It’s a clear autumn afternoon and the piercing clang of metal on metal rang out across Mill-Mar Ranch. Rancher Ted Birdseye was in a good mood.
“I thought you said you’d be done, Doug!” he yelled jokingly to contractor Doug Carpenter.
Carpenter was just a few hours into what’s expected to be a two-week job.
“We’re gettin’ closer,” Carpenter called back from the small track loader with a post driver attachment. He clanged a metal post into the ground, as easy as placing a candle into a birthday cake.
After years of dead ends — and dead cows — Birdseye was getting what he hoped would finally solve his wolf problems: a fence.
Mill-Mar Ranch is 275 acres of mostly flat pasture about 3,000 feet up in the Southern Cascades. Birdseye runs a herd of about 200 cows, and for the past few years, he’s had bad luck with wolves.
The Rogue Pack, and its famous founding wolf O-R-7, dens in the hills above Birdseye's ranch. Over the past two years, the wolves have killed eight of his cows and two of his dogs. During that time, no other rancher in the state has as many confirmed losses to wolves.
The fence is an extreme solution to this problem — Birdseye is the first in the state to try it. But the rancher has exhausted the other non-lethal methods of deterring the Rogue Pack.
“We're going to try it out and see if we can make it work. Hopefully, all the critters will stay on the right side of the fence,” Carpenter quipped.
“Especially the wolves,” Birdseye replied, striking a serious tone.
Ranchers build fences all the time, but Birdseye’s new fence is very different from what would be seen out on the range.
It’s only 5 feet high, but stout, with metal posts and fiberglass posts and eight strands of wire. Half of the wires will be electrified, or hot.
Even if the power occasionally fails, Birdseye has confidence it will keep the wolves away.
“I just can't imagine that they would check the fence every day and go, ‘Hey, boys, it's not hot today. Come on in!’” he said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist John Stephenson has spent many nights sleeping in his truck at Mill-Mar Ranch trying to keep the wolves away. He designed this fence based on what ranchers in Montana have done to keep out predators. The fence will run 3 miles around the entire ranch.
“This is a pretty big experiment,” he said. “We want to do all that we can … to have it work so we can keep the Rogue Pack out of trouble.”
Packs And Plagues
The Rogue Pack has treated Birdseye’s ranch as a buffet of sorts.
“You know, we thought we were coming to paradise, but between the wolves and the grasshoppers, we're starting to go, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe this is …’” Birdseye said, trailing off.
A freak plague of grasshoppers destroyed most of his hay crop this year, and the wolves have succeeded in filling his nights with dread.
“When those wolves had come in, you jump up and you go, was that a wolf I heard? What are the dogs barking about?” he said.
Gray wolves on the west side of Oregon are federally listed as endangered — and it’s illegal to kill them.
“If I was where I could shoot wolves, I probably would've done that already,” Birdseye said.
But he said he’s been curious about the animals ever since he was young, and the idea of killing a wolf on his ranch “didn’t feel quite right.”
First the associated fine and jail time that would follow an illegal kill weren’t an attractive prospect. And then there’s the piece that Birdseye seems to value even more.
“I’d had quite a lot of contact with John already, and ... have appreciated everything he has done and I'm going, ‘Well that'd be kind of a slap in the face,’” he said.
“Ted’s put up with a lot here. I know he's gotten pretty frustrated and understandably,” said Stephenson. “He's willing to try just about anything and that's what it takes. You got to keep trying new things.”
Trying New Things
The list of things Birdseye has unsuccessfully tried so far is long — about as long as the list of people he’s worked with to solve his wolf problem.
A school group came out to his ranch to help remove bone piles, which are known to attract wolves, around the property.
Stephenson has helped him install fladry — an electrified wire with red flagging on it — around the edge of his ranch to deter the wolves from crossing onto the property.
Birdseye also has gotten creative, using inflatable dancing men, a car lot staple, to try to scare the wolves away. The dancing men were loans from the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
“I believe in … trying to work together with people,” Birdseye said.
He’s has also taken a little guff about just how far he’s gone to keep the wolves at bay.
“A lot of people shook their head with these inflatable men. There was even a cartoon in one of the newspapers about you know, ‘I thought this was a ranch not a used car lot’ kind of thing,” said Stephenson.
Most of the time, the help has come in the form of labor or equipment loans. But for his latest anti-wolf endeavor — the wolf fence — assistance has come in the form of cold hard cash.
A 3-mile-long fence isn’t cheap: This one will cost more than $40,000.
The funding is coming from a mix of federal grants, Oregon’s wolf compensation program, and environmentalists that ranchers like Birdseye often feel at odds with on the wolf issue.
“We have a lot of members and supporters and people that we can reach out to that want to see wolves recovered. Why don’t we ask them to actually pitch in and put some skin in the game on that?” said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.
Vaile organized a crowdfunding campaign and found that people were willing to step forward. The campaign raised the final $6,000 for the fence project in about a month.
“I think people are really excited to see us try to break down those, those barriers and try to work with people that might not be exactly politically aligned with us to try to solve a problem for our community,” Vaile said.
Despite all the community help Birdseye has received along the way, there will be many things ahead he will have to endure alone. Like his cows, the wolf fence will need to be cared for.
“As long as it's maintained and that's my responsibility. I can’t imagine it won’t work.”