Ranchers’ fears become a reality

January 30, 2013 09:39 am

Curt Jacobs remembers the spring of 2009, when his Baker County ranch was the scene of the first confirmed attacks by wolves on livestock

Curt Jacobs remembers those spring nights with the unusual clarity forged by the combination of concern and anger.

As the chilly April dawns broke on his ranch near Keating, about 20 miles northeast of Baker City, Jacobs wondered what he’d find in the sheep pen near his home. 

A tranquil scene of ewes and lambs.

Or a slaughter.

Almost four years have passed since history was made on the ranch that Jacobs and his wife, Annie, own.

In April 2009, for the first time in more than 60 years, it was confirmed that wolves had killed livestock in Oregon.

Jacobs, in a recent interview, said he was surprised, though not shocked, by those wolf attacks.

“I knew they were here,” he said. “I had seen one the year before. But I didn’t think our sheep would be first.”

Over the next week or so, a pair of wolves killed 19 of the Jacobses’ sheep.

The first attack happened on April 9, 2009.

A few days later, a surveillance camera photographed the two wolves, one male and one female, on the Jacobs ranch.

The wolves also attacked livestock on Tik Moore’s ranch, also in the Keating area, that April.

Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that favors the return of wolves to Oregon, reimbursed Jacobs for the value of his sheep.

The group also helped pay to install electric fencing and flags designed to drive off wolves.

On May 3, officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife trapped the male wolf near Keating Valley and attached a radio-transmitting collar to the animal so biologists could track its movements.

There were no confirmed attacks for the rest of the spring and well into the summer of 2009, although Jacobs said he lost several sheep during the summer.

Then, in late August, the two wolves returned to the Jacobs ranch and killed four sheep and one goat.

ODFW, which took over responsibility for managing wolves in the area when they were removed from the federal endangered species list on May 4, 2009, gave the Jacobses a permit allowing them to kill the wolves if they were caught attacking livestock.

ODFW also authorized the federal Wildlife Services agency to hunt and kill the two wolves.

About a week later two employees from that agency shot and killed the two wolves from an aircraft.

Jacobs said he was generally satisfied with how the state and federal agencies handled the situation.

“I’m kind of glad they went as quickly as they did,” he said.

But Jacobs doubts any wolves would be killed were a similar series of attacks to happen now.

He points out that pro-wolf groups filed lawsuits in 2011 when ODFW proposed killing wolves that had attacked livestock in Wallowa County.

“It’s a political deal,” Jacobs said.

State officials did kill two wolves in Wallowa County earlier in 2011 after multiple attacks on livestock.

Although he received a check from Defenders of Wildlife in 2009, Jacobs said neither that group’s compensation program, nor the state-funded one that replaced it, will recoup ranchers’ for other costs related to wolves.

“Nobody compensates you for the amount of time you spend defending your animals,” said Jacobs, who is a member of the Baker County committee that decides whether to compensate livestock owners whose animals are killed by wolves.

“If you have an animal that’s torn up but not killed, you have to doctor that animal,” Jacobs said.

The wolf depredations in Baker County in 2009 turned out not to signal the start of a trend in that county.

Since then, with one recent exception, most of the wolf news in Oregon, including confirmed attacks on livestock, have happened in Wallowa County.

That one exception was in late August of 2012, when wolves from the Imnaha pack killed an adult cow belonging to the Pine Valley Ranch of Halfway.

The 5-year-old cow was killed while grazing on a Forest Service allotment near Fish Lake. That’s about 27 air miles northeast of the Jacobs ranch.

The cow’s calf, born earlier in the year, was missing and never found.

Despite the relative tranquility that has prevailed since the two wolves that killed his lambs were shot in September 2009, Jacobs is not sanguine.

Oregon’s wolf population has more than doubled since then, although there are no packs in Baker County.

But Jacobs said he has talked with ranchers from Montana, which has a wolf population of several hundred, and they told him that wolves tend to return to sites of previous depredations.

Jacobs said that in 2009 there were flocks of sheep on nearby ranches that were closer to the Wallowa Mountains — where the two wolves probably came from — yet the wolves apparently bypassed those sheep and attacked at his place instead.

He suspects the topography might be a factor, that the wolves recognized there were better escape routes from his ranch.

Regardless, Jacobs said he expects wolf depredation in Baker County is inevitable.

“It could happen tonight — you just don’t know,” he said. “You’re not going to be ready for it when it happens, you just have to go from there.”

Jacobs said if wolves return to his ranch, he’ll try the same non-lethal methods — guard dogs, flagging and the like — that were temporarily successful in 2009.

But he figures that ultimately the matter will end up where it did almost four years ago — a political tussle over wolves and livestock.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Jacobs said.