Northwest ranchers uneasy living among wolves

JOSEPH, Ore. (AP) — Denny Johnson has raised cattle for 32 years on his remote northeast Oregon ranch at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains, struggling each winter through bitter cold, biting winds and deep snow.

Lately, he’s found summer nearly as difficult, thanks to gray wolves that have migrated from the Northern Rockies to the Pacific Northwest, killing livestock.

Among Johnson’s losses: an 1,800-pound bull, valued at up to $5,000, that ultimately died from infection. Johnson said wolves were responsible for that death and four others he’s reported since last fall, but the state hasn’t always agreed.

Ranchers contend the state is too quick to rule out wolves in livestock deaths, increasing the likelihood of steep financial losses on the farm.

“We’re not raising cattle for the government zoo,” he said. “Most of the people I know in the county who are for the wolves have no skin in the game. But it’s changing our life. It’s more stress on our family.”

Wolves roamed the West before they were hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th century in most of the lower 48 states. They were reintroduced into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s and thrived, with more than 1,600 of the predators roaming the Northern Rockies today.

Experts believe more than two dozen wolves now live in Washington and Oregon, all east of the Cascade Mountains.

Earlier this year, Congress stripped federal endangered-species protections from wolves in Montana, Idaho and the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon. They remain listed in the western two-thirds of those states.

In addition, wolves are considered endangered under those two states’ endangered species laws, affording them similar protections as the federal law.

Wildlife officials in Washington state are still working to develop a plan for managing wolves, a process that has raised the ire of hunting and ranching groups that argue the proposal would require too many wolves before they could be delisted.

Oregon has adopted a wolf management plan, and earlier this year the Legislature approved a bill to compensate ranchers for livestock losses.

Congress had already approved funding for states to create compensation plans. Under Oregon’s bill, ranchers will be paid the market value of lost cattle on confirmed kills.

Northeast Oregon ranchers have reported more than 50 attacks in the past year and a half, but state wildlife officials listed only about half of those incidents as probable or confirmed wolf attacks, said Rod Childers, chairman of a wolf committee organized by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

Childers said ranchers speculate that state officials are hesitant to confirm a wolf kill because that means a wolf may have to be killed. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is charged with both confirming kills and restoring wolf populations, which is a conflict of interest, he said.

“There’s going to be a bias and it shows up,” he said. “They feel they’re going to be challenged by enviros if they go to kill wolves, and they’ve set the bar so high that nothing is ever confirmed.”

Investigators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, conduct their own investigations of livestock losses but cede the ultimate decision about problem wolves in Oregon to the state. However, the federal agency’s investigators have confirmed wolf kills that the state has refused to confirm.

State incident investigators look for evidence that livestock was killed by predators, rather than just scavenged by predators, said Michelle Dennehy, wildlife communications coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. With wolves, that includes bite marks and tissue damage.

“Our people who are investigating livestock losses have been doing this for years, they’ve just been doing it with cougars, bears and coyotes,” she said. “They’ve had extensive training on recognizing damage caused by wolves and our methods have been reviewed by experts.”

Dennehy conceded there has been disagreement on the conclusions but said state officials are doing everything they can to deal with problem wolves without killing a breeding pair.

“We go in looking for evidence, the truth of what happened,” she said. “When we have wolves that continue to kill livestock, we will kill wolves. We just want to be sure.”

Wildlife officials have killed four wolves that repeatedly preyed on livestock in Oregon.

A panel of wildlife professionals, which included experts from five Northwest states, recently reviewed Oregon’s investigation process. The panel made recommendations for improving the process but felt the state was thorough and its findings were consistent with the evidence, Dennehy said. The panel’s findings are expected to be released this week.

For 24 years, the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife compensated ranchers and farmers when wolves killed their livestock. The group ultimately paid out more than $1.4 million during that time but gradually ended its program as states stepped in to assume that role. Its program in Oregon officially ended Saturday.

Suzanne Stone, the group’s Northern Rockies representative, said ranchers helped to craft Oregon’s program and should be satisfied.

“This program has engaged the local people in helping to determine and set the criteria for receiving compensation,” she said. “There’s never been another state that’s done more to try to protect the interests of ranchers.”

Ranchers are being encouraged to try non-lethal techniques to discourage wolf encounters, such as putting up fencing, using guard dogs and hiring range riders to keep wolves at bay. Washington and Oregon make money available to aid those efforts.

Johnson, the Wallowa Mountains ranchers, said he’s hired a man to live up in the hills, watching over cattle grazing on his property. He also regularly drives up there himself to try to scare off wolves.

“It’s just so frustrating,” he said. “This problem doesn’t have one answer. It likely has a mosaic, but it has to include the right to protect our private property. In my mind, these wolves are trespassing.”

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