ENTERPRISE, Ore. — Two days after Easter, rancher Rod Childers
rode on horseback down Joseph Creek Canyon in far northeast
Oregon, herding cattle through the steep and remote countryside.
His dogs were the first to spot the dead calf, its carcass
chewed down to the bones. Instinctively, Childers suspected
wolves. But rather than report the gruesome discovery to state
wildlife biologists, he simply cursed to himself and kept going.
The reason, he would say later, was the rigid criteria state
biologists use to confirm whether wolves had indeed killed the
calf. That, plus the fact that evidence of wolf-related trauma
was already lost to scavengers or the elements, made the effort
futile despite the fact the Chesnimnus pack had been seen in the
“You can go murder somebody and be convicted quicker than you
would convict a wolf, with the criteria they have,” said
Childers, owner of RL Cattle Co. in rural Wallowa County, where
livestock and poultry sales totaled more than $23 million in
2017. “It just makes it so difficult that ranchers have given up
The issue boiled over again April 16, when the Oregon Department
of Fish and Wildlife released its annual wolf report documenting
158 wolves statewide in 2019 — a 15% increase from the previous
Yet the report also showed the number of confirmed attacks on
livestock decreased 43%, which agency officials described as an
indication that modern management techniques and non-lethal
deterrents are helping wolves and ranchers peacefully coexist.
Some Eastern Oregon cattlemen, however, say it is less about
coexistence and more about being hamstrung by ODFW and its
requirements for investigating depredations. By the time a state
biologist arrives at the scene, what little remains of a dead
cow or calf cannot be definitively linked to wolves.
Whether wolf depredation is confirmed may impact how much, if
any, money ranchers receive in compensation from the state. In
some cases, ranchers say it isn’t even worth calling the state
to investigate, certain they will not be fully compensated.
“I’m pretty bitter over it,” Childers said. “I’m 20 years into
this stuff. It’s not fun. It’s not right.”
ODFW investigated 50 suspected cases of wolves attacking
livestock in 2019. Of those, 16 were confirmed. One incident was
ruled a “probable” wolf depredation, 12 were “possible or
unknown,” and 21 were determined to be not wolf-related.
That is a sharp reduction from the 71 investigations and 28
confirmed attacks in 2018, when the state’s minimum wolf
population was 137.
While the state’s known wolf population has increased steadily
over the last five years, the number of depredations on
livestock has yo-yoed over the same period. In 2015, the agency
confirmed nine attacks. In 2016, the total jumped to 24, and in
2017 it fell again to 17.
Derek Broman, state carnivore biologist for ODFW, said
investigations are heavily evidence-based. Biologists look for
telltale signs of wolves such as tracks and physical trauma to
A wolf’s bite mark is unmistakable compared to that of other
predators such as coyotes and cougars, Broman said.
“If you’re trying to look for wolf signs with a microscope, then
it’s not a wolf,” he said. “You’re just going to see, it’s like
a bomb went off.”
Reports must be confirmed by ODFW for ranchers to receive direct
compensation from the state through a fund administered by the
Oregon Department of Agriculture. The program also pays for
missing livestock and for non-lethal tools, such as hiring
range-riders or installing flashing lights and alarm boxes to
keep wolves away from cattle.
Broman said he believes there were two reasons for fewer calls
and confirmed depredations last year.
First, ranchers are becoming more experienced at recognizing the
evidence of a wolf attack, he said. If it doesn’t fit the bill,
they don’t report it.
Second, ranchers are using more non-lethal tools to prevent
“A lot of these folks are doing things to keep depredations
down, which helps the bottom line,” Broman said.
It also helps protect wolves directly. Under Phase III of the
recently updated Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan,
ranchers can apply to ODFW to kill wolves that prey on livestock
two times within nine months — defined as “chronic depredation.”
Eastern Oregon entered Phase III of the wolf plan in 2017. That
means the region had at least seven breeding pairs of wolves for
three consecutive years.
Gray wolves were removed from the state endangered species list
in 2015, though they are still protected under the federal
Endangered Species Act in the western two-thirds of the state,
west of highways 395, 78 and 95.
Childers was on the wolf committee of the Oregon Cattlemen’s
Association when the plan was originally adopted in 2005. He
said Phase III was supposed to be the benchmark when wolves
would be treated more like other predators around the state,
with management zones and population caps up for consideration.
Instead, Childers said, ranchers were largely ignored during the
latest plan revision adopted by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife
Commission last summer.
“We didn’t get anything we didn’t already have in that plan,” he
RL Cattle runs about 400 mother cows and calves on both public
and private land. In June 2018, wolves injured three of
Childers’ calves in three days, and ODFW granted him a 10-day
permit to shoot one wolf in the same pasture. Two months later,
after wolves killed another calf, ODFW reissued the permit for
However, Childers was never able to fire a single shot. He
criticized the permit for being overly restrictive.
“It’s very rare you get a chance to see these things,” Childers
said. “(ODFW) wouldn’t come out and help me. I had to do it
myself, which is damn near impossible.”
In the case of his dead calf in Joseph Canyon, Childers said it
was already too degraded and consumed for ODFW to confirm it was
killed by wolves.
“There’s not enough left for them, by their criteria, to say
yes, a wolf killed this,” he said. “The criteria is what needs
Rodger Huffman, who ranches 23 miles southeast of La Grande,
Ore., had a similar experience.
In April 2016, Huffman turned out his cattle to graze on a
167-acre pasture along Catherine Creek, where the forest meets
the meadows. Five days later, he returned to check on the herd,
finding one calf eaten all the way through its rib cage.
Trampled grass around the carcass indicated a struggle took
By that time, though, it was too late. Without enough evidence
remaining at the scene, ODFW ruled it a “possible/unknown” wolf
Huffman is no stranger to predators. He worked as a government
trapper for USDA Wildlife Services for five years, and spent 31
years with the Oregon Department of Agriculture running the
agency’s livestock inspection and animal health programs.
Though he cannot say with 100% certainty that wolves killed his
calf, Huffman said it was unusual enough to raise suspicions.
“This is not a normal range scene,” Huffman said. “This calf did
not just lay down and die.”
Huffman is now co-chairman of the Cattlemen’s Association wolf
committee. One proposal frequently suggested by the group is to
allow local sheriffs and veterinarians to investigate
depredations, since they can often respond more quickly than
Fred Steen, chief deputy of the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office,
said he’s participated in more than 100 wolf-livestock
investigations in his career. Ranchers, he said, want some
assurance that wolves will be dealt with swiftly if they prey on
“I know these producers are frustrated,” he said. “It’s like an
act of Congress to get a confirmation.”
Broman, of ODFW, said the agency is solely responsible for
making the final determination on wolf kills since the outcome
is tied directly to management decisions and taxpayer-funded
“We’ve been sued numerous times on wolves,” he said. “We have to
make sure we’re doing everything right, consistent and have the
evidence to back it up.”
Timely investigations are imperative, which is why Broman said
the agency recently hired three new staffers to help implement
the wolf plan around the state. Funding for the positions came
from the 2019 Legislature, which approved $702,842 as a 25%
match for a federal grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service’s Wildlife Restoration Act.
The full-time employees are stationed strategically in Southern
Oregon at Central Point, Central Oregon at Prineville and
Eastern Oregon at Enterprise to assist with wolf surveys and
“Essentially, they do anything and all things wolf-related,”
Broman said. “These folks can dedicate themselves especially to
those larger time commitments away from the office.”
Sean Stevens, executive director of the Portland-based
environmental group Oregon Wild, said he disagrees with the
proposition of county sheriffs being able to confirm whether
wolves killed livestock.
In 2011, a seven-member panel of wildlife experts from Oregon,
Washington and Idaho reviewed ODFW’s investigation processes,
and found they were conducted at a high standard with
determinations based on the evidence collected.
Stevens said ranchers want sheriffs to conduct the
investigations because they would have greater political
influence over their decisions.
“It’s trying to keep these decisions out of the hands of
politicians and in the hands of experts,” he said.
Furthermore, Stevens said he was surprised by ranchers’ reaction
to the 2019 wolf report showing depredations were down, even as
the population rose.
“If we’re going to make decisions based on best available
information, science and data, it doesn’t help the cattlemen’s
case to say we don’t trust the numbers and have given up on the
system,” Stevens said. “If we focus on non-lethal (management)
and continue to put resources and staffing behind it at the
agency level, we can have a growing wolf population where we
don’t have to turn to killing them.”
The stakes riding on final outcomes are high, since they
directly impact how much money a rancher might receive in
compensation from the state Wolf Depredation Compensation and
Financial Assistance Block Grant Program.
Ranchers can apply through a county committee for full
compensation if an animal was confirmed killed or injured by
wolves. Otherwise, counties may request funding for
higher-than-usual levels of missing cattle, as determined by
But ranchers say the program does not offer nearly enough to
make them whole. Childers, with RL Cattle, said he had 19
missing cattle in 2018, along with the three confirmed
depredations. He received just 12% of the value of those animals
from the state.
That year, 10 counties requested more than $332,000 in
compensation from the program. They received a little less than
half that amount, $160,890.
Huffman, the Union County rancher and OCA wolf committee
co-chairman, said he previously received just 17% of the value
of animals that went missing above normal levels. Now, Huffman
said he is uncomfortable turning his cows out before June, until
wolves have more natural prey available such as deer and elk.
Instead, Huffman pays an additional $450 a month to rent a
pasture farther from wolf territory during the spring.
“I’m not willing to take my cows up there right now and take a
chance of only getting a 17% payback,” he said. “There are
ongoing costs to us from wolves.”
Steen, the Wallowa County sheriff’s deputy, said there is some
“definite distrust” between locals and ODFW, and ranchers
“absolutely” are giving up on the agency.
“It has not been a smooth road, for sure,” he said.
But Broman said not reporting attacks does more harm than
anything. Even if it’s not a confirmed wolf kill, the fact that
there is an investigation highlights there is conflict of some
kind happening on the landscape. Otherwise, he said you just
assume nothing bad is going on, and that can only hurt
“We’re stuck in the middle. We have to live where we have
information and evidence,” he said, adding that with the new
staff he remains hopeful the problem can be resolved. “It’s just
a matter of time, I think, where we’ll heal a lot of this.”
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