The burgeoning population of wolves in Wallowa County presents a problem, and potentially a serious one, for cattle ranchers there and in adjacent counties, including Baker.
But randomly killing a couple of wolves because wolves killed a calf east of Joseph last week will neither prevent that problem, nor soften its effects.
Yet killing two wolves is precisely what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) have proposed to do in response to the calf kill.
The reaction to this plan was predictable.
A coalition of pro-wolf groups filed a lawsuit this week, asking a judge to order the agencies to keep their rifles on safety.
We say predictable because the sequence mirrors what happened last year
when ODFW gave federal hunters permission to kill two wolves from the
Wallowa County pack. That was done in response to wolves killing six
calves in the county between May 6 and June 4, 2010.
The state agency also issued permits last year to seven ranchers,
allowing them to kill a wolf if they saw it attacking their livestock.
After the same groups sued, the agency that employs the federal hunters, Wildlife Services, agreed not to kill any wolves.
None of the ranchers with a permit killed a wolf because none saw a wolf attacking livestock.
Nor were there any other confirmed livestock kills that summer.
We don't know how many taxpayer dollars the state and federal agencies spent on this ultimately useless exercise.
We're not sure we want to know.
Yet just a year later, first the Fish and Wildlife Service, and then on
Thursday ODFW (the state agency took over responsibility for managing
wolves that day because wolves were removed from federal protection)
have issued what amounts to another blank check, with no more proof
that this tactic will save a single calf.
Now we don't mean to imply here that we believe wolves should be
allowed to plunder livestock herds without possibility of consequence.
To the contrary: We think ranchers should have the legal authority to
protect their animals - which are, after all, their livelihood - from
proximate, direct threats from wolves. Further, we believe ranchers
ought to be compensated, from either state or federal coffers, when
they lose animals to wolves.
But the best way to achieve those goals is through legislation, not by
way of wolf-kill orders that do nothing except provoke legal challenges
and inflame the feelings of people who think wolves deserve more rights
Two bills pending in the Oregon Legislature would set up a compensation
account for ranchers, and a third bill would allow residents to kill a
wolf that comes within 500 feet of their home.
We hope the latter legislation, and one of the two compensation bills, become law before the session ends in Salem.
In the meantime, the Fish and Wildlife Service and ODFW would do well
to continue helping Wallowa County ranchers employ wolf-repelling
tactics, such as installing special fencing and burying livestock
carcasses, which have undoubtedly helped to keep wolf depredation to a
relatively minor toll over the past two years.
We remember of course that this controversy started here, in Baker County's Keating Valley, two springs ago.
After a pair of wolves killed 28 sheep and one goat at two ranches,
federal agents shot and killed both wolves in early September 2009.
But that situation was vastly different from what's happening now in Wallowa County.
The two Baker County wolves were rogue wolves, not part of a pack like
the one in Wallowa County, which numbers 10 to 14 animals.
After state wildlife officials trapped one of the rogue wolves and
fitted it with a radio tracking collar, officials were able to ensure
that the government hunters killed the "right" wolves - the ones that
killed the livestock in Keating Valley.
It's no coincidence that there hasn't been a confirmed case of wolves killing livestock in Baker County since.
But that kind of selective hunting isn't possible in Wallowa County now
because it's not known which wolf, or wolves, killed the calf last week.
Despite the claims of wolf proponents, killing two wolves wouldn't have
any great effect on the Wallowa pack. ODFW says it will purposely avoid
shooting either the alpha male or female, which alone produce the
Which means that even if agents killed two wolves, the pack would remain, and probably replace the two animals within a year.
Livestock would still be at risk. And ranchers would still have need of
laws that entitle them to protect their animals when they can, and laws
that help make good their losses when they can't.