State, federal experts debate wolf kill evidence

Wallowa County Chieftain/East Oregonian Publishing Group This 250-pound Charolais calf, which had its insides eaten out, was discovered on the ranch of Tom and Lori Schaafsma, of Joseph, Ore., on May 13. Wolf tracks were found nearby.

Ranchers shocked at lack of confirmation; producers describe 'wolf freeway'


East Oregonian Publishing Group for Capital Press

WALLOWA COUNTY, Ore. -- Ranchers here say they are fed up with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife after state officials failed to attribute two calf deaths to wolf depredation, despite the kills being confirmed by a USDA wolf expert.

Ranchers Tom and Lori Schaafsma, of Joseph, Ore., and neighbor Scott Shear spent a tense night May 12, taking turns running wolves off their calf pastures. The next day, Schaafsma discovered a dead calf in the cow-calf pasture within sight of his home.

The 250-pound Charolais calf had its insides eaten out. Wolf tracks were found nearby.

Wolves had been seen in the area for three days before the killing, and both eyewitnesses and radio telemetry from a collar on the Imnaha pack alpha male put the animal in the pastures multiple times the night of May 12.

"We'd run him off and he'd just come back," Schaafsma said.

Schaafsma called USDA Wildlife Services wolf hunter Marlyn Riggs, ODFW Wolf Program Coordinator Russ Morgan and Rod Childers, wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. Riggs and Childers came to Schaafsma's ranch.

Riggs put on his rubber gloves, poked his fingers through bite holes, pointed out puncture wounds and measured wolf tracks. All evidence was photographed.

In his report, Riggs said "the feeding pattern was typical of wolf ... puncture marks on the flank area with some hemorrhaging at the puncture marks and around the flank area."

And then the disagreement began.

Morgan, the ODFW expert, who arrived later in the day and examined the remains at his office in Enterprise, refused to confirm the kill.

"We closely examined the carcass but found no evidence that the calf had been killed by a wolf," he said in an ODFW press release. Evidence, the press release said, would include "visible trauma associated with wolf bite marks, bruising, and signs of a struggle."

While ranchers were waiting for the ODFW ruling on Schaafsma's calf, ranchers Kirk and Liz Makin reported another suspected predation of a calf May 16 in a pasture in the Zumwalt Prairie area, a few miles from where state and federal officials agree a wolf killed a calf May 5.

ODFW announced May 17 that it found "no evidence" of wolf predation on the mostly eaten and partially decomposed carcass in the Makin pasture, either. Riggs confirmed that kill was caused by a wolf.

Given the fact that the wolves were seen in the area of Schaafsma's ranch for three days preceding the kill and continued to enter the pasture after the kill, Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen called the agency's reluctance to confirm the kill "nonsense."

"They're right in the middle of the damn herd of cows," he said.

Steen, Childers and Riggs disagreed with Morgan's conclusion on the Makin calf and decided to get a veterinarian's opinion. A local veterinarian tended to agree with the cattlemen's assessment but wanted a more specialized examination to be made. The carcass was sent to Washington State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for further evaluation at Sheriff's Office expense.

"I offered the Sheriff's Office services to the producers and said we would try use whatever technical service we can bring to bear," Steen said. "We'll deal with this as an investigation similar to any other private property damage case. Our job is to figure out the truth as to what happened to this calf. The livestock owners are at least owed that."

Imnaha pack wolves are known to regularly run the area. Cattleman Karl Patton, whose ranch is four miles north of Schaafsma's, chased four wolves out of his pasture within sight of his home on March 26. Wolves have been sighted and tracked by telemetry so often that Patton's ranch is now considered "the wolf freeway."

"Every time it snows I go back and have tracks of at least one wolf on my place," Patton said. "I've got to move my cows, but I cannot put my cows on my spring cow-calf pasture because wolves are there nearly every day."

The dispute between the state and federal officials centers around which agency has the authority to make the determination under the Oregon Wolf Plan. In the end, Wildlife Services yielded on management, but not on the value of its expertise.

"The plan obviously needs to be worked on," Wildlife Services State Director Dave Williams said. "Ultimately, the state agency does have the call. ODFW calls on our expertise, but they are the agency with management authority.

"Marlyn Riggs, with his more than 30 years of experience, has made the determination that the kill was made by a wolf. In our opinion it is very probable that a wolf caused the death. Unfortunately, what was left in the last two kills was atypical, and to try and eliminate reasonable doubt ODFW is going to look at evidence on the body of the animal alone and there is a lack of material left to work with. It wasn't textbook."

A "textbook" kill is bitten across the head, back and rear, Williams said, and when a calf is fed on, these markers may no longer be in evidence. Wildlife Services comes across atypical kills regularly, Williams said, and so conducts an investigation of the entire "crime scene."

For his part, Schaafsma cannot see how the kill on his ranch could be anything but textbook. "If there is not enough evidence here, finding it when I did, as close as I did, with the kind of management practices and health records that I have, how is anybody else going to be able to prove anything?" he asked.

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