The government that would become Oregon got its start in 1843 when some early European invaders met in the mid–Willamette Valley to discuss predatory wildlife attacking livestock. A result was the first bounty on wolves. It’s been downhill for Oregon wolves ever since, until recently. We don’t know exactly when wolves were extirpated from Oregon, but the last bounty was paid in 1947.
I first heard of modern wolf sightings in Oregon in the 1970s but refused to let myself hope, let alone believe. Wolves and coyotes look similar to the untrained eye. By the 1990s, after hearing of more sightings by credible observers, I had faith-based belief. Finally, in 1999 a lone wolf from Idaho that had swum the Snake River was live-captured near the Middle Fork John Day River—well into Oregon. I now had evidence-based belief. Though the lone male was quickly crated and shipped back to Idaho, there had to be more and more would come! The wolf is back.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) recently issued its annual report on Oregon wolves. It contains great, good, bad, ugly and troubling news.
The good news is that ODFW reports there were at least 124 wolves in Oregon at the end of 2017, up 11 percent from the previous year and up from 29 in 2011. Oregon now has twelve confirmed wolf packs (a pack is defined as four or more wolves traveling together in winter) and other possible or emerging packs (Map 1).
The bad news is that ODFW is the greatest threat to wolves again becoming abundant throughout much of Oregon.
The great news is that it appears that wolves are increasing in Oregon. This is great news because it’s the twenty-first century, and most Oregonians want their wolves back. Today, the public places a higher value on native wildlife than on livestock grazing on public lands, an activity that has begun to come into direct conflict with protecting the wolf population in Oregon.
The ugly news is that the ODFW and ranchers are killing wolves for being wolves.
There is also the troubling news of the occasional poacher killing wolves.
Wolf Management in Oregon
Whether a wolf is protected or threatened in Oregon depends upon where the wolf is located (Map 2). If east of US395-OR78-US95, wolves once protected by the federal Endangered Species Act are no longer. West of those highways, wolves are still federally protected.
For purposes of management by the State of Oregon, wolves are either western or eastern, depending upon which side of US97-US-20-US395 they are on. Wolves were delisted under the Oregon Endangered Species Act in 2015, and litigation challenging the decision is still pending. ODFW considers the wolf no longer endangered in the west or the east if a minimum of four breeding pairs are present in eastern Oregon for three consecutive years. I’m no biologist, but that doesn’t seem to me like a lot of wolves to sustain a population over time.
Perhaps additional standards of recovery could be (1) the presence of twenty-five breeding pairs in each of (yes, the Willamette Valley will be an interesting challenge), (2) presence of at least two breeding pairs in each county (yes, even Multnomah), and (3) a high probability of an average outdoor Oregonian being able to see real live wolves in the wild, making sighting wolves in the future as common as seeing coyotes today (which will be a lot scarcer with more wolves).
But alas, ODFW’s policy toward wolves is generally one of mere sufferance. Since wolves, although predators, are wildlife, ODFW has jurisdiction and is supposed to care, but it cares most about huntable game. The agency cares even more about ranchers whose very activity is antithetical to most wildlife. In fairness, I’m confident that most ODFW employees involved in wolf management aren’t keen about having to shoot wolves, or authorizing such, but they work for a bureaucracy that is in an existential crisis (see thePublic Lands Blogpost entitled “State Wildlife Management Agencies in Crisis”).
Kill the Wolves, Pay Off the Ranchers
History has shown that wolves and livestock don’t mix, usually with wolves losing out in the end. However, Little Red Riding Hood notwithstanding, in the past century the public has come to favor wolves over livestock. This is especially true if the livestock are grazing on federal public lands.
Consider a recent conflict involving the Pine Creek Pack. The radio-collared male OR29 of the Meacham Pack and female OR36 of the South Snake Packfound each other to form this new pack in 2016. They produced five pups that survived through the end of 2017. Later the original male from Meacham was displaced by a new alpha male from the Harl Butte Pack. The now-beta male went off to Idaho, where he was legally (but not morally) killed by a hunter.
ODFW recently authorized a Baker County rancher, Chad DelCurto, to kill two (the kill order as later expanded to five) wolves of the Pine Creek Pack. DelCurto claims that he lost three calves within forty-eight hours of turning out his herd and that seven others were injured or missing. “I would like to see the whole pack annihilated,” DelCurto said. ODFW staff can also kill the wolves and did kill a pregnant female on April 11. While ODFW encourages ranchers to use non-lethal methodsto protect their livestock from wolves, such methods are not required of ranchers. ODFW has authorized and conducted additional slaughters of wolves just for being wolves.
Within the 224-square-mile range of the Pine Creek Pack, 83 percent of the known location data points are on public land. The ODFW map of the pack’s area of known activity (Map 3) shows only public lands that are national forests and doesn’t show the large number of Bureau of Land Management holdings within the pack’s range. One such holding is the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Study Area (Map 4). DelCurto grazes his livestock on federal public lands that include the Sheep Mountain area.
In another twist on DelCurto’s tale, he has previously been awarded compensation for missing cattle by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). To placate ranchers, ODA provides compensation to livestock operators for losses attributable to wolves. The monies are dispersed through local county-level wolf compensation boards, which include county commissioners, ranchers, business people, and wolf advocates. As reported by EarthFix in “Questionable Payments to Oregon Ranchers Who Blame Wolves for Missing Cattle,” DelCurto requested compensation for a large number of livestock and the local wolf compensation board approved such compensation without questioning.
DelCurto claimed he had lost forty-one calves and eleven cows to wolf predation, out of a total of seventy-three lost animals claimed to the Baker County compensation board. A calf could be worth $700 and a cow twice that. At the time, there were only three confirmed wolves in Baker County, yet most of the livestock-loss-to-wolves compensation by Oregon taxpayers had gone to Baker County. After questioning by ODA, DelCurto was awarded compensation for twelve missing cattle. Ranching government handouts can be better than ranching livestock.
Subsidized Federal Public Lands Grazing: Headed Toward Extinction
DelCurto has several permits to graze his cattle on Bureau of Land Management holdings in northeastern Oregon. For this privilege he pays the federal grazing fee—$1.41/AUM for 2018, down from $1.87/AUM in 2017. An AUM is an animal unit month, a measurement of the amount of forage necessary to sustain a cow and a calf for one month. In contrast, the National Agricultural Statistics Service found the average grazing fee for non-irrigated private forage in Oregon to be $16.50/AUM.
The average size of a cow is 1,390 pounds, up 18 percent in the last two decades. A calf sent off to a feedlot after a season of mowing off and defecating on the public lands might be on the order of 550 pounds. The average weight of a house cat is 7.9 to 9.9 pounds, says Wikipedia. One cannot feed a housecat on $1.41 per month. Not surprisingly, the General Accounting Office has foundthat the federal government spends at least ten times more than what it takes in from allowing livestock to graze federal public lands.
When I was researching the area around the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Study Area for inclusion in Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes (The Mountaineers Books, 2000), I discovered what a gem the wilderness study area is. I also remember an exclosure—a fenced area so small it wouldn’t even hold a cow—that range conservationists and/or scientists were using to study the effects of livestock grazing. Outside the exclosure, the landscape was cow-bombed—cropped golf couse-green close by bovine meadow maggots. Inside the exclosure were numerous species of tall grasses, some shrubs, and many wildflowers. Not for nothing did John Muir call domestic sheep “hoofed locusts.”
In short, public lands ranching is ecologically annihilating, hydrologically ruining, economically irrational, fiscally insane, and nutritionally unnecessary. Less than 2 percent of America’s forage for livestock comes from federal public lands. Public lands ranching is in decline—more for economic than environmental reasons, I’m sorry to say, but fortunately in decline nonetheless. When a livestock operator thinks in acres per cow rather than cows per acre, it’s not a rational economic pursuit.
The highest and best use of public lands changes over time. In the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, livestock grazing was considered more important than wildlife, watersheds, and recreation. Today, the public places more value on native wildlife (be it for hunting or just appreciating), on water quality and quantity, and on recreation (pronounced “re-creation”). Public lands ranching is going extinct, but unfortunately not as fast as the native species of fish and wildlife harmed by livestock grazing.
What Wolves Need
Wolves do best in, but do not strictly require, true wilderness. Wolves do need wildness, meaning wild animals to live on. Most favored habitats are those that support large numbers of large ungulates (deer, elk, and moose). Wolves will also eat smaller mammals such as rabbits, beavers, skunks, and coyotes. Birds such as eagles, grouse, and ravens will do, as well—and even nuts, berries, and insects in a pinch.
The single most important thing wolves need is for humans to stop killing them. The habitat for wolves is mostly available; it is the wolf-killing habits of humans that must change.
One place to start is with voluntary retirement of federal grazing permits. Voluntary federal grazing permit retirement is ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, and socially just. In recent years, Congress has facilitated the voluntary retirement of federal grazing permits in specific areas of central and southwestern Idaho, in the vicinities of the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, and in the California Desert Conservation Area. Congress has also facilitated voluntary grazing permit relinquishment on public lands anywhere in the American West where domestic livestock grazing is a threat to native bighorn sheep. Congress should similarly act on behalf of wolves.
Another step toward giving wolves what they need is for Congress and/or the secretary of the interior (well, perhaps not this Congress and that secretary) to establish additional units of the National Wildlife Refuge System that encompass large swatches of unoccupied private lands suitable for wolves (Map 5). We have refuges for waterfowl and big game. Why not also for large predators?