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Letting cattle keep their horns may beef up defenses

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

An Oregon rancher, anticipating wolves will eventually come to his corner of the state, is allowing his cows to keep their horns as predator defense.

Wolves haven’t yet spread to Southeast Oregon, but at least one cattle rancher in the state’s big empty corner believes it’s inevitable. Stacy Davies, manager of Roaring Springs Ranch in the Steens Mountain area, expects wolves within five to 10 years.

With that in mind, the ranch has begun letting its “momma cows,” as Davies calls them, keep their horns. Dehorning beef cattle is a common practice because it makes them safer and easier for cowboys, horses and dogs to handle. Dehorned cattle also are less likely to injure each other.

But a cow’s horns are its best defense against predators, Davies said, and a cow defending a calf can be a tough customer.

“When the wolves come,” Davies said, “I want my cows to be armed and ready.”

As the West struggles to find the balance between recovering an endangered species and sustaining economic viability for livestock producers, has Roaring Springs rediscovered a useful old tool in the toolbox? As with most things in the wolf debate, it depends who you ask.

“It all sounds good, but in reality a six-point bull elk is armed as well as anything to take on a wolf, and they don’t have any trouble taking them down,” said Todd Nash, a Wallowa County rancher and chair of the Oregon Cattlemen Association’s Wolf Committee.

Nash said about 1 percent of his 700 cattle still have their horns. One horned cow in particular has raised three calves in wolf country, but her most recent calf disappeared this spring. Nash can’t say it was taken down by wolves — the Imnaha pack operates where he grazes cattle — but he said it’s an unsettled issue.

Nash also questions the safety of working with horned cows.

“Is that something you want to crawl in a corral with?” he asked. “It sounds great, but I don’t think it works.”

Russ Morgan, coordinator of the state’s wolf program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he’s heard of ranchers allowing cattle to retain their horns but said the jury’s out on the tactic. The number of livestock attacks is too small to draw a statistical conclusion, he said. In addition, the cattle attacked by wolves tend to be young and hadn’t developed horns, Morgan said.

“It’s too early to say, but I’m pleased people are starting to think about ways to help their situation,” he said.

Rob Klavins, a field coordinator with Oregon Wild, a conservation group that strongly favors wolf recovery efforts, said it’s good to hear that ranchers such as Davies are thinking ahead.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to avoid conflict,” Klavins said. “We want to see wolf recovery that works for everyone. We’re supportive of any effort to reduce conflict.”



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