Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has shot and killed four Imnaha Pack wolves involved in five confirmed livestock attacks in the past month.
The “lethal take” order, adamantly opposed by a key conservation group, involves a Wallowa County pack with a long history of attacks on cattle and sheep and an equally significant influence on the growth of other wolf packs in the state.
ODFW wolf coordinator Russ Morgan said four wolves included an aging alpha male, OR-4, and an alpha female, OR-39, that has limped with a back leg injury for the past couple years. The male is nearly 10 years old, which Morgan said is “very old for a wolf in the wild.”
Morgan said it’s possible the male’s age and the female’s disability caused the wolves to turn on livestock instead of deer and elk. Two younger wolves, possibly yearlings, were believed to be traveling with them. The four appear to have split off from the rest of the Imnaha Pack, which numbered at least eight at the end of 2015.
According to a press release from ODFW, the animals were killed on private property.
In March alone, the group led by OR-4 has struck multiple times on private pastures in the Upper Swamp Creek area of Wallowa County. A calf was killed March 9; a sheep on March 25; two calves were attacked on March 26, with one dead and the other euthanized due to bite injuries; another calf was found dead March 28; and a sheep was found injured March 30, according to ODFW depredation reports.
Morgan said Imnaha Pack members commonly visit the area of the attacks but it’s unusual for them to remain there, as the four have this time. That suggests there’s been some change in the pack dynamics, he said.
Morgan said the agency is following guidelines of the state’s wolf management plan, which is up for review this year.
He called the decision unfortunate, but said it is a necessary response to the pack’s chronic livestock attacks.
“The (wolf) plan is about conservation, but it’s also about management,” Morgan said.
ODFW had not killed any wolves since May 2011, when two Imnaha Pack members were dispatched for livestock attacks. The agency sought to kill two more pack members in September 2011, but conservation groups won a stay of the order from the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Oregon Wild, a Portland based conservation group with long involvement in wolf issues, opposes lethal control.
“ODFW should not be killing members of the Imnaha Pack, or any wolves for that matter, while the wolf plan remains under review and out of date,” Executive Director Sean Stevens said in a prepared statement.
“Given ambiguity in the current wolf plan, increased poaching, premature (state endangered species) delisting, and renewed calls from special interest groups for aggressive killing, the public has every reason to be concerned for Oregon’s recovering wolf population.”
Oregon Wild questioned whether the livestock producers involved have taken sufficient defensive measures against wolves.
Morgan said the sheep producer had three protection dogs with the sheep, checked the livestock three times a day, employed a range rider to haze the wolves and used midnight spotlighting. The cattle producer delayed pasture rotation to keep cattle closer to a public road, pastured yearlings with cows, frequently checked calving cattle and used range rider patrols as well, Morgan said in a news release.
The onset of lambing and calving season made more attacks a possibility, he said.
“Even more cattle and sheep will be on these private lands soon as calving and lambing season continues, increasing the risk for even more losses from this group of depredating wolves,” he said.
Cascadia Wildlands, a Eugene-based conservation group, said it was “deeply saddened” by the ODFW action but said it appears the state agency “has meaningfully deliberated over its decision.”
The group said it doesn’t condone using public taxpayer money to “kill wolves on behalf of private interests” but acknowledged the “situation appears to be escalating in Wallow County.” The group said lethal control is allowed under the state’s wolf plan.
The inclusion of OR-4 in the kill order is particularly difficult because he’s sired many wolf pups over the years and “fueled wolf recovery across the state,” said Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands. “His role and that of the other three wolves should be celebrated and remembered.”
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association supports the kill order, acknowledging it is a “difficult” decision.
“It’s an unfair situation for the livestock owners and the wolves themselves,” said OCA wolf committee chair Todd Nash, a Wallowa County rancher.
“Wolves are doing what they naturally do, but have been put in a situation in Oregon where they are going to be in constant conflict with livestock and hunter’s game,” Nash said in a prepared statement.
Eliminating specific, problem animals so that multiple species can live together is sometimes necessary, Nash said.
The ODFW Commission this spring began review of the state’s wolf management plan, an effort that may take nine months.