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Wolves strike again near Fort Klamath. Now 12 confirmed kills in three months

by Lee Juillerat, Herald and News 8/24/2020

Fort Klamath wolf < In this photo snapped Sunday August 23, a wolf stand and watches in a nearby field as rancher Jim Popson deals with a dead steer deemed killed by the Rogue Pack. Photo by Jim Popson

Wolf attacks on cattle in the Fort Klamath area by the Rogue Pack are continuing at unprecedented levels, with the confirmed number of yearling steers and heifers killed since May now numbering 12.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Jim Popson, one of several Fort Klamath ranchers who are upset, angered and frustrated by the ongoing killings.

Popson has now had seven confirmed kills on his ranch, including one yearling steer found Sunday morning after Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists confirmed it was killed by wolves.

“The wolves have more rights than I do,” he said, noting wolves west of Highway 395 are protected under the Endangered Species Act. “It’s a pretty helpless feeling.”

A separate Fort Klamath yearling steer kill was reported and confirmed Saturday.

Bill Nicholson, a neighboring Fort Klamath rancher, said the onslaught has created other problems. He noticed grazing cattle are not showing their usual weight gains.

“When they (wolves) have the other cattle stressed out, that’s worse than the kill,” he said.

Adding to the frustration is that some of the recent kills have occurred in daylight hours, not at night. And the attacks are happening even though ODFW and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff are working with non-lethal deterrents to try to scare wolves away.

During at least five of the kills, hazers had been active, driving around and staying overnight on the Wood River Valley pasture lands, trying to keep wolves away from cattle. But the human presence hasn’t deterred them.

“They’re getting pretty brazen,” Nicholson said of the Rogue Pack.

Popson said the hazers use a variety of techniques, including spotlights and cracker shells.

In recent days, three or four wolves were seen standing 400 to 500 yards away while biologists examined a dead steer.

“I have no complaint about their efforts,” Popson said of ODFW and Fish & Wildlife biologists. “They’ve got people out here, but it’s not effective.”

Larry Nicholson, a partner with his father Bill at the Nicholson Ranch, echoed the concerns of his father and Popson.

“They’re just hanging out,” Larry Nicholson said of the wolves, which have been seen during the day. “It’s having a tremendous impact on the weight gain (of grazing cattle) because instead of sleeping they’re running around all night because they’re frightened.”

Butch Wampler, who oversees the Nicholson Ranch’s cattle operations, said he found the badly-eaten remains of two other cattle, but did not have biologists check those because it was unlikely a wolf kill determination could not be made. No investigation was made of third set of remains on another ranch that were also nearly totally devoured.

“They want enough left of the animal (steer) to confirm it,” Wampler said.

Without OR-7, Rogue Pack has changed

The Rogue Pack, made nationally famous because of OR-7, was established in 2015. OR-7 migrated from the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon to southern Oregon in 2011 and mated with a female believed to also be related to a northeastern Oregon pack.

OR-7 has not been observed and is presumed dead as of 2019. Biologists have not been able to place radio collar tracking devices on any of the Rogue wolves, but based on many photographs from trail cameras believe the current Rogue Pack consists of two parents and three yearlings. Until this year, the pack roamed between Klamath and Jackson counties.

“The pack moved over (to Fort Klamath),” said Wampler. “Why they did that is hard to say.”

He speculates the shift may stem from the Rogue Pack having a new alpha male. He doesn’t see why the pack’s new hunting strategy will change any time soon.

“I’d love to have the decision makers come out here and tell me where it goes,” Popson said of the accelerated number of wolf kills. “I don’t see any action. How many kills do we have to have, a dozen, 20, 50, 100?”

Defenders acknowledge problems, recommend non-lethal defenses

Zoë Hanley, northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said her organization has kept apprised of the increasing attacks in the Fort Klamath area. She said she sympathizes with ranchers experiencing losses, and is currently working to provide non-lethal options to individual ranchers and to state and federal biologists working in the area.

Hanley said federal protections for wolves in the area are still necessary, and that killing wolves can exacerbate the problem, or provide only a short-term solution until a new pack moves in.

"I totally acknowledge that (sustained livestock attacks) are not good for the producers and not good for acceptance of wolves on the landscape,” she said. “But in terms of lethal control, we do believe that is an absolute last option. That’s not a long term solution for reducing conflict.”

She said the organization is looking at ways to provide technical support to ranchers, including ways to re-teach cattle defensive, herd instincts. They also offer financial support for range riders and other non-lethal deterrents. There were plans to hold in-person community meetings, but those may take place virtually during COVID, according to Hanley.

Attacks were rare in 2019, but compensation remains low

In 2019, ODFW documented 158 wolves and investigated 50 suspected cases of wolves attacking livestock in Oregon. One incident was ruled as “probable” wolf depredation, 12 were “possible or unknown,” and 21 were determined not wolf-related.

In some cases, by the time a state wildlife biologist arrives at the scene there were too few remains for the death to be definitely linked to wolves. Biologists look for such signs as wolf tracks, evidence of physical trauma, and often after the hide is removed, a wolf’s “unmistakable” bite marks.

If cattle deaths are confirmed as being by wolves, ranchers can be compensated through the Oregon Wolf Depredation Compensation and Financial Assistance Block Grant Program, which is administered in Klamath County by the Wolf Depredation Advisory Council.

The group also oversees grants to fund non-lethal prevention measures, such as flagging on fences, the use of blank shotgun shells and flashing lights. Earlier this year, the council approved the compensation rate at $1.20 per pound. There was only one confirmed Klamath County wolf kill in 2019, which resulted in a compensation of $876.

Butch Wampler, who oversees cattle operations on the Nicholson Ranch, noted ranchers are compensated for the weight of cattle when they are killed.

“If these steers would live to the weight when we ship them out it would be a much higher value,” he said. “Even though you’re compensated it’s not a winning situation.”

— Tim Trainor contributed to this report.



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