PRINEVILLE — As wolves spread toward Central Oregon, ranchers can look to the eastern corner of the state for lessons on how to try to keep their cattle from being killed. This was part of the advice passed on Friday by Russ Morgan, state wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He was among the speakers at a forum in Prineville focused on the interactions of wolves and livestock, which drew about 50 people.
Methods to protect livestock without killing wolves vary from setting up fladry, electric fence adorned with brightly colored ribbon, to hiring horsemen to ride the range to releasing guard dogs. But each method has its limitations and their effectiveness has yet to be proven.
“You don't really know if it is because you did that,” Morgan said. “... These wolves don't always eat cattle every time they can.”
He recommended ranchers start by removing bone piles, places where they have long discarded cattle carcasses, as they are magnets for wolves.
Working out of LaGrande, Morgan has been tracking wolves spreading into the state from Idaho for years and documenting attacks on livestock since 2009. Last year there were 10 confirmed wolf killings of livestock and close to 20 possible killings, according to ODFW's annual wolf report.
There are six known wolf packs in Oregon, all of them living in the northeast corner of the state, according to ODFW. At least two wolves split off and crossed through Central Oregon last year.
“There may be other packs between here and there,” Morgan said.
There are now well over 50 wolves in Oregon, he said, with an in-depth report due to be released early next year.
“I think we are on the tip of a fairly rapid population expansion,” he said.
State sponsored hunts eradicated wolves from Oregon by the 1940s, but now they are making a return. The wolves made their way into the state from Idaho.
Ranchers in Central Oregon are bracing for the arrival of wolf packs and the forum was designed to give them an ideas of how to protect livestock from them, said Seth Crawford, a Crook County commissioner and member of the county's wolf committee.
“This is something we have to figure out before they get here,” he said.
Many ranchers were at the forum, hosted by the Crook, Jefferson and Wheeler County wolf committees. The forum featured a panel with Eastern Oregon ranchers who have contended with wolves.
Todd Nash, a rancher from Enterprise with Marr Flat Cattle Co., said wolves likely killed two head of cattle this year; this is the third year he's dealt with wolf attacks on his cattle.
Nash has been a prominent voice among Wallowa County ranchers opposed to wolves returning to Oregon. He said he's hired a range rider to help protect his herd of 650 animals, but such nonlethal methods don't compare with killing wolves to stop conflicts.
“A dead wolf isn't going to kill my cattle,” Nash said.
Killing wolves isn't an option in Eastern Oregon at the moment. While ODFW has killed wolves that attacked livestock in the past, an ongoing lawsuit questioning the validity of the practice has stopped it. Wolves are listed as an endangered species by the state throughout Oregon and are also federally listed as endangered in the western two thirds of the state.
So, for now, the emphasis is on ways to protect livestock without killing wolves.
These efforts will be costly to ranchers, said Galen Wunsch, a rancher on the C Lazy K Ranch between Madras and Prineville, and a member of the Jefferson County wolf committee.
“As a producer I have to spend more money to protect the livestock,” he said.
Having seen a wolf — OR-3, as the state designated the radio-collared animal — on the ranch last year, Wunsch said he's already started bringing cattle in earlier in the year and keeping them closer than he did before the sighting.
The wolf, originally from the Imnaha wolf pack of Wallowa County, was last tracked in the Ochocos in September 2011, Morgan said.
Scientists are still tracking his brother, OR-7, which garnered national media attention by wandering into California in late 2011 after passing through Central Oregon that fall. The wolf, wearing a global positioning system collar, was last tracked near Red Bluff in Northern California earlier this week, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.