A pack of wolves makes their way through the snow in Northeastern Oregon.

Wolves spark debate as environmentalists want reduced hunting and ranchers argue they are limited in ways to keep cattle safe.

Courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

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Federal attorneys say wolves are resilient and stable enough to not need federal protections, but environmentalists argue these canines are vulnerable without them. They say wolves are a vital part of ecosystems and have growing concerns with increased wolf hunting. Ranchers, on the other hand, have seen livestock killings and argue wolves put their cattle at risk. We’ll hear from two advocates on different sides of the wolf debate, Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity and John Williams, incoming wolf committee chair for Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. About a year ago, near the end of President Trump’s term in office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves. They argued that wolf populations along with a patchwork of state and tribal rules are stable and resilient enough to shield the animals from extinction. Environmental groups are fighting that decision in court saying that wolves still need protection at the federal level. We’re going to hear two perspectives on wolves right now. In a few minutes, I’ll be joined by representatives from the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. But first we’ll hear from Amaroq Weiss. She is a senior wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. We spoke yesterday. I noted that there’s actually a difference in the way wolf populations are managed on the west side of Oregon and on the east side, so I asked if she could explain that difference.

Amaroq Weiss: Sure. I was actually on the stakeholder group that helped the agency develop their first wolf plan back in 2005 and it’s had a couple of modifications since then. But the clearest way to describe wolf protections on the west versus the east side is that they’re first of all far less protective on the east side. If there are livestock conflicts between livestock and wolves, there need only have been two incidents within nine months in order for the agency to issue a kill order and kill wolves in response to livestock conflicts. On the west side...

Miller: And just to be clear, and a conflict say would be predation, so a wolf eating a sheep or or eating a calf or attacking them?

Weiss: Either attacking or injuring them.

Miller: Okay, two in nine months. And that’s enough for the state to say, okay, we will come in and kill the wolf?

Weiss: That’s correct. And then in the western side of the state, there have to have been four predation events within six months before the agency can take action. There also have been other steps. Going back to the east side, in addition to those numbers of two in nine months, the livestock owner needs to have used some method of non-lethal protective measures to try to prevent the conflicts. But the rules are very specific about what they have to use, how long they have to have been in place and whether or not they were the most effective meets. On the other hand, on the west side, before the agency can kill wolves, there have to have been at least four predations in six months. The agency needed to have identified an area of where wolves are and then if there’s a predation to identify an area of predation and in the mix of all that start working very closely with livestock owners to identify: what are the best measures to be used for their particular situation, their operation, type of livestock they have, how old the livestock are, what is the situation with the wolf pack, to be very focused on ensuring that you’re using the right measure to try to prevent further conflicts and they have to make sure that there were no attractants present.  Cattle, sheep die all the time of other causes, so leaving their carcasses around can draw in wolves and other predators. So those carcasses also have to have been cleaned up and not out there attracting wolves. All of that has to have happened before the agency can go to kill wolves and we think that that’s the preferred method in large part because the science shows that the most effective way and the least costly way is actually using these non-lethal measures. There is not a body of science that says that killing wolves to solve conflicts actually works.

Miller: You’ve actually argued the opposite if I’m not mistaken that, for example, after Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recently killed members of the Lookout Mountain pack, following conflicts with livestock in Baker County, you said that those killings could actually lead to more predation, not less. Can you help us understand that?

Weiss: You bet. So in that particular case the Lookout Mountain pack was a family of wolves, 11 members, the mother and father wolf, two sub-adults, like one year old wolves from the litter the year before and then there were seven pups from this year’s litter. In killing the breeding male and killing the other sub-adult animals and killing five of the seven pups, what they did was they left the mother wolf on her own to raise those last two pups by herself. Now that means she has to go hunting by herself to provide for the rest of the mouths in the family and without other skilled hunting partners to help her hunt, she’s actually more likely to go after livestock which are easier prey to catch than a wild deer or a wild elk. This is actually setting the family up for further failure. It doesn’t make sense and it certainly caused a deep outcry of concern. This is the first time we are aware of in all the years we’ve followed ODFW’s management of wolves in Oregon, that they have purposely gone out and killed wolf pups, pups that by the way, were too young to hunt anything larger than meadow mice or grasshoppers, They had just barely lost their milk teeth from weaning.

Miller: So your argument is that the remaining members of the pack, the mother and the others would be more likely to go after livestock now. But this was a pack that was already attacking livestock, right? That was the whole reason that ODFW eventually made this decision. So weren’t they already doing this?

Weiss: One of the things that’s really important to do when there are livestock predations is to read very carefully the agency reports that get posted. And one of the things that I immediately noticed is that in multiple instances of the predation events, the livestock that were discovered dead or injured were not discovered for anywhere from up to 10 days to 3 weeks after the incident happened. And that is a big red flag. That tells you that the livestock owner was not carefully monitoring their livestock to be able to find these injured or dead animals. No one who has a business leaves their inventory unmonitored this way. It’s so critical to be able to find injured or dead livestock from whatever cause whether they’ve been killed by wolves or they died from ingesting poisonous weeds or died from respiratory failure, which by the way, 95% of livestock losses are due to causes other than predation. This is true everywhere across the nation. This is even true in places that have lots more rules than we have in Oregon. So the amount of livestock that could be dead or injured out there, that could be attracting predators is of deep concern. And so livestock has to be monitored so you can bring them off, so the agency is resorting to killing wolves, despite the fact that livestock went unprotected, unmonitored and carcasses were out there, still drawing in predators overtime is deeply concerning.

Miller: Let me run a short version of what I’m hearing by you, just so I can try to encapsulate one of your larger points. I want to see if you agree with it. It’s that in the end, the level of predation is relatively low compared to the total population of cattle. And because of the importance of wolves for our ecosystem, ranchers should just live with what you’re describing is a relatively small amount of losses. Is that a fair way to put it?

Weiss: I think that’s an extremely fair way to put it. And I will give you some short figures to back that up. Oregon overall has 1,445,000 cattle and calves and sheep and lambs. Oregon has about 178 wolves. Over the last 14 years, if you average out, there actually have been a total over the last 14 years of 293 confirmed and 22 probable wolf-caused predations. That averages out to about 22 and a half per year. And at that rate, that is 1/1000 of Oregon’s livestock are lost each year to wolves. And in contrast, 50,000 of Oregon’s cattle and calves die from causes having nothing to do with any predator of any kind each year. So 50,000 die from non-predation causes per year, 22 and a half die due to wolves. I think math makes it pretty clear that it’s a very small percentage.

Miller: We’ve talked almost exclusively here about ranching, but you’re not interested in wolves because of ranching. You’re interested in wolves because of wolves. So let’s turn to wolves themselves for a second. What’s at stake in your fight to protect wolves in the west? What’s at stake in larger populations of wolves here?

Weiss: Wolves are one of the forces that balances nature, Dave. They are an incredibly important player in everything that we love about nature. If you love elk and deer, you should love wolves because their presence over the millennia is what has made those animals so strong and robust and agile and athletic and beautiful. And if you like salmon, if you like fly fishing, you should also love wolves because the fact that wolves keep all of those wild ungulates on the move, allows vegetation to keep growing instead of being munched down to bare bones. That vegetation provides cool shade over ponds and rivers that fish and frogs need to thrive. If you are concerned about climate change, you should love wolves because one of the things that wolves do is they put food on the ground for other species and as the climate warms and it gets harder for other species to kill animals because animals actually may, in some instances, survive wilder winters better. The fact that wolves are still killing wild deer and elk puts food on the ground for other species. So they may actually be a climate change buffer. If you love dogs, you should absolutely adore wolves. Dogs and wolves split off from a common ancestor about 40,000 years ago, at least that’s the scientific technology on evolutionary history between wolves and dogs. And of course dogs are best friends and they sleep on our beds every night. And if you love wildness, you’ve got to love wolves because they are an absolute symbol of the wild.

Miller: Let me ask you this. There are maybe, correct me if my numbers are wrong, but from what I’ve read, there’s something like 6,500 wolves now in the U.S., around 1% of what we assume the pre-European contact population was. What number do you want to see?

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Weiss: I think we need to stop thinking about a particular number. I think it’s probably more helpful to think about principles of conservation biology which talk about representation, redundancy and resiliency. And this is true for any species. And particularly now with us being in the 6th mass extinction crisis and with the climate crisis, that’s exacerbating that, what we really want for wolves is we want populations that are large enough that they can withstand catastrophes, climate catastrophes, disease catastrophes. If wolves lived in mountains, forests and plains at one time, we need wolves back in forest mountains and plains and for redundancy we need to have a fact in multiple populations in each of those locations. I can tell you that right now scientists have already identified at least 530,000 square miles across the country where wolves could live - good wolf habitat. And right now they’re only occupying less than one third of that. Scientists haven’t even studied all of the places. But the fact is wolves can live wherever people will tolerate them. In Europe, they have twice as many wolves, twice as many brown bears and twice as many lynx as we have in the U.S. even though it’s in an area that’s half the size of the U.S., that has twice as many people. So it’s a matter of our mindset, are we willing to share our landscape with these magnificent animals that make our landscape magnificent?

Miller: Amaroq Weiss, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Weiss: Thank you so much.

Dave Miller: Amaroq Weiss is the senior wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. We spoke yesterday. For another perspective on this, I’m joined now by John Williams. He is the incoming wolf committee co-chair for Eastern Oregon for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. John Williams, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Williams: Thank you for inviting me.

Miller: It’s good to have you on. I want to start with the status quo in Oregon right now. As we heard, there are two different sets of rules for wolves on the west side and on the east side. You’re focused on the east side where the rules are, as we heard, a little bit more lenient. How would you say they’re working?

Williams: They’re not working very well at all because we’re still having significant losses of depredating wolves that are killing our livestock. Over 85 animals have already been killed and confirmed this year. We know that that is a small percentage of those that can be found. Oakleaf study in Idaho points out that only one in seven or eight carcasses can be found in rugged country. So that’s what we’re up against. We also have a very large number of missing livestock this year.

Miller: A large number of missing livestock, and you’re attributing that specifically to wolves?

Williams: Well, yes, those missing livestock are shown above and beyond the normal loss, which is about 2%. And on the ranches that are missing livestock, the average is that they’re missing up to 10% of their calves, and of course they’re not done with the gathering at this point, so we don’t know what the real numbers are, but those are the preliminary conversations.

Miller: So, you immediately went to numbers, which is good because that’s obviously one of the points that we just heard. I want to ask you about it, that the numbers that we heard from Amaroq Weiss were stark, she says on average, if you look back for the last 14 years, that about 22 sheep or calves or cows are killed in any given year by wolves. Those are confirmed, I think confirmed plus probable, versus 50,000 livestock a year that die in any other number of ways, and obviously the argument she’s making is ranchers talk too much about wolves, given that in the grand scheme of things, they actually account for a tiny percentage of overall loss. What’s your response to that particular critique?

Williams: Well, first off you have to look at it and say over the last 14 years, well they’ve only been depredating here for three years, I mean 13 years and it was starting out with one or two or five or six and realize this year it’s over 85 that are confirmed. There’s a lot more losses than just the confirmed livestock. And then you look at the actual expense of a rancher having to ranch in an area where there are wolves, the depredating livestock, the lost livestock, the dead animals are the ones that are the smallest loss for the ranchers. When the wolves get into your herd, they reduce your conception rate by up to an average of 10%. They reduce your weaning weight by 60 to 70 pounds. They reduce the condition of your livestock, your cows that come in, that are supposed to come in pregnant, they call it a Body Condition 4 which is about 90 pounds light, in the fall. So you have to put on weight before...

Miller: Remember those of us who aren’t really familiar with ranching, is the idea here that when cows, for example, are in the presence of wolves, even if they’re not attacked, they get stressed out and so they’re less likely to have babies or they have babies with lower birth weight? Is that the heart of what you’re talking about here?

Williams: That’s the heart of what I’m saying is it’s not that they aren’t attacked, it’s that male, if there’s an attack in the herd, the whole herd gets disrupted. When the wolves are coming through the country, if they stop and actually if they want to attack, or at least stress out the cow, because she has had a bad experience or the herd has had bad experience, these are what we find, and they aren’t just passing through where these depredations occurred. They’re actually living among the cows, so they’re there all the time. And we find that in a lot of interaction between the wolves that are living there and the cows that are living there.

Miller: I want to give you a chance to respond to another point that we heard, that there is evidence that Amaroq said that she sees in reports from ODFW showing that some ranchers haven’t been doing a good enough job keeping track of their herds, if in recent cases predations weren’t discovered for anywhere between 1.5 to 3 weeks. She is saying in a sense it might be partly your own fault if you’re not paying enough attention to make sure that you aren’t attracting more wolves.

Williams: 99% of the confirmed kills are being found within a day or two. Once it gets out to a week, it’s very seldom that you have enough evidence left to actually confirm a wolf depredation, any of them. And I looked at all of the reports, I didn’t look for how long it was, but it was generally between the next morning and 2-3 days and there is a lot of human presence out because of the wolves. The ranchers are working, the last thing they want is their cattle to get attacked and they are out there day in and day out, either themselves or people that are with them or working for them to try to keep their cattle safe.

Miller: I want to also give you a chance to respond to the biggest point we made, which is not really about ranchers or wolves specifically, but it’s about ecosystems, as we heard, the argument is that wolves on a landscape provide benefits to other animals, to people, and to the functioning of a balanced, healthy ecosystem. I’m wondering how you think about those benefits on the one hand and the real needs of the ranchers who you represent, whose needs you are talking about on the other.

Williams: These types of things that they’re talking about are way overstated. Our research showed that the wolves didn’t keep the cattle and the elk and the deer out of the riparian areas. I think you need to look closely at the science that is purported to be behind that and realize that that’s not necessarily what’s happening. That loss is coming from the people that are on the ground. The economic value or loss that’s occurring is significant and the ecological, they call it the apex predator, that was taken out and it’s coming back in, but in the presence of humans, it can’t be just left open to just killing it at their own will. These ecosystems include humans, they include ranchers, our economies include ranches and they need to be protected and that’s what the Oregon management and conservation plan was intended to do.

Miller: John Williams, thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Williams: Thank you.

Miller: John Williams is the incoming wolf committee co-chair for eastern Oregon for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. Tomorrow on the show, Oregon Governor Kate Brown is calling lawmakers back to Salem on December 13 for a special session. The goal is to extend eviction protections for renters and also to offer relief to landlords. We’re going to hear from the legislature’s lead housing policy makers about their proposal. Our production staff includes Julie Sabatier, Elizabeth Castillo, Rowley Hernandez and Senior Producer Allison Frost. Nalin Silva engineers the show. Our Technical Director is Steven Kray and our Executive Producer is Sage Van Wing. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One app, on Apple podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at 8p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.

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