Todd Nash saw the first gray wolves trotting across his grazing lands six years ago. They had crossed over from the Idaho state line, descendants from the first gray wolves released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995. No one had seen this predator in Oregon in more than half a century.
Nash, like other livestock producers in the region of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, had no experience with wolves and was, and still is, anxious about their presence. Nash heads the Oregon Cattlemen's Association wolf committee and runs cattle on more than 60,000 acres of public and leased land near Enterprise, Ore.
In 2009, Nash said, wolves were responsible for killing 20 sheep and a couple of calves in Baker County just to the south of him. By 2010, Nash discovered a female wolf with a radio collar had set up her territory right in the middle of land holding 650 of his mama cows. She was a member of the Imnaha pack. Its roots traced back to Idaho where in 1995 the federal government released Canadian gray wolves into portions of the state and into Wyoming and Montana. In 2008, a female wolf crossed into Oregon from Idaho. Named Sophie, and known to researchers as B300, she with her mate became the first breeding pair in Oregon in 60 years.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are now 77 wolves in 15 groups residing in the state. "That population has been doubling every two years," said Nash. In 2010, he had 20 dry cows. He believes their calves were taken by the Imnaha pack. But Nash found kill evidence for only one calf that year. It wasn't until 2011 that he and his neighbors had confirmed depredations (a predatory attack). As a result, Oregon Fish and Wildlife killed two nuisance wolves. Statewide, Nash said there have been about 40 confirmed livestock kills by wolves since their entry into the state more than 15 years ago.
Under the Oregon Wolf Plan, beginning this year, producers on the eastern side of the state will be able to kill wolves "caught in the act of biting, killing or chasing livestock," Nash said. While it sounds like a win for ranchers, Nash remarked, "Most attacks happen when it's dark or in the early morning."
According to the latest data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are nearly 1,700 gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, a range that includes Oregon and Washington as well as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In New Mexico and Arizona, the reintroduced Mexican gray wolf numbers come in at a minimum of 83. Meanwhile, the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have a total gray wolf population of near 3,700. And while producers in the upper Midwest have been learning to live with wolves for decades (the population naturally repopulated from Canada), those in the northwestern Rockies and American Southwest are still struggling with how to cope with a predator that maybe even their grandparents didn't know. Most continental U.S. wolf populations were all but wiped out by the first quarter of the 20th century.
Plenty of livestock associations in states where wolves don't yet live are fighting to keep them out. The Colorado Cattlemen's Association, for example, has a formal position on wolf reintroduction, stating, "We believe that the introduction is driven by the faulty assumption that the presence of the wolf is necessary for healthy ecosystem function."
Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., disagreed. "Studies have shown prey animals benefit the ecosystem by culling sick animals," he said, adding that wolves also keep elk on the move, which prevents forest and meadow areas from being too heavily browsed. He acknowledged, though, "there are challenges to raising livestock in wolf country."
And, while the northern Rocky Mountains where gray wolves were originally released are sparsely populated, the same is not true of areas adjacent to the Gila National Forest, Apache National Forest and Fort Apache Indian Reservation, where the Mexican gray wolf ranges.
"A lot of that territory is not good for wolves," Robinson explained. "They need an abundance of natural prey with few human intrusions, and they need an area not crisscrossed by many roads."
Sherry Barrett, Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agrees the southwestern re-introduction of wolves, which began in 1998, has faced challenges the wolves in the northern Rockies haven't. "Yellowstone and the Idaho wilderness have very little human population," she remarked. "Here, we are re-establishing wolves in a working landscape."
As a result, Barrett said the Fish and Wildlife Service works closely with ranchers to minimize wolf versus livestock conflicts through the 11-member Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council. The council helps fund range riders, teaches producers how to rotate grazing pastures and handles compensation programs for wolf depredations. Using range riders is an old tool for managing the livestock grazing in environments hunted by predators. The riders spend time with the herd, watching and checking for wolf tracks and scat.
Federal funding for the initiatives come through the Livestock Demonstration Program. Funding requires a 50-50 match, and it comes from the Mexican Wolf Fund and Defenders of Wildlife. New Mexico and Arizona received combined funding totaling $190,000 in 2014.
Barrett readily admits it's not enough, however. The Council tries to pay for confirmed depredations, based on market value of impacted livestock. For example, a calf brings reimbursement in the amount of $1,450, a lamb $225. Producers facing "probable depredations" receive compensation at 50%.
Oregon's Department of Agriculture compensation plans are more generous. Confirmed, probable or above-normal losses all receive the same level of compensation. But as the Colorado Cattlemen's Association has pointed out, compensation plans offered in active wolf territories fail to "take into consideration the loss of reproductive capacities from a well-developed gene pool or the economic loss experienced by the necessity of having to relocate an entire herd as the result of denning activity by wolves."
One of the "valuable things" Nash said he's done is hire a range rider. "He gets GPS locations on collared wolves and can then engage them and drive them out of a rancher's cattle," Nash said.
Nash said he's seen producers abandon permits to graze on public lands because of problems with wolves. "I tell people to stand your ground," he said. "We've got to win this. The No. 1 commodity in Oregon is beef cattle, and it's 50% of the economy in Wallowa County [Oregon]."
Nash has no illusions. He believes the wolves are here to stay. But he would like to see a lethal fund at the state level to pay for kills of nuisance wolves, which he said often have to be tracked by helicopter.
"I want to make it perfectly clear that as producers we didn't want the wolves here," he said. "But we've played by the rules. We're not the ones who sue. We're the ones who bear the costs, and it's going to be very expensive to get along with these animals."
SIX STEPS TO CURB PROBLEMS
1. Hang colorful flags on wire strung up around livestock areas, especially areas with young livestock. Wolves are leery of flapping flags and crossing barriers.
2. Confine your lambing ewes so wolves can't get to them.
3. Remove livestock carcasses. They can draw wolves into territory close to your animals, and the wolves will start to associate livestock with meals.
4. Be present with your livestock. Wolves are much less likely to attack livestock where they note a regular human presence.
5. Present wolves with negative engagement. Early morning is the best time to find them active. Frighten them. Fire rubber bullets. Engage in as much aversive conditioning as possible.
6. If you have a pack in your midst that isn't causing trouble, leave it alone. Chasing the wolves off might lead to a worse pack, one that does bother livestock, to move into your territory.
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