As Oregon wolves spread, so does ranchers’ unease
By Eric Mortenson
News that a wolf traipsed across the east slope of Mount Hood in December may have drawn cheers from conservation groups, but ranchers responded with grim resignation.
Keith Nantz, who runs about 100 head of cattle and grows wheat and hay south of The Dalles, said people who spend time in the woods and on the range have suspected for some time that wolves are dispersing from the northeast corner of Oregon. He said the tracks found in the White River unit of Mount Hood, about 35 miles as the wolf trots from his ranch, were no surprise.
“Loggers have seen them for the last couple years, it’s just now confirmed by ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife),” Nantz said. “This isn’t just passing through; there may be more than just the one.”
For now, no one can say. Only 12 of Oregon’s 64 officially documented wolves wear GPS radio collars that can be used to track their location, and this apparently wasn’t one of them. Or if it was, the collar no longer works.
At any rate, ODFW doesn’t know which pack the wolf is from, whether it’s male or female, or where it is now. It may have returned to northeast Oregon, it may still be in the Mount Hood area or it might have wandered off like OR-7, the famous traveling wolf that traveled into northern California before returning to southern Oregon.
ODFW downplayed the event. The agency didn’t issue a news release when the tracks were found on the mountain, but instead mentioned it in passing in an annual wolf report two months later.
“It just means a wolf was on Mount Hood at least once,” ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said.
The conservation group Oregon Wild told The Associated Press that the tracks are “history” and demonstrate that endangered species can recover when given a chance.
Most ranchers are fine with that up to a point. In the case of Oregon’s wolves, however, they believe much of the recovery has come at their expense, not all of which has been compensated.
“One thing the public doesn’t understand, is that the increased cost we have as producers eventually gets passed along,” Nantz said. “Every time we get pinched, we pass along that extra cost.”
A 2010 report by John Williams, an Oregon State University extension agent in Wallowa County, estimated wolves cost ranchers an additional $260.90 per head of cattle. Williams broke down the cost as $25.20 per head for killed calves; $21 per head for reduced weaning rates; $55 per head for weight loss; $67.20 per head for reduced conception rates; and $92.50 per head for increased management costs. Williams said the costs may have increased slightly since he wrote the report.
“Maybe most disturbing and the hardest to quantify,” Williams wrote in the report, “is the anxiety that wolves cause among ranchers and their employees, forcing 24/7 vigilance that reduces ability to recover and remain productive day after day.”
“It’s an emotional drain on ranchers, wondering if their cattle are OK,” said Todd Nash, a Wallowa County rancher.
He employs range riders, uses a fladry system and collar-activated alarm boxes to scare off wolves and like many other ranchers has cleaned up bone and carcass piles that can attract wolves. He physically checks his cattle much more frequently than in the past.
“Here locally we’ve done more non-lethal control than anybody in the lower 48 (states), and it’s been largely ineffective,” Nash said.
He runs cattle in an area prowled by the Imnaha Pack, and has had five cows confirmed killed by wolves since 2010. He’s seen only two wolves, but believes they’ve killed 30 to 35 of his cows that simply disappeared during that time. “How many is a good question,” he said. “In the larger ranges you just don’t find them.”
In 2013, he and three adjacent ranchers came up 58 head short between them. “Getting a confirmed (by ODFW) kill is like getting a conviction on O.J. Simpson,” Nash said.
He sees continued trouble ahead, in particular because Oregon doesn’t have great expanses of wilderness that the wolves can have to themselves.
“They’re going to be in constant conflict with people no matter where they go,” he said. “We’re going to have issues with them depredating on livestock, and we’ve yet to see what they do to the game population.”
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission will receive a briefing on the 2013 Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Annual Report on Friday, March 7, in Salem.
According to a draft of that report, there were 64 confirmed wolves in 2013, up from 48 in 2012. There were eight packs, an increase of two. Four of those packs successfully produced pups, as opposed to six the year before.