IMNAHA — Rescue efforts are still underway to save dozens of cattle stranded in up to 7 feet of snow on a Northeastern Oregon grazing allotment.
The cattle — many of which had young calves — were mired in deep snow on U.S. Forest Service land in the Upper Imnaha area, Wallowa County Sheriff Joel Fish confirmed on Friday, Dec. 31.
Fish said the sheriff’s office is investigating and “assisting with the retrieval of the cattle on the Forest Service grazing permits on the Marr Flat C&H Allotment. We have had deputies on snowmobiles assisting.”
Numerous volunteers were helping in the rescue efforts, according to Todd Nash, chair of the Wallowa County Commission, and volunteers with the Wallowa County Humane Society.
Social media alert
One of the first widespread alerts came in a Facebook post by Craig Stockdale, who was one of the first to discover the cattle on the 200 Road south of Salt Creek.
“I just came upon them snowmobiling,” Stockdale said Jan. 1.
He said his social media post mobilized rescuers — both those out finding the cattle and those with facilities to care for the rescued livestock.
On Dec. 29, Kathy Gisler Reynolds, a volunteer with the Humane Society, also shared a post of the cattle. Photos posted on Facebook showed a cow up to its neck in snow and unable to move.
“I was alerted to it yesterday by the ranchers who have been out there trying to save them,” Reynolds said Dec. 30.
“Some were too weak to even move,” she said of the cattle, adding that although rescuers were able to retrieve calves, some of the adult cows had to be euthanized.
Stockdale and Anna Butterfield, who with her husband, Mark, ranches northeast of Joseph, confirmed the cattle are on the Bob Dean Oregon Ranch managed by B.J. Warnock. Dean lives out of town and Warnock was unavailable for comment Jan. 1.
Nash — who is a rancher and president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association — said Dec. 30 information on the situation was limited.
“The things we do know is that this was a Forest Service permit for the Upper Big Sheep Creek and the Upper Imnaha. It takes in a large area — 72,000 acres — known as the Marr Flat Grazing Allotment. They had a viable permit to go on sometime in the spring. They were supposed to have all cattle removed, according to the Forest Service permit,” Nash said.
“There is a rescue effort being made right now to try and rescue as many as possible. We’ve committed county resources to it. There’ve been a number of people who have volunteered or have contributed time,” he said. “There have been helicopters that have flown feed into some that were extremely isolated, and the rescue continues. Those are the basic facts that I do know.”
Compounding the heavy snowfall that came all at once, rain and heavy snow brought down trees across a lot of the access roads in the area, Nash added.
Carol Vencill, president of the Wallowa County Humane Society, said the snow was 7 feet deep in some places.
“Adam Stein is really the hero in all of this,” she said of the Joseph construction contractor. “It was Adam Stein who got the ball rolling.”
She said he started gathering people to help after seeing the cattle from the air.
“I’ve had some discussion with the Oregon Department of Agriculture on this situation,” Nash said.
Peter Fargo, public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest based in Baker City, said in an email Dec. 31 that the county, the sheriff’s office and volunteers have not just been rescuing cattle. They “have been hauling hay and water with snowmobiles, side-by-sides and helicopters. The priority of the operation is first on everyone’s safety and then saving as many cattle as possible.”
He said the Forest Service instructed the permittee and ranch manager to remove all the cattle in October.
Fargo estimated there were 70 head of cattle still on the allotment Dec. 21, and as of Dec. 30 up to 25 animals were still unaccounted for.
Tom Birkmaier, president of the Wallowa County Stockgrowers, said he and his wife, Kelly, have been caring for some of the rescued calves.
“Several factors created a near perfect storm that led to an unfortunate series of events impacting a group of cattle in southern Wallowa County,” he said. “Apparent mismanagement, extreme weather events and lactating cows with young calves all played a part.”
Still, many livestock have succumbed to the conditions.
“As Wallowa County stockmen, we need to hold each other accountable, work hard to ... help and support those in need,” he said, “and do everything humanly possible (to prevent a situation) such as this from happening again in the future.”