Wolf manager walks thin line
Updated: Friday, December 03, 2010 9:40 AM
'Sometimes to preserve an animal, you have to kill an animal,' coordinator says
By MITCH LIES
LA GRANDE, Ore. -- Unlike most endangered species, which typically need help surviving, wolves do well without human intervention. Where wolves run into problems is when they interact with humans -- and livestock.
About 90 percent of the controversy around wolves, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, involves livestock depredation, said Russ Morgan, Oregon's wolf coordinator.
On one side of the fence, environmentalists have said losing a few cows is a small price to pay for re-establishing wolves in the Northwest.
For ranchers, the price is significant, and it extends well beyond the loss of a few cows. It extends to the loss of a basic right to protect one's property.
Under Oregon's Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, before a rancher can protect his livestock from a wolf attack, a rancher must show a previous loss of livestock to wolves, have tried nonlethal measures to prevent further depredation and secured a wolf-take permit.
Even with a permit, a rancher must catch a wolf in the act before pulling the trigger.
The combination of red tape and the remote possibility of catching a wolf in the act render the take provisions in Oregon's plan almost meaningless, according to ranchers.
And it leaves ranchers feeling their hands are tied.
"The bottom line of this whole thing is, as a rancher, I've got to have the tools in my toolbox to protect what's mine," said Tic Moore, a rancher in Baker County's Keating Valley. He lost between one and five calves -- depending on who's counting -- to wolves last year.
"I don't have problems with wolves in wilderness areas," Moore said. "But when a wolf comes out of the wilderness area and gets in my livestock, I don't accept that."
Oregon's wolf plan will kick in when the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf is removed from the federal endangered species list. The plan was adopted in 2005 -- before wolves were confirmed in the state. State wildlife officials recognized it was only a matter of time before wolves crossed the Snake River into Oregon, and they wanted to be ready.
Wolves were hunted to extinction in the Northwest by the 1930s. Federal wildlife officials re-introduced wolves in Central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.
Today an estimated 1,700 wolves roam the Northern Rocky Mountains, including an estimated two dozen in Oregon. North America is home to 50,000 to 60,000 wolves.
Oregon wildlife officials have confirmed that two breeding pairs, or two packs, inhabit Eastern Oregon. Morgan believes many more wolves could roam the state.
Wolf tracks and other evidence suggest wolves have traveled as far west as the Cascade Range.
"We really don't know how many wolves there are in Oregon," Morgan said.
Morgan -- who scouts for wolves, howls on occasion and fields dozens of wolf-sighting reports each month -- conversely, is confident he knows the number of wolf packs in Oregon.
Under Oregon's wolf plan, after four packs inhabit the state for three consecutive years, the state relaxes some restrictions on a rancher's authority to harass wolves to protect livestock.
After seven breeding pairs inhabit the state, the plan eases restrictions that block agency personnel from removing or killing wolves in cases of chronic livestock depredation.
At no stage does the plan allow a rancher to kill a wolf -- even a wolf caught killing livestock -- without first obtaining a permit.
Problems with wolf depredation have struck home in Oregon a half dozen times the last two years. Close to 40 head of livestock have died from wounds inflicted by wolves. Wildlife officials identified four wolves as being responsible.
The two that killed Moore's calf also killed 28 sheep and a goat in the Keating Valley in 2009. They subsequently were killed by federal wildlife agents under orders from Morgan.
"Sometimes to preserve an animal, you have to kill an animal," Morgan said in justifying the kill. "The population is the big thing. The individual is less important."
Officials also sought to kill two wolves from one of the state's two packs -- the Imnaha pack -- that killed calves this summer. But a lawsuit against USDA Wildlife Services cut short the efforts.
Morgan believes a high potential exists for the wolves to kill again.
"Research shows once depredation occurs, it has a higher chance of recurring -- that they will repeat it," he said.
Morgan, whose grandfather ran cattle in the same areas of Northeast Oregon he now travels as a wolf coordinator, won't say where he falls on the wolf controversy.
Weighing in on the controversy isn't part of his job, he said.
But, he said, it doesn't take an expert to understand that re-establishing a top-level predator into an environment will have dramatic impacts.
His job, he said, is to manage those impacts.
Without a state wolf plan, Morgan said, his job would be nearly impossible. With a plan, it is difficult but doable, he said.
"People ask me, 'Do you really, deep down think we can manage wolves?' My answer always is yes. But it is going to be very difficult. It is going to be a lot of hard work," Morgan said.
"It is going to take a lot of effort. People are going to have to roll up their sleeves and tackle some tough issues," he said. "But I do think it can be done."
Morgan often is accused of being either too protective or too rough on wolves. As long as he's getting heat from both sides, Morgan figures he's doing his job.
"I hear people say that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is between a rock and a hard spot when it comes to wolves, and I think that's where we should be," Morgan said.
"Some people try to get us to advocate more strongly for wolves, and some try to get us to advocate against wolves," he said. "I think we need to advocate for strong management."
When Oregon's plan was adopted, Morgan said, state officials asked lawmakers to give ranchers authority to kill wolves if a rancher catches wolves in the act of attacking livestock. State officials also sought to establish a fund to compensate ranchers financially for losses to wolves.
But cattlemen in 2005 did not like terms of ODFW's plan and did not support either provision.
The provisions subsequently were removed from the state's plan.
In 2011, ranchers will return to Salem to ask lawmakers for those same two provisions.
In supporting the compensation plan, ranchers are expected to approach lawmakers with the idea that if the public wants wolves, they should help pay the costs.
Environmentalists, in a recent Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hearing, agreed with the proposal. Several said they will back cattlemen in their efforts to start a compensation fund.
Fish and Wildlife staff also said they will support efforts to establish a compensation fund, but staff has balked at backing ranchers in their quest for authority to kill wolves caught attacking livestock.
"We got beat up from both sides (environmentalists and ranchers) for seeking that same thing five years ago," said Craig Ely, northeast region director for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In the recent Fish and Wildlife hearing, Morgan and other wildlife biologists recently unveiled recommended changes to Oregon's wolf conservation and management plan.
Nearly all the changes -- which were subsequently adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Commission -- were intended to make it easier for ranchers to harass wolves and pursue other means to protect livestock.
But the commission stopped short of giving an unpermitted rancher the right to kill a wolf that is attacking livestock.
Without that, rancher Moore said, Oregon's wolf plan falls short of meeting his needs.
"Wolves are here to stay," Moore said. "In the social and political environment of America today, wolves are here to stay.
"But dang it," he said, "give us a chance to take care of ourselves."