Wolves trigger "The Great Debate'

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer January 21, 2013 01:18 pm


Today: A growing wolf population in Oregon leads to concern about attacks on livestock. 

Wednesday: Baker County rancher recalls attack on sheep in 2009.

Friday: The focus of Oregon’s wolf debate is Wallowa County and state officials plan for the future of wolves in the state. 


By Katy Nesbitt

The Observer

Long before wolves from Idaho began to drift across the border, Oregonians anticipated their arrival; some with open arms, others with dread.

As early as 1993, Wallowa County acted out against reintroduction, two years before the first wolves from Canada were released in central Idaho. A county ordinance approved March 17 of that year, brushed a broad stroke, “Prohibition of Releasing Certain Species Into the Wild.”

Along with noxious weeds, a bane to the county’s landscape, wolves were listed with lynx, grouse, bears, birds of prey and fish as species that, if released into the wild, “require concurrence with the Wallowa County Court.”

“It was just a matter of time before wolves made their way here,” said Mac Birkmaier, a cattle rancher and longtime industry activist. “There isn’t a nicer place for them with elk, deer and cattle wintering in our canyon country.”At the time of the 1995 and 1996 wolf reintroductions in the Rockies, Birkmaier was the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association president. Later he served on the association’s wolf committee.

“I traveled all over the state testifying about the impact of wolves on ranching,” said Birkmaier.

Mike Hayward, chairman of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners, said wolves in Idaho were an experimental population, giving the Fish and Wildlife Service flexibility to kill or relocated those involved in chronic livestock loss. However, when wolves entered Oregon, they would have full endangered species protection.

“We didn’t think that was right. We wanted them collected up and returned, but they didn’t take us seriously.”

On Sept. 7, 1999, the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution requesting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “immediately destroy or return all wolves from experimental populations that are found in Wallowa County.”

On the same day, the commissioners approved an ordinance requiring “any continuing presence of wolves …by introduction or migration required concurrence with the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners.”

The ordinance said “any incidental presence of wolves…deemed to pose a threat to people or property shall result in having the wolf destroyed or removed.”

“In some ways we are still playing with that issue as they are federally delisted in Eastern Oregon, but not on the west side of the state,” Hayward said.

Wallowa County convened a Wolf Summit in Enterprise in February 2000. It was the largest in the state with more than 500 people in attendance at the Enterprise High School gym.

Attempts to keep Oregon “wolf-free” were not acceptable to Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office.

“The drop dead issue was we wanted to protect our cattle,” said Birkmaier.

In 2006, Russ Morgan became the state’s wolf coordinator based in La Grande.

That summer he found wolves in the Wenaha wildlife unit of northwestern Wallowa County.

Two years later a collared Idaho wolf, B-300, made her way into the county. She was re-collared by Morgan and dubbed OR-2, the alpha female of the Imnaha Pack.

In February 2010 Morgan collared the alpha male, OR-4, whose GPS signal has pinpointed the pack at several depredations in the Wallowa Valley and the mountainous area to the east.

The following month a documentary titled “Lords of Nature” was screened at Enterprise’s OK Theatre. The film was followed by a panel discussion with ranchers, environmentalists and biologists sharing the stage, fielding questions from the audience. The debate was deeply polarized and emotional.

Two days later, Karl and Karen Patton were awakened before dawn by their dogs.

Karl jumped into his coveralls and boots, grabbed a pistol and found 10 wolves in a calving pen 100 yards from the house. He shot the pistol in the air and scared away 10 members of the Imnaha pack from his ranch.

A little more than a month later, the first confirmed wolf-killed calf was found by an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife employee on the Zumwalt Prairie. In the next month, seven calves were declared confirmed wolf kills and one was determined a probable.

The investigations not only tracked wolf activity. The state’s confirmation of wolf kills entitled the producers to market value reimbursement from Defenders of Wildlife.

Ranchers requested wolves be killed to quell the livestock loss, but by July environmentalists sued the state and federal government, stopping their ability to use “lethal control.”

A long-time fear of livestock loss to wolves was becoming a reality, and Wallowa County reacted in two ways. The first was the Board of Commissioners request to the governor to declare the county in a “state of emergency.” The second was drafting a community-based compensation plan to replace the Defenders of Wildlife compensation fund, set 
to sunset in Oregon in 
September 2011.

The draft compensation plan became the template for legislation introduced by both the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and state Rep. Greg Smith. The bill was signed into law by Kitzhaber in August 2011. The first payments were issued the following spring to ranchers with confirmed and probable losses.

Around Memorial Day, the alpha male’s collar quit sending signals and many presumed he was dead. A couple months later his picture was taken by a game camera, proving the collar had simply malfunctioned. OR-4 was re-collared in the spring of 2011, and that collar failed as well. In the winter of 2012, he was collared a third time and his GPS signal, when working properly, helps biologists communicate to ranchers any threat to their cattle by the pack.

In August 2010 the federal government was sued to re-list wolves under the Endangered Species Act. For the ensuing eight months, wolves were under federal control until Congress delisted them in April 2011.

Between September 2010 and May 2011, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed six wolf-caused livestock kills and one probable. The agency was requested, and agreed, to kill two wolves. Just as a lawsuit was filed in protest, authority was handed back to the state. Within two weeks, two wolves were killed by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The state confirmed two more livestock kills and a probable by September 2011 when they were asked to kill more wolves. A suit and an injunction were filed Oct. 5 to stop the hunt.

To date, 25 head of livestock have been confirmed killed by wolves and six declared possible kills in Wallowa County.