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By Andrew Theen
Photo Rob Klavins, Northeast Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild, observes a cow carcass on public land in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, where wolves and cows both exist for months of the year (Andrew Theen / Staff)
WALLOWA COUNTY – Wally Sykes and Rob Klavins thought if anyplace in Oregon would be a safe haven for wolves, it’d be this clearing deep inside the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Instead, Wallowa County’s foremost wolf supporters felt like they were standing in a cow pasture. The dry creek bed, amid cow pies and their associated aromas, seemed out of place within the 2.3 million-acre forest that encircles Enterprise and Joseph in the rough shape of a backward C. Remnants of a cow skeleton gleamed white nearby.
“It should be a meandering crick,” Sykes said of the area that feeds Marr Creek before running north into Big Sheep Creek, the Imnaha River and the mighty Snake.
For decades, ranchers have used the rugged area in northeastern Oregon to turn out cattle for grazing from spring to fall. Until recently, cows – and their owners — didn’t have to contend with one of nature’s apex predators – the gray wolf.
A cow trots through the forest east of Joseph in Wallowa Count (Andrew Theen/Staff)
But that’s changed. Wolves, which were hunted to virtual extinction in the West during the early part of the 20th century, have rebounded in Oregon. And nearly a decade after the state’s first wolf pups were born in almost 60 years, wildlife officials are in the thorny position of having to resume killing an animal they so worked so hard to save. And for the same reason: attacks on livestock.
The remote area of Wallowa County that Sykes and Klavins toured last month is prime wolf habitat.
It’s also home to more than 2,000 cows and calves.
Since August, state wildlife officials have killed four wolves in this patchwork of public and private land for repeated attacks on cattle. They also authorizing killing four more members of the Harl Butte pack.
Thousands of head of cattle graze on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest just east of Joseph, a rugged area that is also home to at least one wolf pack. The state has killed four members of the Harl Butte pack in 2017 for attacking cattle (Andrew Theen/Staff)
This follows the 2016 killings of four members of the Imnaha pack, relatives of the state’s famed wandering wolf, OR-7.
Klavins, Northeast Oregon field coordinator for the nonprofit Oregon Wild, said the state is setting a worrisome precedent.
“If wolves can’t survive in a place like Wallowa County,” he said, “where can they survive?”
He contends the state shouldn’t be spending the more than $20,000 to kill the four wolves to benefit a handful of ranchers, especially while the animal’s population is still recovering. Wolves are still listed as a federal endangered species in much of the state, broadly in areas west of U.S. 395, U.S. 95 and Oregon 78.
WHERE DO OREGON’S GRAY WOLVES ROAM?
Wolves continue to establish new packs and territory across the state, but Wallowa County is a prime spot for several packs. Here’s where state biologists say each of the state’s packs are known to roam.https://markwgraves.carto.com/builder/45c622d3-55bd-4535-a04f-3ccf76a5d784/embed
The views in the Wallowa-Whitman Nation Forest show rolling forested hills and mountains on several sides (Andrew Theen/Staff)
Additionally, animal advocates say, eight wolves have been poached or died under suspicious circumstances since 2015. Some of those animals were connected to attacks on livestock.
Oregon runs the risk of having a “token persecuted population of wolves,” Klavins said.
The livestock vs. wolves debate is older than Oregon. In 1843, settlers in the Willamette Valley gathered at Champoeg south of modern-day Portland. They were tired of the wolf scourge and imposed a tax on themselves to raise money for wolf bounties. The last one was claimed in 1947.
The canids flourish where deer and Elk live, and state officials have said that Oregon could accommodate as many as 1,400 wolves. An estimated 112 roam the state, with large forested areas of western Oregon still wolf-free.
Roblyn Brown, acting wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said last year’s relatively stagnant wolf count was a “blip” in an otherwise upward trajectory. How they are managed must change as their numbers grow, she said.
“Just because we have wolves doesn’t mean we need to shoot them,” she said. “There are lots of non-lethal [techniques] that we can try.”
Jim Akenson, the conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association, believes wolves need to be hunted in the state as soon as possible. Akenson lives in Enterprise but spent more than 20 years living with his wife, a fellow researcher, in Idaho’s remote wilderness (Andrew Theen/Staff).https://37883df7f43fcc3e91ffad04752e2dcf.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
But the Oregon Hunters Association and local ranchers contend that non-lethal tactics only go so far, especially in open grazing areas.
Jim Akenson, conservation director for the hunters association, said entire wolf packs should be removed once they show a taste for livestock. The state has put down 12 wolves since 2009 for that reason, and a 13th was legally killed this fall by an Umatilla County rancher.
Akenson said wolf management means hunting, just as states like Idaho, Wyoming and Montana do. He and his wife Holly Akenson are biologists and spent 21 years working at a University of Idaho research site in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Holly Akenson sits on Oregon’s fish and wildlife commission.
Jim Akenson believes wolves teach their pups how to kill and that the lessons leave an imprint. Once the parents start chewing on cattle, all must go.
“This is the new normal,” he said of targeting wolves, like those in the Harl Butte pack. “I really feel that hasn’t been taken to heart in these areas that are newly colonized [Oregon and Washington].”
Todd Nash is one of the most outspoken wolf critics in Northeast Oregon. He’s spent years advocating for ranchers’ interests through the Oregon Cattleman’s Association and said he would now move cattle from the patchwork of public and private land near Harl Butte just east of Joseph, the site of several wolf attacks in the past two years (Andrew Theen/Staff)
The state’s new plan for managing wolves is expected to be finalized in December, several years later than planned. Yet big questions remain roughly two years after Oregon decided to remove the animals from the state’s endangered species list, and few are pleased.
Conservation groups say the state too often sides with a handful farmers and ranchers in far-flung Wallowa County to the detriment of wolves.
But ranchers like Todd Nash, who has used parts of the public forest to graze cattle for more than two decades, said Wallowa County unfairly shoulders the burden for the rest of the state.
Harl Butte wolves, he said, are a byproduct of a lenient state policy that allowed them to get away with killing cows without consequences. The summer and fall attacks in Wallowa County embody that long-leash approach coming home to roost.
Nash is a member of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and a longtime critic of wolf management here. He also sits on the Wallowa County Commission, a seat won by beating, ironically, fellow rancher Steve Wolfe.
The state faces an important juggling act, he said. Ranchers need assurances the state will exterminate wolves that attack their cattle; environmental groups need to know wolf numbers will continue to grow; and hunters need affirmation the predators aren’t decimating Elk populations.
“I think that maybe we can accommodate all of those things, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” Nash said, then paused. “And it’s going to take a lot of dead wolves, unfortunately.”
The panoramic view atop Harl Butte in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Northeast Oregon includes a glimpse of the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho and the Wallowa Mountains and the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon (Andrew Theen/Staff).https://37883df7f43fcc3e91ffad04752e2dcf.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlhttps://37883df7f43fcc3e91ffad04752e2dcf.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
FROM HARL BUTTE
The view atop Harl Butte is like something out of a frontiersman’s journal.
To the east, the snow-dusted Seven Devils Mountains jut above the Snake River and the cavernous Hells Canyon. To the west, the Wallowa Mountain’s Eagle Cap Wilderness area beckons. Just north of that, the Zumwalt Prairie’s golden grasslands sit like kneaded golden dough at the edge of the forest.
The vast expanse in between is perfect for gray wolves.
Wolves are exceptional hunters whose powerful jaws can snap bones in half, but they prefer the less rocky terrain of the forest to the mountainous Eagle Cap Wilderness. They can find shelter in the trees and gravitate to open meadows to chase down Elk and other prey.
“It’s a place where, theoretically, a wolf could go and carry out its life story and not cause problems,” said Mark Penninger, a wildlife biologist and spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
A cow grazes in late September near Harl Butte (Andrew Theen/Staff)
But Penninger said the government knew there would also be problems in the Wallowa-Whitman. Ranchers have grazing allotments on roughly two-thirds of the forest, which is the largest in the state and more than twice the size of Rhode Island.
In the Harl Butte and Marr Flat region a few miles away from Joseph, a handful of ranchers – five outfits according to forest service records — have access to some 67,709 acres. Instead of buying feed for their animals or using private pastures, they can pay the government for the right to graze in the forest.
On a late September drive through the area, a few ranchers rounded up their animals, and hunters set up camp for Elk season.
Two days after a reporter’s visit, a livestock owner will find an injured 7-month-old calf on private land nearby. The 540-pound animal, a state investigation said, was injured days earlier and had a “large open wound on the inside of the upper left rear leg” which officials attributed to the Harl Butte wolves. It was the ninth confirmed wolf attack on cattle within three months.https://www.youtube.com/embed/hYe6ITbkdfw?feature=oembed
The calf owner can get some relief through the wolf compensation program the Oregon Legislature unanimously approved in 2011.
Wallowa County ranchers have been the biggest beneficiaries of that fund for five years running, and they’ve collected $9,390 so far in 2017. The county also received $60,000 this year in state and federal money to help ranchers prevent wolf attacks through guard dogs, electric fences, range riders and other non-lethal measures.
Sykes sits on the wolf compensation committee in Wallowa County, and he understands the politics behind the whole deal. Ranching is important to the county even as farm and cattle numbers decline. According to the most recent federal data available, there were 34,859 cattle in 2012, compared with 42,509 five years prior.
But Sykes said he has grown “resentful” of the program. “I don’t think it’s made the ranchers any more accepting of wolves,” he said.
Wolves should be viewed as the cost of doing business, he said. “If they want to run cattle out here they have to enjoy the fact that they’re putting cattle in a natural environment.”
Vic Coggins, a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, believes wolves should be hunted as soon as possible. Coggins, who spent more than 40 years working for the state, helped reintroduce Big Horn Sheep in Hells Canyon and has hunted wolves in Alaska (Andrew Theen/Staff)https://37883df7f43fcc3e91ffad04752e2dcf.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
TIME TO HUNT
Nash says there are a million ways to kill a cow. One year, 50 calves developed a respiratory disease that killed 11. They die during birth. And he once lost 14 animals to a lightning strike.
“It’s nothing that any of us are proud of,” the rancher said, “because we do everything we can to keep it from happening.”
These days, he said, the most worrisome time is between calving and turnout, when the animals are set out to pasture to eat.
Though wolves aren’t the biggest threat to his or anyone else’s animals, the devastation they leave behind is lasting, he said. They essentially bite their prey to death.
“I wish I could more adequately articulate exactly what it’s like,” he said.
Cows hang out and graze in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in late September (Andrew Theen/Staff)
Nash said his calves have become skittish and are skinnier than normal since wolves killed two of his cows this year. He estimates the weight shortage and other costs amount to $70,000 in lost revenue.
Nash doesn’t think non-lethal techniques can work on these remote lands, which he contends is the most difficult terrain for ranchers in North America.
He’d also have to pay an extra set of hands to keep watch on the cattle day and night.
He already has two full-timers, and the area he uses includes 120 miles of fence line.
There’s one range rider for the entire county, and the endless hills and drainages make it difficult to keep an eye on cattle.
Nash and other local ranchers rely on public lands to supplement private grasslands, but there are requirements, such as maintaining fences. “It’s an incredible amount of work, and I don’t know, sometimes, if it’s worth it or not,” he said.
Rob Klavins, Oregon Wild’s presence in Wallowa County, pictured with Wally Syke’s dog on a bumpy ride through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest (Andrew Theen/Staff)
In response to wolf advocates saying more could be done to protect livestock in Wallowa County, Nash asked, “Who’s going to pay for that?” Maybe the advocates should cover the cost of adding range riders or cowboys, he said. “In those cases, if they want to see that happen, maybe they should pay.”
But Klavins and Sykes, the wolf advocates, say ranchers have options. They could, for example, keep younger animals in more protected areas before turning them loose to graze.
Klavins said it comes down to whether cattle or wolves belong in wild areas. He sees no incentive for Nash or the other ranchers to change. “You run your cows the same way you’ve always done it,” he said, “and every time you lose a cow to a wolf, now you get a compensation check and a dead wolf.
“What is your incentive to change?”
Brown, the state’s wolf coordinator, said ranchers could put out older calves. They could also delay putting cattle out in the forested lands until Elk and deer fawn have moved into the area.
“These are management decisions that they have to make,” she said.
Klavins and Sykes say the state management plan makes it easier to kill wolves when there are more wolves statewide. Ranchers know this.
“I think that they smell blood,” Sykes said, “and they’re right. It’s now easier to kill wolves, and they’re gunning for whole packs.”
The state rejected a plea from ranchers in August to kill the entire Harl Butte pack.
Brown said the investigation showed considerable non-lethal attempts were made to deter the wolves, but the state wasn’t inclined to eradicate an entire pack. “We want to give the remaining wolves an opportunity to change their behavior,” she said.
Judging by attacks on Sep. 29 and Oct. 1, that didn’t happen. The state estimated there are nine animals remaining in the pack. The most recent kill order, which expires Oct. 31, would remove four more.
Meanwhile, throughout southern and northeast Oregon, wolves continue to expand their territory and more animals are breeding. Brown said the state has confirmed reproduction in 15 packs and new breeding pairs in the past year. Officials also believe two additional breeding pair, which are groups of two adults and two pups that survive through Dec. 31, likely reproduced in 2017.
The view from Harl Butte, with cows and rolling hills in Wallowa County (Andrew Theen/Staff)
State wildlife officials expected the animals to establish strongholds in Wallowa County, but the wolves still haven’t recolonized areas like the Ochoco National Forest near Prineville or the southern swath of the Blue Mountains.
According to a 2015 state report, Oregon had roughly 41,000 square miles of habitat suitable for wolves. The animals had established a presence in just 13 percent of that territory, while western Oregon is largely wolf free.
But in eastern Oregon, wolves roam in roughly a third of the habitat officials expected them to.
Nash said the western part of the state doesn’t seem to get it. They might if they had to deal with wolves.
In the meantime, he and others aren’t willing to move their cows. “If somebody has to move it’s gonna be the wolf,” he said. “It’s not going to be us.”