Accusations traded as investigators seek cause of death


East Oregonian Publishing Group

Everything rides on the decision when state wildlife biologists declare a dead cow in Oregon a wolf kill.

For the rancher, it's the animal's market value in compensation, about $800 to $1,500, a figure they say falls far short of the actual cost to them of wolves on the landscape.

For the wolves, it's a matter of survival. Wolves that kill livestock, according to the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, have to go. Once a wolf is labeled a chronic depredator during phase one of the recovery process, it becomes a potential target for state riflemen.

By any measure, time is running out in Wallowa County for the Imnaha pack, one of four in Eastern Oregon and to livestock the most deadly. Only the state appellate court staying a kill order in October prevents the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife from removing two problem wolves from the five-member pack.

Killing the two, one of them the alpha male, means the end of the pack and a step back in wolf recovery in Oregon, say conservationists who obtained the stay order.

Nonetheless, ranchers say the Imnaha wolves kill many more livestock animals than state authorities are willing to confirm. Reluctance to confirm cases, for what state wildlife biologists report as lack of solid evidence, has created discontent among ranchers. They turn instead to federal wildlife agents, local veterinarians and the county sheriff to confirm wolf kills, findings that carry no legal weight but apply political pressure to the state fish and wildlife department.

"All I can say is the citizens of this county who own and run livestock businesses on their own private property as well as permitted (national forest) property, they're tired of this and they've just about had enough." said Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen. "And I concur with them."

Steen said he believes the wildlife department refrains from declaring cattle deaths as wolf kills out of fear of being sued by conservation groups. He supports a plan by state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, that would give county sheriffs responsibility for confirming wolf kills, with assistance from agencies of the sheriffs' choosing, whether the state fish and wildlife department or federal agencies like Wildlife Damage Management or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Smith, whose district includes Wallowa County, sponsored the state plan to compensate Oregon ranchers who lose livestock to marauding wolves. A wolf fan he is not.

"Let me step back and be very clear," Smith said. "If I had my will, we would not have wolves in Oregon."

Wolves simply have become the usual suspects, said Suzanne Stone of Boise, Idaho, Northwest regional representative of Defenders of Wildlife. For more than 20 years, Defenders compensated ranchers in the West with $1.4 million for lost livestock in an effort to create goodwill between wolf advocates and the ranching community, she said. In Oregon, the organization stopped paying compensation in August, once Gov. John Kitzhaber signed the state's own compensation plan into law.

Stone said ranchers, eager to pin livestock losses on wolves, rather than contacting state wolf coordinator Russ Morgan in La Grande, turn to Steen and Marlyn Riggs, the federal wildlife services agent for the area.

Their sometimes contrary assessments fuel discontent with the ranching community in the Wallowa Valley.

She described Morgan's office as "professional and patient" but not pro-wolf.

"It's just a nightmare for ODFW to have to work in that kind of scenario. It's dangerous for them, intensely personal and a really unfortunate situation," she said. "It's a witch hunt more often than a professional investigation."

Predator guru

Stone provided five reports of cattle death investigations by state wildlife biologists and Riggs to illustrate how widely they can differ in methods and conclusions.

Rancher Willy Locke, 59 and a rancher for 25 years, called Morgan in June when he suspected wolves killed a calf on his 2,200 acres near Elk Mountain, north of Enterprise. Morgan reported finding the carcass in advanced decomposition but with "a significant amount of muscle tissue remaining -- and none show bite marks of any kind." Morgan ruled the kill "possible wolf/unknown."

"I left the scene thinking I didn't have a problem," Locke said.

But, on the advice of rancher Rod Childers, also of Enterprise, the wolf committee chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Locke contacted Riggs, who also examined the carcass. "Marlyn said, 'Oh, no, that was a wolf kill," Locke said.

Riggs "was very, very meticulous inspecting the calf," Locke said. He said Riggs discovered evidence that Morgan and state wildlife biologist Roblyn Brown did not find.

Riggs, in his three-paragraph, one-page report, documented "signs of struggle" at the site, teeth marks on both hind legs, the back, nose and brisket.

"Typical wolf feeding pattern," he wrote.

Morgan's four-page report concludes with a final note: "On day of investigation, Mr. Locke agreed w/findings and was relieved that he may not actually have a wolf problem. However, on 6/16 he informed me by phone that after numerous calls by other ranchers and talking more w/Mr. Riggs, he is certain that wolves killed his calf."

Locke said Riggs' word carries weight in Wallowa County.

"He is sort of the guru of animal predators in this area," he said. "He's seen more predator kills than probably anybody."

Increasingly since wolves reappeared in Eastern Oregon, scores of cattle go missing without explanation on remote summer ranges in places like Deadhorse Ridge and Sheep Creek Divide, ranchers reported. Studies show that for every confirmed livestock loss, wolves take more that are never discovered, as many as nine to every one in backcountry grazing areas. In cases in which a carcass is found, every investigation is different, and few end like a "CSI" episode. Often, a dead animal isn't discovered for days, after decomposition renders the scene indecipherable.

And wolves, like any predators, tend to eat the evidence, leaving behind only scraps on which to base a finding.

The evidence is often circumstantial. Wolf tracks may indicate their presence at the scene, perhaps only afterward as scavengers. A cow may break a leg running, possibly from wolves, and wind up euthanized by the rancher. The rancher claims a loss, but authorities find nothing that definitively proves wolves responsible. In such cases, the state may classify cattle loss as a probable wolf kill, and the rancher may claim only a portion of the animal's value.

"A lot of that depends on who's doing the confirmation," Childers said. "The whole key to finding a kill, to identifying it, is you have to identify trauma."

Trauma -- tissue damage beneath the hide that indicates the animal was alive when attacked -- is one category investigators look for. Another is signs that wolves caused the trauma, starting with distinctive bite marks, but also considering reports of wolves in the area or evidence such as wolf tracks.

"We try to be very evidence-based and objective," Morgan said. "The first order of business is to say: What do we have for evidence, objective evidence that the animal was attacked. If it was attacked, then we go to the next bullet, and how do we know it was a wolf?"

Morgan and his office have confirmed four wolf kills in Wallowa County since the appellate court forbade the state killing wolves. Ranchers are prohibited from killing wolves that threaten their livestock, and the state cannot issue permits or even kill problem wolves while the conservationists' suit is pending. Talk by ranchers to take the law into their own hands is commonplace.

Stress levels up

As of mid-November, state wildlife biologists and Riggs agreed wolves had killed nine livestock in Wallowa County, mostly calves, out of 21 cases investigated this year, Morgan said. But, he said, Riggs confirmed nine the state would not confirm.

Morgan said his office enjoys "very good working relationships" with Wildlife Damage Management, which employs Riggs, an agency with a history of working with ranchers in the West to eradicate unwanted predators like foxes and coyotes. Morgan stressed that his office, Wildlife Damage Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agree more often than they disagree on cases of cattle loss.

Nonetheless, differences of opinion in Wallowa County border on a feud when wolves and cattle are at stake.

"Well, it presents a challenge," Morgan said. "It certainly makes stress levels go up, and especially if we arrive on scene and there's maybe up to a dozen people at the scene and all of them are convinced that that's a wolf-caused injury or death."

Riggs declined comment, citing agency policy. His supervisor, Dave Williams, the state director of the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, said Riggs has more than 40 years experience in the field. Wildlife Damage Management, formerly Wildlife Services, is often the first agency ranchers call in the event of a suspected wolf kill.

"That's just the way it's always been," Williams said.

Wolf advocate Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild said Wildlife Damage Management did not historically operate from a wildlife conservation ethic. Ranchers still refer to its agents as government trappers.

"I'd state it bluntly. Mr. Riggs has done everything he can to undercut ODFW and the wolf management plan in northeastern Oregon," Pedery said. "Wildlife Services' mission is to exist to kill wildlife at the behest of agricultural interests."

Williams said his agents, however, routinely share with their state counterparts all information they gather.

The federal agency uses the same criteria to examine dead livestock and, last spring, sponsored a training session in La Grande attended by state wildlife agents of the Oregon State Police and the fish and wildlife department, as well as agents of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, Williams said.

Nonetheless, sometimes state and federal investigators reach different conclusions, he said.

"People on either side of the issue will look at that difference and tend to support the opinion that supports their belief, agenda or desire," he said. "That's just the arena that we have to operate in."

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