Wolves’ first foray into Oregon livestock leads to troubling questions

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald April 17, 2009 10:50 am

I would like to hear a wolf howl from a dark glen in the deep woods rather than from the stereo speakers in my living room.

But I haven’t thought much about how many lambs or beef calves ought to be sacrificed to make this happen.

Nor have I considered who should suffer so that I might enjoy a brief, shivery thrill while sitting beside a campfire.

I can afford to ignore such questions because I don’t own livestock.

(And I doubt any wolf would bother with my cat.)

But quite a lot of my neighbors here in Baker County do.

And they, unlike me and most people who rhapsodize about the haunting beauty of a wolf’s echoing howl, have neither the luxury of pondering wolves in abstract terms, nor of indulging in fantasies about experiencing the vestiges of a purely natural world not yet spoiled by human hands.

Ranchers have bills.

And it’s their currency, not mine, that smells like dinner to wolves, and to several other predators besides.

When you have herds to look after I suspect you’re too prosaic to ever forget that real wolves, in contrast to the idealized creatures that adorn T-shirts and propagandistic posters, have prodigious appetites and aren’t particular about the source of the blood they spill to satiate themselves.

Wolves certainly don’t care that your banker counted on you to bring half a ton more meat to the auction block.

This question of balancing the needs of wolves and livestock is not a new one around here.

The federal government brought wolves to Idaho in 1995, and four years later a young female lobo came west across the Snake. That wolf crossed Baker County and then roamed Grant County for a few weeks before the feds trapped her and hauled her back to Idaho.

Nonetheless, I am surprised that the theoretical problem of wolves preying on livestock in Baker County has now given way to the stark reality of a pasture strewn with the carcasses of 24 lambs.

Twice during the past week wolves — at least two of them, based on photographs taken by a motion-sensing camera — have turned the fenced sheep pen on Curt and Annie Jacobs’ Keating Valley ranch into an abattoir.

This is the first confirmed case of wolves killing domestic animals in Oregon since the predators returned to Idaho 14 years ago. The slaughter of sheep rapidly energized the debate over whether there is room enough in Oregon, in the geographic as well as the cultural sense, for both a thriving wolf population and a healthy livestock industry.

The state government considered that question almost a century ago and its answer then was a resounding “no.”

Oregon’s game commission put a $20 bounty on wolves in 1913. Between that year and 1946, the state paid for 393 wolf skins.

That bounty pretty much solved the wolf problem in Oregon. Despite occasional, but rarely confirmed, sightings, wolves were officially absent from Oregon until the Idaho wolf’s visit in February and March of 1999.

(The government, incidentally, named that wolf B-45. This seems to me a title ill-suited for a majestic animal, and more appropriate for a chemical used to color breakfast cereal.)

Wolves have rehabilitated their formerly bloodthirsty image in the ensuing decades, this trend aided, I suspect, by their relative scarcity and subsequent lack of slain sheep.

To put it in political terms — which is appropriate, since the management of wolves in the United States is a matter of politics as well as biology — wolves have got themselves a lobby.

This explains in part how it is that wolves have come back to Oregon after such a long hiatus without so much as a shot being fired at them in anger.

Or a lawsuit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t need voters’ approval to release more than 60 wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park during the mid 1990s.

But at least the feds admitted what they were up to in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

I suppose the wolves that strayed into Oregon constitute collateral damage, to borrow from the military’s deep well of euphemism.

The bottom line for the Jacobses is that the government, without so much as mailing them a polite warning letter (the IRS at least complies with that courtesy), spent some of their taxes to nurture animals that killed two dozen of their sheep under cover of night.

Which is akin to the government sending someone over to pilfer through my wallet while I’m sleeping.

That’s not the whole of it, either.

Because wolves will be sheltered by the Endangered Species Act at least until May 4, the Jacobses can for the time being yell and wave their arms at wolves all they want to but they can’t, even if they see a wolf with its teeth sunk in a lamb’s neck, fire a single lead bullet in the wolf’s direction.

Not if they want to stay out of jail, anyway.

Which means that wolves have more rights than human rustlers, who sometimes end up not just harassed but also dead.

I understand we were pretty hard on wolves before World War II. But it seems to me that our government has gone a bit too far in making amends on our behalf.

I’m sure the government didn’t mean for the Jacobses’ lambs to be mauled.

And I believe that returning wolves to Oregon’s wildlands is a noble and worthwhile goal. I hope it happens.

I’m troubled, though, that the first time wolves decided to eviscerate some lambs they chose for the ambush a place less than a quarter-mile from a house.

Sean Stevens, who works for Oregon Wild, contends the “most effective way to minimize conflict between ranchers and wildlife is to protect our remaining roadless backcountry areas, so that wolves and other wildlife have good habitat and are not forced into conflict with humans.”

That sounds reasonable.

Except then I had a look at a map of Baker County, which is thumbtacked to the wall a few paces from my desk, and I noticed that the Jacobs ranch is just 15 miles or so from the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

That’s the biggest chunk of roadless backcountry in Oregon, sprawling over 364,000 acres.

I hope the wolves like the Eagle Cap better after the snow melts and deer and elk, which wolves supposedly savor, migrate back to the high country.

Of course none of this speculation about assigning or deflecting blame helps the Jacobses.

Their lambs are just as surely dead as if federal employees had dispatched them with rifle fire rather than the Endangered Species Act.

Defenders of Wildlife, a pro-wolf group, has offered to reimburse the Jacobses for the value of their lambs.

I guess that’s all right.

But I would prefer the feds made good the Jacobses’ losses.

At least then I would know the final destination for a tiny fraction of the taxes I pay.

The government, it’s true, showed no more interest in the Jacobses’ opinion about wolves repopulating Oregon than it did mine.

But the only thing I’m likely to ever lose to wolves is 15 minutes of sleep, if ever I pitch my tent close by where a pack chooses to serenade.

Some people would gladly buy a ticket for that thrill.

The Jacobses have paid their way, in mutton and wool.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.