Shella DelCurto’s despair, after a spring when she wondered whether her family’s Baker County ranch could survive the arrival of wolves, has been replaced by optimism about the future.
For Shella and her husband, Barry, who run cattle in the Pine Valley near Halfway, late summer and fall constituted a sort of crash course into the biology of wolves.
The couple, who lost a valuable calf to a wolf attack this spring, traveled to Montana and to Pendleton to attend workshops about ranching in wolf country.
They came home with knowledge, to be sure.
But Shella DelCurto said that wasn’t the most important thing they gleaned from their travels.
“It’s given us hope,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing. We look at wolves now as another challenge we have to work around.”
DelCurto is so enthusiastic about what she learned that she has spent much of this fall raising money to make possible a two-day workshop in Halfway on Jan. 10-11.
Hilary and Andrew Anderson, third-generation ranchers from Montana who deal not only with wolves but also with grizzly bears and other predators, will talk about the ranching techniques that so impressed DelCurto during the four-day workshop she and her husband attended in Montana in September.
“These are people who are living the situation, day in and day out,” DelCurto said. “They grew up with wolves — we didn’t. They found a way to survive, and to improve profitability. That’s the bottom line.”
DelCurto said that although she and her husband learned a variety of tactics to reduce the risk of losing cattle to wolves, the core lesson seemed at first counterintuitive to her.
“Before, we just focused on the wolves,” she said. “But the idea is that you focus on your cattle, not on the wolves.”
Specifically, DelCurto said the Andersons urge ranchers to train their cattle to move in larger herds rather than to scatter.
Wolves are less likely to attack a group of cattle than, say, a lone calf that has wandered away from the herd, DelCurto said.
Keeping cattle in bigger groups has other benefits, she said.
Large herds are easier for ranchers or their hired range riders to track, for one thing. That’s especially valuable for the DelCurtos, who run the ranch by themselves and rarely employ range riders.
When ranchers see more of their cattle on a regular basis they’re more likely to find animals that are sick or injured early enough to attend to them, and potentially prevent a minor problem from becoming fatal, she said.
The herding technique can also improve the quality and amount of forage, DelCurto said.
Most importantly, she is confident that the Andersons’ techniques are ones that most ranchers can employ — the DelCurtos among them.
Although DelCurto is excited about the prospects, she’s also realistic.
“These are things we can do, but it’s not an overnight change,” she said. “It’s going to take years to train the cattle to stay in a group. You have to be persistent.”
But compared with the situation several months ago, DelCurto said the notion that she and her husband need to be patient hardly seems an obstacle.
After wolves from the Pine Creek pack killed four calves and injured seven others during April, DelCurto said “we didn’t know what to do.”
The DelCurtos owned one of the injured calves. It died in June after the couple had spent about $850 in veterinary bills to treat the animal’s wolf bite wounds.
DelCurto said she had a phone conversation with Suzanne Stone, an official with Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that advocates for preserving wolf populations, about a workshop designed to help ranchers co-exist with wolves.
Nothing came of the conversation, at least initially.
But then in September Stone offered the DelCurtos a trip to a four-day conference in Montana, all expenses paid.
DelCurto said she and her husband had scheduled a trip to the Oregon Coast with their grandchildren, but they decided to cancel it and go to Montana instead.
“This was important,” she said.
The DelCurtos spent four days in the Tom Minor Basin near Yellowstone National Park.
They learned how the Andersons have made their ranch more profitable despite dealing with a range of predators that includes wolves and grizzly bears.
DelCurto said the lessons from the Andersons — and in particular Hilary, who is also a wildlife biologist who has worked in Yellowstone — were a revelation.
“She gave you a whole different perspective of looking at things,” DelCurto said.
In particular, she said, the Andersons emphasized that ranchers should consider wolves as just one of the many threats they have to deal with, rather than concentrating solely on the predators.
The bottom line, DelCurto said, is that a calf that dies from a disease has the same effect on the ranchers’ profitability as a calf that’s killed by a wolf.
The goal, in either case, is to address the threat, and in the case of wolves the idea is to manage cattle in ways — the herding concept is a key example — that make them less vulnerable to wolves, DelCurto said.
“We know the wolves are there, and they’re not going away,” she said.
Some of the other recommendations from the workshop are ones that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has given to ranchers since wolves returned to Oregon in 1999.
Burying cattle carcasses rather than leaving them on the ground is an example, DelCurto said.
Protecting winter cattle pastures by installing fladry — a type of temporary fencing designed to keep wolves at bay — is another.
DelCurto said that although she’s apprehensive about what might happen next spring when she and her husband move their cattle to spring pastures in the Low Hills country southeast of Pine Valley — where most of the wolf attacks happened earlier this year — she’s also excited about trying the techniques she learned about.
“We had been worrying all summer because we had no clear idea how to change things,” DelCurto said. “Now we do. There’s no guarantee this will work, but in my opinion it’s worth a try. I do know it has worked for other people.”
See more in the Dec. 19, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.