Those pioneering ranchers really knew about predators

Written by Jayson Jacoby March 16, 2012 05:11 pm

BY JAYSON JACOBY

EDITOR

I’d like to know what the first generation of cattle ranchers around here would make of the current debate over wolves.

I’m inclined to think our 19th century forebears might not be altogether sympathetic to their modern counterparts.

In that bygone era, after all, the government, having only recently managed to hold itself together, had neither the inclination nor, likely, the money to reimburse livestock owners whose animals became wolf entrees.


No Defenders of Wildlife to cut checks or dispense wolf-related advice, either.

Our tough, independent ancestors would have laughed heartily, I suspect, at the notion of tying red ribbons on their corrals to ward off wolves.

Although they might have endorsed the practice on purely practical grounds — perhaps the decorations flapping in the breeze would persuade the occasional curious lobo to pause long enough that the rancher could grab his flintlock off its pegs over the front door and get off a shot.

I wonder, too, whether those ranchers would have found it slightly humorous — and slightly annoying — that anyone would get so riled up about a situation that, from their perspective, would pose little threat to their livelihood.

Back then, in Oregon’s infancy, wolves were counted in the hundreds rather than the few small packs, maybe a couple dozen wolves in all, that roam the northeastern corner today.

Wolves certainly weren’t named, as though they were pets.

(Or numbered.)

Those early ranchers managed to co-exist with a nature that was considerably more lethal to cattle and sheep than is the modern version.

Besides wolves there were grizzly bears, an apex predator that local livestock owners haven’t had to worry about for at least three generations.

Those pioneering cattlemen would find one 21st century phenomenon familiar: the proliferation of cougars and coyotes.

But I doubt, what with the wolves and grizzlies, that their empathy would have been excessive.

None of this is to say that the first crop of ranchers was sanguine about the predator situation, or pleased about sharing the wildlands with mammals well-endowed with teeth and claws.

Well, actually those ranchers were sanguine — in the other, bloodthirsty sense of that word.

They co-existed with nature, but not always happily.

They endeavored to eradicate all animals with a penchant for killing livestock.

With the aid of government bounties (Oregon had one as early as 1843, 16 years before it was, technically, Oregon), poisoned bait and other techniques that would cause Richter scale reactions if described in a PETA meeting, the ranchers pretty much succeeded.

(The noteworthy exception being the coyote, a creature whose aptitude for surviving the nastiest tactics humans can devise would impress cockroaches and Norway rats.)

But this success was the work of several decades.

And it’s that interval, between white settlement and the near or complete elimination of most livestock predators, that intrigues me.

It seems that ranchers, without the advantages of full-time biologists monitoring wolf movements by GPS, and the aforementioned compensation for wolf-ravaged herds, were able to stay in business even with so many more carnivores and omnivores marauding their vulnerable flocks.

On the other hand, those ranchers didn’t have to worry about getting a six-figure fine, or being tossed in jail, if they fired a bullet through the skull of a wolf that had its teeth in a calf’s tender throat.

The idea that a law would punish them for protecting their livelihood from a pack of pestilential canines would have struck them, I’m sure, as preposterous and un-American.

Even worse, maybe, in that era long before the Taylor Grazing Act, than having to ask some town bureaucrat for permission to drive their animals out to summer pasture.

I don’t mean to suggest that, if only we were more tolerant of wolves we could regain some elapsed utopia in which humans (and their livestock) exist in harmony, more or less, with the wilder aspects of nature.

We live in the real world, not a Coca-Cola commercial.

Still and all, I don’t think I’m being a pollyanna in believing that the return of wolves might confer benefits even on those who decry this trend.

The oft-cited Yellowstone studies show that wolves can reduce the damage elk cause to streamside habitat — damage often laid, and not always fairly, at the broad hooves of cattle.

I’m aware of the possible repercussions — decimated elk and deer herds, and the cancellation of those government reimbursements prominent among them.

But think of it this way:

If we get enough wolves, hunters can start shooting them legally.

 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.