For most of the past decade Oregon’s debate over wolves and their killing of livestock was focused somewhere other than Baker County.
That ended last weekend.
The Pine Creek wolf pack, which consists of three adults and five pups born about a year ago, killed at least three calves belonging to Chad DelCurto of Baker County, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. DelCurto had turned out about 130 cow-calf pairs in the Fourmile Gulch area about eight miles east of Halfway and south of Highway 86.
It was the first confirmed case of wolves killing livestock in Baker County since 2012, and just the second episode since the spring and summer of 2009, when wolves killed two dozen sheep and a goat on Curt and Annie Jacobs’ ranch near Keating. The 2009 depredations were the first confirmed cases in Oregon since wolves moved into the state from Idaho in 1999.
In the ensuing years most of the confirmed attacks by wolves on livestock happened to our north, in Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties.
But we’re not surprised by the attacks on DelCurto’s cattle.
In March 2017 Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office, told Baker County commissioners that there were three wolves fitted with tracking collars roaming the county.
That group of wolves is now the Pine Creek pack.
DelCurto wants ODFW to kill the entire pack. In similar cases in the past, most recently last year with the Harl Butte pack in Wallowa County, the agency has instead killed some wolves, but not all, from packs that had repeatedly attacked livestock.
We’re concerned that this approach won’t deter the Pine Creek pack from continuing to target cattle in Baker County.
Wolves from the Harl Butte pack attacked cattle at least 11 times between July 15, 2016, and Oct. 10, 2017, according to ODFW. During August 2017 ODFW agents killed four wolves from that pack, yet Harl Butte wolves attacked livestock at least twice more after the wolves were killed.
And it turns out that the alpha male wolf from the Harl Butte pack has, in effect, taken the same role with the Pine Creek pack now that its former alpha male has been ousted (that wolf migrated to Idaho last fall and was legally killed by a hunter not long after).
Ideally, nonlethal methods such as hazing, which ODFW tried last weekend and earlier this week to drive the Pine Creek pack away from DelCurto’s cattle, will solve the problem, at least temporarily. But based on the recent experience with the Harl Butte pack, when even the killing of four wolves didn’t stop attacks on cattle, we’re skeptical.
The area where DelCurto’s calves were killed is private land that’s separated from the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon wilderness areas by Highway 86. If the Pine Creek pack shows a proclivity for staying in that area not only during winter, when they’re likely attracted by the elk herds that winter there, but also in spring and summer when cattle graze, then future attacks on livestock are likely.
We’re not advocating for the wanton, wholesale slaughter of wolves.
But the animals have been doing relatively well in Oregon, expanding in just the past several years from their original base in the northeast corner to establish a pack in Southern Oregon between Klamath Falls and Medford.
We acknowledge that state wildlife officials have a difficult task in balancing the concerns of ranchers and those who welcome the spread of wolves in Oregon. But we don’t believe the future of the species in the state will be decided by the fate of eight wolves in Baker County. ODFW should consider eliminating the pack if officials conclude that’s the only feasible way to prevent chronic depredation of cattle in a relatively small section of Baker County.