Ranchers keep wary eyes on wolf measures in Salem

Stock growers in Wallowa County and elsewhere in Oregon are hoping this year's legislative session yields them a little added leeway to deal with wolves attacking their livestock and working dogs.

A pair of bills introduced in the Oregon Senate and House would each end a requirement that ranchers have a state-issued permit before shooting a wolf that's attacking livestock or dogs on private property.

Both measures also make explicit the lawfulness of killing wolves "to avoid imminent, grave injury to any person."

Oregon cattlemen are concerned the Senate bill's language stops short of providing what ranchers actually need, however — authority to kill wolves known to have been "harassing" livestock, a threshold ranchers regard as more realistic than the existing requirement that predators be caught in the act of attacking.

Rural Enterprise rancher Rod Childers, chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's wolf committee, said HB 3452, introduced by Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, better addresses stock growers' needs than does SB 197, which was introduced earlier and without consulting Oregon's cattle industry. "We didn't know what was in it until it came out," Childers said of the Senate bill, which was apparently printed before this session at the request of Gov. John Kitzhaber on behalf of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, or ODFW.

Childers said legislation allowing "permitless take" of wolves was one of three main legislative actions called for in the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan's 2010 update. The other two actions — categorizing the wolf as a "game mammal," and establishing a depredation compensation program — were both accomplished in 2011. "The last leg of the wolf plan was this permitless take," Childers said.

Although most of the wording in Jenson's House bill matches the Senate measure, Jenson adds 14 words dealing with harassment and, in the same subsection, applies the prescribed remedy to a plural threat, "wolves," rather than limiting it to a single "wolf."

Section 2, Subsection 4 of SB 197 reads, in part: "A person who owns or lawfully occupies land does not need a permit ... to take a gray wolf ... if the gray wolf is caught in the act of attacking livestock or working dogs."

That same subsection as it appears in HB 3452: "A person who owns or lawfully occupies land does not need a permit ... to take gray wolves ... if the gray wolves are caught in the act of attacking or harassing, or are reasonably believed by the person to have attacked or harassed, livestock or working dogs."

As a practical matter, the seemingly subtle changes could make a significant difference to ranchers. Childers estimates that Wallowa County ranchers who lost cattle to the Imnaha pack in recent years would have had at least four chances to try to kill a pack member under the House bill's wording. The Senate bill, on the other hand, sets a higher bar that would have offered no such opportunities.

In a March 22 interview, Childers said he was hopeful that differences between the two bills could be resolved to the cattle industry's satisfaction.

Childers was one of 10 people invited to testify at a March 25 informational meeting of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. The meeting, titled "Update on Wolf Management in Oregon," also invited testimony from government wildlife agencies, a rangelands expert, and conservation groups Oregon Wild, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity.

Oregon Wild, contacted by the Chieftain for comment on SB 197 and HB 3452, replied in an email that it saw no need for either of the measures.

"As they are currently written, both bills are a solution in search of a problem," stated Oregon Wild's Steve Pedery. "As The Associated Press reported a few weeks back, over the last year Oregon has not had the option of killing any of the 46 wolves known to exist in our state. Because of that, ODFW, landowners and conservationists have worked to implement nonlethal options to preventing wolf-livestock conflict before it happens. As a result, livestock losses have dropped while wolf numbers have increased."

Pedery added: "Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and there are some who won't be persuaded by evidence or facts. That is why these bills were introduced (and similar bills were introduced in previous sessions). Rather than provoking more gridlock in Salem, it would make a lot more sense for the livestock industry, ODFW, and conservationists to work together to increase the resources available to landowners to improve their operations and reduce the potential for conflict with wolves before it happens."

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