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Who should decide if wolves are the culprits?

emerald isle druid/Flickr

Did you guys kill that yourself? Or are you just scavenging leftovers? The latest debate about wolves in Oregon is who should decide whether dead livestock were actually killed by wolves. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been less likely to confirm wolf kills than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association has requested an appeal process for ODFW’s decisions.

A new debate over wolves in Oregon is gaining steam. This month, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association presented a letter to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission asking for a way to appeal the state determination on whether dead livestock have been killed by wolves.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision on whether wolves are the culprits is important for a couple reasons:

  • One, the confirmation will most likely be needed before the owner can be reimbursed for the loss through the state’s new wolf compensation program.
  • Two, it is a key factor in the state’s decision to authorize a wolf kill (and right now the state is the only entity that can authorize wolf kills in the eastern third of Oregon, where gray wolves are protected under the state Endangered Species Act).

Kay Teisl, executive director or the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, told the Fish and Wildlife Commission in a letter Sept. 1 that ranchers want some recourse when the state disagrees with local veterinarians and officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency about whether dead livestock were killed by wolves. Time and time again, she argued, Wildlife Services has confirmed wolf kills that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hasn’t.

Cattle ranchers are having “horrific experiences” with wolves in Northeast Oregon, she wrote, finding cattle “with blood dripping from their mouths, broken legs, bite marks, badly torn udder.” But if ODFW decides wolves weren’t the culprits, they “are left with little recourse for reconsideration.”

“Frustration among ranchers is mounting from the conflicting wolf kill determinations to date. More specifically, because the ODFW determinations tend to widely differ from those wildlife experts and livestock professionals who have been on investigation sites time and time again.”

Tiesl suggested an appeals process that would allow “a third-party expert or panel of two veterinarians and the Washington State University lab analysis to be used to judicially resolve disagreements on wolf depredation determinations.”

She pointed to a case in which two local vets, Wildlife Services and the WSU lab all confirmed a wolf had killed a calf in March when ODFW said it wasn’t a wolf kill.

Wolf advocates disagree

Rob Klavins, a wolf advocate with Oregon Wild, says ODFW is going “as good a job as anybody” at determining whether wolves are to blame for livestock kills, and he doesn’t trust Wildlife Services to make unbiased decisions. “We really hope ODFW will continue to be the investigator,” he said.

Klavins said he’s not opposed to ranchers being compensated for livestock losses to wolves, but he suspects that some cattlemen just want to make sure wolves take the blame for more livestock losses so there’s a better chance of getting compensation and a better chance of more wolves being killed. In the grand scheme of things, wolves are a relatively minor threat to ranchers, Klavins said. “There are 1.3 million cattle in Oregon, and 55,000 were lost before they made it to the slaughterhouse last year,” he said. “Even if you give credibility to the most extreme calls, wolves are only taking one one-thousandth of what’s being lost. They’re dying out there from all sorts of causes.” But fear, resentment of the government for reintroducing wolves, and the financial incentive to prove a wolf kill and get compensation are all contributing to anti-wolf sentiment, Klavins said, in spite of how many livestock wolves actually kill. How many cattle do wolves actually kill? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Klavins’ figures are correct. But there’s more: Of the 55,000 Oregon calves and cattle losses last year, 3,800 were lost to predators (600 cattle and 3,200 calves); wolves claimed less than .1 percent of the depredated cattle and 7.7 percent of the calves, according to the USDA. Coyotes took far more – 63 percent of cattle and 70 percent of the calves. But I would add a couple notes here:
  • One, wolves are still relatively new to Oregon, and concentrated in the northeast corner of the state. So the 2010 numbers don’t reflect the potential for wolves to have more of an impact in the future (in Idaho, where wolves are more established, wolves claimed 47 percent of the calves that died from predators while coyotes only took 26 percent).
  • Two, Oregon ranchers are allowed to kill coyotes but not wolves, unless they catch one actually attacking livestock.

I heard a presentation by Russ Morgan, ODFW’s wolf coordinator, several months ago. He explained how there are “whole packs (of wolves) walking down the streets close to Joseph. You can imagine the concern in March when most of the livestock calves start hitting the ground. There’s constant fear.”

“… Wolf biology isn’t complicated,” he said. “It’s the people management that’s hard. Like it or not, wolves eat livestock and will continue to eat livestock.”

Does ODFW have a conflict of interest in investigating wolf kills? I get the sense from the Cattlemen’s Association letter that ranchers think the state has a reason not to confirm livestock losses as wolf kills. But I put in calls to several association members to ask them about this and haven’t heard back yet. An independent review of ODFW’s wolf kill investigation process is due out this week, according to ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy. In January, ODFW staff will present its investigation procedures to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, so the board can decide whether to explore the appeal process requested by the cattlemen. Dennehy said when her agency is called in after a livestock depredation, officials have to determine whether wolves actually did the killing or if they just scavenged a carcass that was killed by something else. Investigators look at bite marks, check data on collared wolves to see if they were in the area, look for evidence of a chase and for wolf tracks.

Here’s what Morgan said in his presentation on wolf management earlier this year:

“It’s very easy to document wolf kills. There are telltale signs in a necropsy. … When wolves kill, there’s a lot of biting, but a lot of times they don’t even puncture the skin. Most dead lambs, there’s not a speck of blood on them. They bite and bruise and the animals go into shock. They almost always attack behind the front shoulders or behind the back legs. They’re also very good at consuming everything – very large bones, entrails. So sometimes even though a wolf could have done it, if you eat the evidence, it’s pretty hard to say.”