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ODFW Commission wrestles with wolf management questions

Oregon wolf discussion includes livestock kills, poaching, local management and more.

COURTESY BAKER AIRCRAFT/ODFW - After radio-collaring a subadult female of the Chesnimnus pack Feb. 23 in Wallowa County, an ODFW biologist double-checks the fit of the GPS radio-collar. As it works to update its managment plan, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is wrestling with a host of wolf issues.SALEM — A couple of items emerged June 8 when the citizen commission that sets Oregon's wildlife policy sat down once again to gnaw on the state's plan for managing wolves.

Among them: There's a question about who should investigate when Oregon wolves devour livestock. A "depredation," as it's called in wildlife management-speak. The Oregon Department of Fish Wildlife says it could use some help. Cattle ranchers would like to see properly certified local groups involved, to speed up the process. Depredation investigations are important because wolves involved in enough of them can end up dead. "Lethal control," is the polite term.

Oregon State Police say no thanks. The OSP Wildlife Division head, Capt. Jeff Samuels, said his game officers would need eight hours of training each, about 1,000 hours total. That's expensive.

"I don't think it fits into our mission," Samuels told the commission members. "Depredations are not a law enforcement issue."

He said OSP is happy to help ODFW biologists, but making the call on whether wolves were responsible for killing livestock is not its responsibility.

While Samuels was handy, ODFW Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster said the commission has heard allegations that wolf poaching has increased.

"There certainly is poaching of wolves," Samuels responded. He didn't provide more details and the commission didn't ask for any. Groups such as Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and Center for Biological Diversity maintain wolf poaching is on the rise.

Another issue: Does the burden of Oregon's wolf management approach weigh too heavily on private landowners? People in Northeast Oregon, especially in Wallowa County and especially cattle ranchers, would say of course. Russ Morgan, ODFW wolf program manager, said 74 percent of confirmed wolf depredations occur on private land.

Michael Finley, the ODFW Commission chair, raised the question. He said it's a dichotomy: Private land with private expectations, and a public resource — wolves — is doing damage and costing owners money.

He wondered out loud whether wolves on private or property ought to be managed differently. For example, require only two confirmed depredations on private land instead of three, the uniform private-public standard.

It's complicated because Oregon land is about 50-50 public and private, often butting up against each other. Wolves go where they want and ranchers use both, because grazing is a permitted activity on land managed by the BLM and Forest Service.

Todd Nash, a Wallowa County commissioner who is wolf committee chair for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, agreed property lines are intermixed and sometimes unfenced. But he said cattle are private property, and ranchers wouldn't allow someone to rustle their cattle, for instance, no matter where they were grazing. Insert eat for rustle and the point is made.

The ODFW Commission wasn't taking public testimony during the meeting, but Nash, like Capt. Samuels of OSP, was present and the commission asked him a question.

The discussion came as the commission gathers its thoughts on a draft five-year wolf management plan. The commission has held three public hearings and will adopt a plan later this year.

The overriding issue may be local control. Some people who follow the process believe the rules should be loosened in Northeast Oregon, where most wolves live.

Jim Akenson, conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association, said hunting and ag groups favor "active management" in the northeast corner of the state. Akenson, whose wife, Holly, is an ODFW commissioner, lives in Wallowa County. He said wolves should be managed more like cougars and bears, with "less caution" on lethal removal, more consideration for the impact of wolves on ag and hunting, and management decisions made at the local or district level rather than pushed up the chain to the ODFW director's office in Salem.

"The whole process is one of normalization," Akenson said. "That animal is still not normal; it has special game status. They're not kidding when they say it's special — it's up on a pedestal."

Akenson agreed with Nash and others who say some livestock producers no longer notify ODFW when they find dead cattle.

Jim Bittle, the newest ODFW commissioner, said some angry landowners in northeast Oregon might take matters into their own hands. He said a wolf attacking livestock on private land is similar to living in town and having a pit bull jump the fence and kill your dog.

Another tidbit: Oregon has a moose herd of about 50 animals in northeast Oregon, again in Wallowa County, in the Wenaha Wildlife Management Unit. It isn't doing well. Biologists haven't yet seen sign that wolves are wiping them out, but they are keeping watch.

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