female OR-52.
That is just a hunch, though, and there is still uncertainty especially given the lack of GPS collars on any wolves from the nearby Meacham pack, which preyed on cattle four times in eight days last August on a private pasture in neighboring Umatilla County.
Historically, the Meacham pack would come into the territory where Cantrell’s property lies at the bottom of a steep canyon near Five Points Creek, Hayden said. As more packs become established, that can also rearrange another pack’s territory, he added.
“It’s tough to keep tabs on them,” Hayden said. “We’re still learning how they use these landscapes. It’s all pretty new.”
In the meantime, Cantrell is looking to adopt out his remaining 12 llamas, fearing for their safety.
“They don’t even know which wolves it is. They’ve got no collars on these wolves. They’re coming in from different directions every night,” Cantrell said. “This is ridiculous. The only solution I have is to take the llamas off my property.”
OR-52 does actually have a collar, Hayden said, though it is not a GPS collar. It is a VHF, or “very high frequency” radio collar, which he said does not provide as much information as a GPS collar but lasts longer and is more reliable.
Hayden said he has made numerous trips to Cantrell’s property to check on the location of OR-52. ODFW has also put up additional trail cameras around the area to catch a glimpse of which wolves are passing through.
Over the last few weeks, Hayden said the department has also installed flashing Foxlights and radio-activated alarm boxes to scare wolves from the property.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to help (Cantrell) avoid another depredation,” Hayden said.
ODFW is in the process of preparing its end-of-year 2017 wolf report, which will include the latest statewide pack and population figures. The report will be released in March.