The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on Thursday, July 29 authorized a Baker County ranching couple, or their designated agents, to kill up to four wolves from the Lookout Mountain pack, not including the pack’s breeding male and female.
Wolves from that pack have attacked the ranchers’ cattle four times since July 13 in eastern Baker County, killing two animals and injuring two others.
The permit also allows ODFW employees to kill wolves from that pack. The permit expires Aug. 21, or when cattle are removed from the area where the attacks have happened, whichever comes first.
Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett asked ODFW Director Curt Melcher earlier this week to allow the killing of wolves from the Lookout Mountain pack.
Bennett, who is chairman of the county’s wolf committee, sent the written request on behalf of himself and the two other commissioners, Bill Harvey and Bruce Nichols, on Tuesday, July 27.
This is the first lethal take permit ODFW has issued since June 2018, for a wolf pack in Wallowa County, said Michelle Dennehy, a spokesperson for the agency.
ODFW biologists have confirmed the four attacks by wolves from the Lookout Mountain pack, which consists of an estimated nine wolves, but potentially as many as 11.
The attacks all happened northeast of Durkee, generally in the Manning Creek area east of Lookout Mountain.
The Lookout Mountain pack consists of the breeding pair (an adult male and female), two yearlings born in the spring of 2020 — the first pups born to the pair that ODFW has confirmed — and a second litter of pups born in the spring of 2021.
Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office, said a video from May showed seven pups, but since then he could confirm only five pups from this year’s litter. He said all seven of the pups might have survived, though, and are still part of the pack.
Bennett included with his request a letter from Deward and Kathy Thompson, the ranchers who own property in the area and also own some of the cattle that were attacked. They also manage cattle for other ranchers, including animals that have been attacked this month.
The Thompsons wrote in their letter to Melcher, the ODFW director, that they believe the attacks are the result of the growing pack’s need for more food.
“It has gone rampant the last two weeks with this years and last year’s pups added to the bunch,” the couple wrote. “We are asking for your urgent assistance in reducing the packs need for so much meat to exist.”
Bennett said in an interview Thursday morning, July 29, that the Thompsons have taken multiple steps to protect their cattle, including nonlethal tactics to drive away wolves.
According to the state’s wolf management plan, ODFW can issue a kill permit only if the affected ranchers have used, and documented, nonlethal methods to try to avoid wolf attacks.
In his letter to Melcher, Bennett lists some of the steps the Thompsons have taken, including:
• Frequently checking their cattle starting in early January, continuing through calving season in February, and into the spring and summer when their cattle were moved to upland pastures.
• Installing wire fencing around their calving pen.
• Firing gunshots in the air to try to frighten wolves.
• Installing a device that emits noise and lights when a wolf fitted with a radio-tracking collar approaches (the male breeding wolf in the Lookout Mountain pack has such a collar).
Bennett also wrote that the Thompsons decided not to use one of their higher grazing pastures due to the wolves.
“While local producers are most appreciative of local ODF&W staff efforts to assist with tools, collaring, and other non-lethal intervention, this has not prevented the ongoing losses,” Bennett wrote.
A press release from ODFW notes those tactics, as well as the Thompsons’ burying dead calves and cows to avoid attracting wolves.
The Thompsons’ letter to Melcher includes a six-page handwritten diary of their activities since January 2021, many of them intended to thwart wolves and protect their cattle. The couple say they have put 16,000 miles on their ATV the past two years checking cattle.
The diary includes multiple entries where the Thompsons saw or heard wolves, or found their tracks in areas where their cattle graze.
Bennett’s request also includes a letter written by Greg M. Baxter, Baker County district attorney.
Baxter said Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash invited him to watch an ODFW investigation of a possible wolf depredation on July 23. An ODFW biologist concluded that wolves from the Lookout Mountain pack had killed an 850-pound, 1 1/2-year-old heifer either late July 22 or early on July 23. The biologist found a blood trail leading from a struggle scene to the carcass, as well as tooth scrapes on the carcass of a size and location consistent with wolf attacks, according to an ODFW report.
Baxter said the experience helped him understand the situation that ranchers face.
As district attorney, he could potentially have to decide whether or not the shooting of a wolf was legally justified.
That happened in the spring of 2019, when Baxter’s predecessor, Matt Shirtcliff (now Baker County Circuit Court judge) decided that a Pine Valley rancher was justified in shooting and killing one of four wolves that were attacking his cow dog near his home.
Oregon law allows property owners, or their designated agents, to use lethal force on a wolf that is biting, wounding, killing or chasing the owner’s livestock or working dogs.
The lethal take permit, by contrast, allows the Thompsons, or their designated agents, to kill wolves from the Lookout Mountain pack in any situation, regardless of whether the wolves are threatening or attacking livestock.
Baxter saw more than he expected on July 23 in the hills and gorges northeast of Durkee.
After watching the biologist examine the heifer’s carcass, Baxter wrote that he and another local rancher, Levi Bunch, walked up a nearby gulch after an ODFW official said the signal from a radio-tracking collar showed the pack’s breeding male was within a few hundred yards.
About 300 yards from the carcass, Baxter said he and Bunch saw at least two wolf pups. Soon after, he said an ODFW employee made a call mimicking an elk, which almost immediately prompted multiple wolves to howl or bark.
Baxter said he and Bunch climbed a hill and saw, about 200 yards away, two wolf pups approach two larger wolves. They also saw four head of cattle nearby.
Baxter said the cattle walked away, “at a brisk pace,” and they were almost immediately followed by a “large, adult wolf” that was about 20 feet from where the cattle had been standing.
Baxter said that had someone shot the wolf at that point, he would have considered it a justified killing because he believed the wolf was threatening the cattle.
“I wouldn’t have prosecuted it,” he said.
Baxter said he was impressed, after talking to ranchers in the area, with their efforts to protect their cattle without seeking to kill any wolves.
“They really are trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Baxter said he wrote a letter outlining his experience on July 23 because he endorsed Bennett’s request for the kill permit.