Oregon wildlife officials recently hired a range rider to help ranchers cope with the arrival of wolves in Wallowa County. Oregon Field Guide’s Ed Jahn reports.
Jason Cunningham rides his bay horse through a small herd of cattle above Big Sheep canyon in Oregon’s Wallowa mountains. In his hat, spurs and wranglers, Cunningham looks every bit the cowboy.
But Cunningham’s not getting paid to push cows around. He’s a range rider — hired to keep tabs on wolves — something he demonstrates using a small handheld radio receiver.
Jason Cunningham: “The collared wolves have collars that put out a signal… when you get a signal it just makes a beeping sound.”
Those sounds help Cunningham locate any of the three radio collared wolves in the Imnaha pack, Oregon’s first large pack of wolves in decades.
Biologists captured, collared and released the wolves shortly after they migrated from Idaho 2 years ago.
Jason Cunningham: “They do trot around a lot. They cover a lot of ground…”
Cunningham’s a high-profile cowboy in Wallowa county right now.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Fish and Wildlife are paying Cunningham’s salary, with a commitment from Defenders of Wildlife as well.
Now, everyone’ is waiting to see if having him out here will be enough to keep cows and wolves apart — no small task considering that as recently as May, the Imnaha wolves were regular, and noisy, visitors on Wallowa county ranches.
Russ Morgan: “I wouldn’t consider these problem wolves, but it’s certainly a problem situation, and it’s one that we have to deal with.”
That’s Russ Morgan — Oregon’s wolf coordinator and a man who got an earful back in May when wolves started attacking livestock. So far, officials confirmed that wolves killed six calves.
Russ Morgan: “It’s a significant loss, anytime you’re talking about somebody’s property, somebody’s value, then it’s a loss.”
Under Oregon’s wolf management plan, killing wolves is a last resort, and a legally contentious one at that.
So biologists spent much of the spring doing things like firing shotguns loaded with firecrackers in order to scare wolves off of area ranches.
These tactics didn’t always do the trick.
Rancher Todd Nash lost one calf to wolves this spring.
Todd Nash: “We’re relatively sure they haven’t become vegetarians. We’ve basically had to sit back and watch our cattle get preyed on.”
Cunningham, the new range rider, now patrols among Nash’s herd of about 200 open range cattle. Nash welcomes having another set of eyes out there.
Todd Nash: “My first reaction was I didn’t think it would do a lot of good….as I thought about it, having someone who understood cattle was appealing to me.”
Defenders of Wildlife compensates ranchers like Nash for livestock killed by wolves and has committed $6,500 towards the range rider program as well.
Suzanne Stone says this is just another way her group is trying to help Oregon ranchers adjust to living with wolves.
Suzanne Stone: “It’s the American people that wanted to have wolves back. And part of the price of that is there will be some losses of livestock in areas like that. So it’s just a matter of us finding ways to have the ranching industry and have wild animals like wolves.”
Cunningham is Oregon’s only range rider right now. Wolf Coordinator Russ Morgan is in charge of telling him where to ride based on wolf reports, but other than that, he plans to keep the job fairly simple.
Russ Morgan “From my perspective the biggest aspect of the range rider is presence. Human presence around livestock.”
One thing ranchers, environmentalists and wildlife managers agree on — is that they all hope this idea will work.
OPB’s Scott Silver helped produce this story. Oregon Field Guide will take a comprehensive look at wolf management in its new season.