When wolves and ranchers collide

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced today they will kill two wolves in a pack that frequents Wallowa Country.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is acting on a formal request submitted by a rancher in Wallowa County as a reaction to a calf recently killed by a wolf.

Wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bears, even eagles, are all livestock predators.  Wolves attacking livestock make headlines because of the controversial re-introduction of gray wolves.  A quick look into this complex issue may shed some light into the actions and reactions of those involved in the recent decision to kill two wolves.

Gray wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995.  The wolves sourced for the “reintroduction” were captured in Canada by Canadian and US wildlife biologists.  The core idea for reintroducing wolves into these areas was that the wolf is a major predator that is missing from the ecosystem of the greater Yellowstone area.  Because the wolf has been missing, the eco-system in Yellowstone is out of balance, and elk numbers, amongst other things, boomed.  Over time, unusually large herds of elk and other herd animals caused a considerable amount of overgrazing that has led to further changes and disruption of the ecosystem.

Although the wolf was initially reintroduced to Yellowstone and Idaho, wolves and wolf packs have taken root in both Washington and Oregon.  According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), at the end of 2016 there were 11 packs and a minimum count of 112 wolves.   This represents an increase of only two wolves over the 2015 count of 110.  As a comparison, there are roughly 1.3 million cattle in Oregon.

A majority of wolves subsist on prey that is not livestock.  This is evident from the number of reported livestock kills, 24 confirmed killings by wolves in Oregon in 2016.  A healthy wolf requires about 7 pounds of food a day, so for 112 wolves, the 2016 livestock kills equate to less than 1% of their caloric needs.  But there are a few wolves and wolf packs who develop a habit of preying on livestock.  These tend to become problem wolves and the subject of headlines.

In 2011 the federal government delisted wolves as an endangered species in Eastern Oregon.  Eastern Oregon is defined as the portion of Oregon east of Highway’s 395-78-95 (La Grande, Baker City, east of Burns). Wallowa County, the area of the most recent headlines, is within the delisted border.   Eastern Oregon management of the gray wolf has turned over to the State.  For almost 5 years the gray wolf in Eastern Oregon remained on the State’s endangered species list.  But in March of 2016, the gray wolf was removed as an Oregon endangered species. Wolves in Central and Western Oregon, however, are still listed and managed by the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Within the delisted Eastern Oregon zone, referred to by ODFW as the East Wolf Management Zone, ranchers have non-lethal measures, termed “injurious harassment” to reduce possible wolf-livestock conflict.  Examples of injurious harassment include hazing a wolf in a way it could cause injury but not kill a wolf.  The idea is to deter but not kill.  Only if a wolf is caught in the act of killing livestock does the rancher have the authority to kill.  If a rancher has multiple experiences with livestock attacks by wolves, it is within the rancher’s rights to request a “lethal take” of the wolf by ODFW.

A lot of boxes need to be ticked before a “lethal take” can happen.  One of which is that there needs to be at least two documented incidences of kill by the wolf or three incidences of known stalking by the wolf.  Looking at the situation in Wallowa County, the conflict is within the federal and state delisted zone.  Although the rancher did not witness the kill by the wolf, there is strong evidence that OR-50, a known wolf in the area, was involved. According to Capital Press, data from a GPS tracking collar showed the wolf designated OR-50 was within 200 yards of the carcass four times from July 21 to 25.

Apparently the rancher had requested the state “remove” the entire pack, which consists of 10 wolves.  That request was denied.  But ODFW plans to kill two un-collared wolves in the pack.

The decision to kill two un-collared wolves is curious.  It‘s within the reach of the Wolf Management Plan to have a problem wolf killed, and pragmatically speaking seems to be justified if all measures have been taken to protect the target livestock.  However, killing two un-collared wolves in Wallowa County seems more like a concession, not an action substantiated by the facts of the recent killing.  If OR-50 appears to be involved in this most recent killing, OR-50 should be further tracked and evaluated.  But the killing of two wolves to diffuse the issue seems a misappropriation of lethal take.