Joshua Dillen
The Baker City Herald

Baker County Commissioners heard an update on Oregon’s wolf management plan Wednesday and discussed the animals predation on cattle.

Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Baker City office, told commissioners that the state is now in Phase 3, the final phase, in its wolf management plan.

That happened because there are more than seven breeding pairs of wolves in Oregon — a total of eight.

Ratliff said Phase 3 doesn’t make major changes to how wolves are managed in Oregon.

“The first two phases are conservation phases,” he said. “The third phase is saying ‘Hey look, we’ve moved past that initial conservation and now we’re moving into how we manage wolves as a population in the state of Oregon.’ ”

In cases where wolves are suspected of attacking livestock, Phase 3 allows the federal Wildlife Services agency to investigate. Under previous phases, those investigations could only be carried out by ODFW, but other agency and county officials were involved.

Commission Chairman Bill Harvey pointed out that local ranchers utilize Wildlife Services to help control animals such as coyotes that threaten livestock. Commissioner Mark Bennett said Baker County pays half of the salary of Curt Mattson, a Wildlife Services agent.

Ratliff said Mattson already works with ODFW as a county representative on wolf depredation investigations.

“So there’s really no big changes,” Ratliff said.

Bennett asked if the criteria used to determine whether a wolf or wolves should be killed had changed under Phase 3. Ratliff said there are no changes. If investigators determine wolves are repeatedly attacking livestock after the rancher has used nonlethal measures, steps will be taken to kill the wolves.

Audience member Don Herman asked if the decision to remove wolves was different whether the depredation was happening on public or private land.

Ratliff said that’s not a factor.

He did use as a hypothetical example a case of wolves killing cattle on a public grazing allotment at the end of the grazing season.

“That livestock permittee is then pulling his cattle off that allotment,” Ratliff said. “At that point the question that could be asked is, ‘Is removing wolves on that allotment going to save any livestock at that point and time?’ Intuitively we can all say they did the depredations but is removing the wolves going to stop the depredations? The answer would simply be no. There’s no livestock there to be depredated on. So removing the wolf wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

But as long as there are cattle on the allotment and the producer has used nonlethal measures to deter wolves, then the wolves would be removed after chronic attacks, Ratliff said.

In response to Harvey’s question, Ratliff said Oregon’s wolves migrated here from Idaho, where the federal government released wolves in the 1990s.

“They have since dispersed across multiple states including Oregon,” Ratliff said.

Harvey asked whether ODFW has what it considers an optimum population of wolves in Oregon.

Ratliff said there is no such population. He said the initial population growth is exponential after the wolves are first established in an area. That trend stops as there is competition among them and individual wolves disperse.

“That’s what we’re seeing now,” Ratliff said. “Last year you saw like a 40-percent increase ... This year when I’m done counting wolves, you are not going to see a 40-percent increase.”

Harvey said he believes wolves are killing more livestock than before.

Ratliff said there’s a clear distinction between a confirmed wolf attack on livestock, with physical evidence, and a rancher simply claiming that missing animals were killed by a wolf.

Harvey contends that’s a myth, and that is almost impossible to find, say, 20 cattle missing in the backcountry and then proving they were killed by wolves.

Ratliff said it’s hard but not impossible.

Mark Durgan, a member of the county’s wolf depredation compensation committee, asked how many wolves are in Baker County. Ratliff said there are three wolves in the county fitted with tracking collars.

“What we keep getting back to is that those three wolves can’t kill 20 cattle,” Durgan said.

See more in the March 17, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.