It’s been more than a decade since gray wolves crossed the Idaho border into Oregon in 1999. Northeastern Oregon’s Imnaha pack has several confirmed livestock kills in Eastern Oregon near the town of Joseph.
That has ranchers there both angry and worried over the future of their business. But newer technology and cooperation with the state is aiding ranchers in tracking the wolves’ whereabouts.
The presence of wolves in northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley has changed how livestock is managed by ranchers.
The latest change came about two weeks ago, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began sending daily text messages, describing the general locations of wolves in the Imnaha pack.
So far, 38 ranchers in northeastern Oregon are receiving these wolf-location text messages. The state agency says it does not give exact locations in real time.
Ramona Phillips: "ODFW text us every morning and tells us where the collared wolves have been that evening. In one case they texted us and said we had a collared wolf coming onto our property."
Ramona Phillips and other ranchers get these daily text messages that tell them where collared wolves in the Imnaha pack were the night before. Phillips is not convinced such messages will make a big difference in protecting livestock. But they are at least giving ranchers some peace of mind.
Ten years ago, Phillips would have let her cows roam the nearby grasslands alone. Today, she or her husband live in a small camp trailer in the fields at night to watch for wolves. Snow still coats the mountains here and temperatures at night are still below freezing. Wolves frequent an area that surrounds the town of Joseph on the eastern side of the state near Idaho known as wolf highway.
Ramona Phillips: "I don't know who came up with that but basically the wolves run the same area over and over. They mark it as their territory."
With the wolves comes the expected deaths of livestock. Before the state began sending text messages to ranchers, Lori Schaafsma says she and other ranchers learned of a wolf’s whereabouts only when they saw one or found evidence of a kill.
Two months ago a wolf killed one of Schaafsma’s animals, ignoring the meat and taking the guts before leaving. The next day she spotted a second wolf a few hundred yards from her home, apparently there to pick at the dead carcass.
Lori Schaafsma: "And here cresting the hill right out my kitchen window...I saw the alpha male -- a different wolf than I had seen the prior night -- crested the hill. Jumped the fence like it was nothing."
Because of the increased number of wolves seen here in Wallowa County, Ramona Phillips and Lori Schaafsma, along with others, started the Wallowa County Livestock Education Committee.
Ramona Phillips: "I think our committee was formed just out of frustration with what’s happening here with the wolf."
Phillips says the cooperation with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife over tracking wolves is a sign the state is willing to help. But is sharing the locations of collared wolves prudent? Rob Klavins with the environmental advocacy group “Oregon Wild” has mixed feelings.
Rob Klavins: "Well, I think at best it's a tool that can help prevent conflict and to the extent that it does that we are happy that that information is getting out there when it's being used appropriately. But at worst, it can provide a road map for killing what’s an endangered species in the state of Oregon. We have less than 20 wolves confirmed in the state."
Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says this is a valuable, non-lethal method of dealing with wolves. She says so far they have had no indication that ranchers have abused the tracking information.
Oregon has three known wolf packs that live in the northeast part of the state. Oregon’s wolf management plan allows anyone with a wolf kill permit to shoot such a predator seen in the act of biting, wounding or killing livestock. The state has issued 24 kill permits to ranchers in Eastern Oregon.
Idaho doesn’t give collared wolf locations to ranchers. However, Gregg Losinski with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game says it does respond immediately to livestock kills. The agency works closely with ranchers to locate the responsible wolf.
When possible, that wolf is killed by a federal agent to prevent more livestock losses. Idaho stopped tracking wolves when they were re-listed in 2010. Idaho began tracking wolves again in May when wolf management was returned to the state.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Rocky Beach says his agency doesn’t share wolf locations on a regular basis as Oregon does. But for the past two years it has shared general locations with some ranchers who have lost livestock.