JOHN DAY – Wallowa County cattleman Todd Nash says ranchers face an increasingly uphill battle to get an official confirmation of wolf depredation when a calf or cow is killed.
Nash was one of several speakers at the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association mid-year conference, held at the Grant County Fairgrounds in John Day. As the OCA’s wolf committee chair, he has been a vocal advocate for taking wolves off the state’s endangered species list and for laws to aid ranchers who now live with wolves in their midst.
Nash said the process for confirming wolf depredation is marked by shifting standards and tests.
“We’ve seen the goalposts moved farther and farther down the field,” he said. “I can’t tell you how frustrated I am.”
Nash described a May 13 incident on an Imnaha River ranch, where a calf was found gasping its last breath, its flesh laid open by predators.
He said downloads from a radio collar showed that a collared wolf was in the area at the time of the attack. There were tracks showing a chase, and signs that both wolves and coyotes had been at the scene.
The body had “classic” wolf bite marks, Nash said, adding, “I’ve never seen a coyote kill a 175-pound calf.”
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife investigator ruled it a “probable” kill, not confirmed, a call that stunned Nash.
He appealed the decision, but to no avail. He noted such appeals are heard within the agency.
The OCA is pressing the state to have livestock death investigations handled by a different agency, and several in the John Day audience echoed that stand, calling it unfair for an agency to police its own decisions.
Confirmation numbers could be critical to the ranchers’ case for delisting wolves and empowering landowners to eliminate problem wolves.
Wolf advocates argue against delisting and lethal force, and have cited relatively low kill counts to bolster their case. As noted at the meeting, without confirmed kills, wolf advocates can claim the problems are minimal and that nonlethal control methods are working.
Asked about the nonlethal methods, Nash noted the state urges ranchers to clean up their carcass piles and use flagging, called fladry, to discourage wolves from hanging around their ranches.
Although he acknowledged carcasses will attract wolves, he said, “I have mixed feelings about that. If they’re eating dead cattle, they’re not eating live cattle.”
Nash said he and other ranchers have found fladry “next to useless” unless it’s electrified, but he said keeping a charge in wet, snowy or windy terrain is impossible.
Nash said another obstacle to confirming kills is that wolves tend to leave little evidence behind.
He showed a trail camera photo of a pack of wolves working on a large cow carcass. He said when the camera owner went back to the site a day later to repost the camera, only a single hoof was found on the ground.
More often, ranchers will end up with missing animals but no way to prove wolves at fault.
Nash said the impacts ranchers extend beyond missing or dead animals.
“Just getting them run, chased, can be pretty traumatic,” he said, noting the weight and reproduction losses add up.
He cited one rancher’s experience: after turning out 90 pair, he ended up short nine calves and seven cows. The other cows came back at unusually low weights, a sign of being harried by predators.
The overall losses were valued at more than $46,000, but the rancher was left without clear evidence to confirm wolves as the culprits.
Nash also noted continuing battles in the political arena, where the proposal to delist wolves in Oregon is a hot topic.
ODFW says the state has 77 known wolves, and is at seven breeding pairs, enough to warrant removing them from the state endangered species list.
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to make a decision on delisting as early as next fall. The Oregon Wolf Plan also faces a 10-year review.
Nash noted the state’s tally of 77 wolves is only a “minimum count” – representing “known” wolves, those observed or collared.
Nash said the real count would be much higher, but it’s harder to see a wolf than most people think.
He said wolves have been documented in the area where he ranches since 2008, “and I’ve only seen two so far.”