Federal wildlife officials are working to protect cattle at a southwest Oregon ranch after wolves from the nearby Rogue pack killed three calves in eight days in the same fenced pasture.
The attacks are also renewing calls from the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association to change how wolves are managed on the west side of the state, where the animals remain listed as endangered.
All three kills occurred at the Mill-Mar Ranch south of Prospect in Jackson County, which lies in the middle of Rogue wolfpack territory. John Stephenson, wildlife biologist and Oregon wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the pack had visited the ranch for years without preying on livestock.
That changed Thursday, Jan. 4, when investigators confirmed the pack was responsible for killing a 500-pound calf. Two more incidents were confirmed Wednesday, Jan. 10, and Thursday, Jan. 11.
“It’s something we’re very concerned about,” Stephenson said. “We can’t just trust anymore that (wolves) are going to come visit and not cause problems. Things have changed in that regard.”
In each case, GPS-collar data from OR-54 — a member of the Rogue pack — showed the wolf was nearby when the calves were killed. Biologists collared OR-54 in October 2017 to help track and learn more about the pack.
The Rogue pack was established in 2014, when the famous wandering wolf OR-7 and his mate had their first litter of pups. OR-54, an 80-pound female, is believed to be directly related to OR-7. Stephenson said he believes the pack now has between seven and 12 individual wolves, with a territory that covers parts of Jackson County and neighboring Klamath County to the east.
Rancher Ted Birdseye said he was aware wolves were present in the area when he purchased the Mill-Mar Ranch two years ago. In a recent interview with the Capital Press, Birdseye said he was growing concerned about chronic predation.
“I hope (wolves) don’t come in once a week over the next few months,” he said. “There’s nothing I can really do about it.”
Gray wolves are listed as a federally endangered species west of highways 395, 78 and 95. East of the highways, wolves were removed from the state endangered species list in 2015, enabling ranchers and wildlife officials to shoot wolves in certain situations to prevent or deter repeated attacks on livestock.
Last year, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife authorized kill orders for members of the Harl Butte pack in Wallowa County, as well as the Meacham pack in Umatilla County. Stephenson, with the USFWS, said lethal control will not be considered for the Rogue pack.
“We’re still looking to try an effective deterrent that keeps them out of the pasture,” Stephenson said. “We’re not looking at anything beyond that at this point.”
Stephenson said deterrents may include some combination of fladry, electric fencing and increased human presence to haze wolves from the area. In fact, Stephenson had just arrived at the ranch Jan. 10 to help replace fladry when he discovered the second dead calf.
After the third calf was killed, Stephenson remained at the ranch in his truck, with a spotlight and shotgun to haze wolves should they return.
“It did appear Thursday night that they were coming back to the ranch that evening, and then redirected,” Stephenson said. “I think it’s likely they were coming down and saw my headlights, spotlight and human activity, and took off and went somewhere else.”
Steve Pedery, conservation director of the environmental group Oregon Wild, said the organization has spoken several times with Birdseye and offered to provide financial assistance or volunteer labor for non-lethal deterrents.
“We’re hopeful we can get past the immediate situation,” Pedery said.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, however, is looking for broader changes in western Oregon wolf management to protect ranchers and livestock.
Rogue Valley rancher Veril Nelson serves as co-chairman for the OCA wolf committee, focused on western Oregon wolves. He said the association would eventually like to see the species delisted, but knows that may be a lengthy battle in court.
“It could be years and years and years before the courts make decisions and go through with appeals,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the association is also working on changing the rules for endangered species that would allow ranchers to kill wolves caught in the process of attacking livestock, or agencies to authorize killing wolves that repeatedly attack livestock similar to how they do in eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
“Once wolves start preying on livestock, they tend to continue,” he said.
With just a few dozen known wolves in western Oregon, Pedery said he is frustrated by the notion of delisting the species. He added he has been impressed by Birdseye, who seems genuinely interested in trying new solutions.
“We’re eager to work with him,” Pedery said.
ODFW estimated there were at least 113 known wolves statewide at the end of 2016. An updated population estimate is expected to be released in March.