Process can’t keep up with wolves
By Eric Mortenson
A Umatilla County trapper intending to catch coyotes in late October found a pair of young wolves in his traps instead, capping a busy period in northeastern Oregon’s wolf country.
The trapper notified the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife as required, and biologists arrived to put GPS tracking collars on the 55-pound male and the 50-pound female. Both had been caught in foot-hold traps and were safely released after being fitted with collars.
The Oct. 26 trapping happened in a forested area east of Weston, Ore., and was part of a series of incidents involving what’s called the Umatilla River Pack. The action illustrates the complicated state management program being played out in the state’s far corner, even as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers removing gray wolves from the endangered species list.
An ODFW news release explained the wolves were outfitted with lighter weight GPS collars better suited to their size. The juvenile-size collars produce location information less frequently than the adult versions, but the department didn’t see that as a problem because the pack’s alpha male, designated OR-14, wears a GPS collar that also provides tracking data.
“The GPS collars on these younger wolves should prove most useful when the wolves disperse,” the department news release said.
The Umatilla pack’s dispersal, in which younger wolves set out on their own, is a sign of a healthy pack, but may be problematic for livestock producers in the area.
The previous morning, Oct. 25, a sheep rancher found a 120-pound lamb dead outside a fenced area. The lamb had been partially eaten, with its hind end sustaining severe damage. Tracks from a single wolf were found about 80 yards from the carcass. A second lamb was missing from the penned area.
Wildlife officials have listed the kill as a “probable” wolf attack. The finding is significant because only “confirmed” attacks are counted as a “qualifying incident” that could lead to the agency to consider killing one or more pack members in response to livestock attacks. Under the state’s wolf management plan, lethal control becomes an option when there are four qualifying incidents within a six-month period.
The Umatilla pack has one such incident on its current record, although it’s been active. On May 21, ODFW confirmed the pack killed four sheep in a pasture, injured a ram and another sheep went missing. OR-14, which has been collared since 2012, was in the vicinity in the hours before the sheep were found dead in a small pasture. The attack does not count as a qualifying incident, however, because it happened before the management plan took effect.
On June 3, a ewe was found dead at the same ranch. Its neck was broken and it had been bitten multiple times and partially eaten. Investigators estimated it was killed May 28. Data from his collar showed OR-14 was nearby May 26, May 28 and June 3, according to an ODFW report. The ewe’s death was counted as the Umatilla River pack’s first qualifying incident.
On July 27, a cattle rancher found his 800-pound yearling cow dead in a forested pasture. One of his employees reported seeing an adult wolf and four pups on a road within 100 yards of the carcass that morning, but he’d also seen a large black bear at the same location three days earlier.
Wildlife officials found no evidence the cow was killed by a predator, but concluded the bear discovered the carcass and moved it twice, and that wolves fed on it afterward. The event was listed as “Possible/Unknown” wolf involvement. The site is less than 2 miles from the May and June sheep attacks.
The Umatilla pack killed a milking goat on Aug. 23, at a farm 3.2 miles to the west of the sheep pasture. Wildlife investigators confirmed it as a wolf kill and initially declared it a qualifying incident, as called for under a management plan. But the decision was reversed because the agency missed a 14-day deadline for filing a deterrence plan, as the process requires.
Rod Childers, a Wallowa County rancher who is chair of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s wolf committee, said the missed step is frustrating to livestock producers. In other cases, the department has been slow to investigate livestock deaths because of a lack of personnel.
“The agency assures us they will get up to speed ... but while you’re messing around with paperwork, people are losing livestock,” he said.
The Oct. 25 “Probable” attack on the lamb followed. Wildlife officials do not consider the Umatilla River pack particularly aggressive toward livestock.
Oregon’s wolf management rules derived from a lawsuit filed against the state by three environmental groups. The settlement allows livestock producers to shoot wolves caught in the act of biting, wounding or killing livestock, ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said, but otherwise leans heavily to non-lethal measures such as range riders, alarms, fencing and electrified fladry — fabric that flaps in the air and bothers wolves.
Childers said the rules are complicated, “but when you do a settlement, nobody’s completely happy with it.” He and ODFW wolf program coordinator Russ Morgan will offer a presentation on the rule during the cattlemen’s association’s annual meeting in Bend in December.
Gray wolves are protected under state endangered species law in the areas east of highways 395, 78 and 95, generally the state’s northeastern corner. The area is home to seven documented packs made up of perhaps five dozen wolves. They are protected under the federal endangered species act in the rest of the state, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed delisting wolves in the lower 48 states.
Environmental and wildlife groups are adamantly opposed, saying the wolf population hasn’t sufficiently recovered.
“Delisting would prematurely turn wolf management over to the states,” the group Defenders of Wildlife says on its website. “We’ve already seen what can happen when rabid anti-wolf politics are allowed to trump science and core wildlife management principles.”
However, many Oregon stock owners continue to doubt the wisdom of encouraging wolves’ recovery.
“It’s adding another predator to the livestock industry that is already strained by feed costs, fuel costs and (low) prices,” said John Fine, president of the Oregon Sheep Growers Association.
Fine raises sheep in the Roseburg area of southern Oregon, which hasn’t had wolf problems.
“Not yet,” Fine said. “We’ve got cougars, bears and coyotes, so I figure we’ve got enough.”
In other developments, a 250-pound calf died of injuries sustained during an Oct. 15 attack in Wallowa County. It was the first confirmed kill by the Snake River Pack, which at the end of 2012 was documented to have seven members, including a breeding pair. It was the 66th confirmed livestock kill by wolves since the first crossed into Oregon from Idaho in 1999.
The attack occurred on forested public grazing land on a section known as the Freezout Saddle Area. A rancher checking on cattle saw a cow running down a slope with four wolves on the hillside above her. When he returned the next day, he found the 250-pound calf with severe bite wounds. It later died.
Also in October, the Oregon Department of Agriculture distributed $38,000 to five counties, including Wallowa and Umatilla, to pay for wolf deterrence measures. The money comes from $200,000 approved by the state Legislature.