Ranchers gird for battle over wolves
GRANDE, Ore. 2/3/02 - Four generations of Sharon Beck's family
have braved the bitter winds in this valley ringed by the Blue
Mountains, driving out coyotes and bears and making the range safe
for their livestock.
Now Beck sees a new threat to her land - one she and other
ranchers thought was wiped out in the 1930s: wild wolves.
It's only a matter of time before the gray wolves stray into
Oregon from the wilderness of central Idaho and Yellowstone
National Park, where they have flourished since the federal
government reintroduced them in the mid-1990s.
Their likely migration into Oregon has ignited an emotional debate
between those who welcome the return of the endangered wolves and
those who fear it will destroy their way of life.
"Environmentalists say 'What's a calf or two? You can spare
that!' " Beck said. "We're not raising beef for wolves.
We're raising it for profit."
The root of the problem, both sides agree, is that the return of
the wolves would force open up a long-simmering dispute over
ranchers' use of public lands to graze their livestock.
Ranchers want the right to kill wolves that may prey on livestock
feeding on federal land.
But conservationists say cattle already damage fish and wildlife
habitat, and public lands should be reassessed to determine which
areas are more suitable to wolves than cattle.
"Fifty to 60 percent of Oregon's land is prime wolf
habitat," said Brooks Fahy, executive director of the
Eugene-based Predator Defense Institute. "Unfortunately, it's
a very delicate ecosystem that has essentially been trampled. ...
The West is being treated like it was a giant feedlot."
Beck is collecting ammunition of her own as she prepares to defend
her land and livestock.
The conservationists' agenda, she argues, has little to do with
protecting wildlands and wildlife. Instead, she accuses them of
trying to kick ranchers off public land, and of trying to
passively reintroduce wolves into Oregon.
"Wolves and livestock can't coexist. Period," said Beck,
a past president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.
"Their agenda is to get us off the public lands."
Fahy doesn't deny that is the case.
"We do not see any gray areas," he said. "We want
livestock off of public lands."
Beck won't say how many head of cattle her family runs or how many
acres - private or public - they use. That's considered a rude
question in cattle country.
"We have enough land and livestock to keep us busy and make a
living for our families," she said.
The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife compensates ranchers
for lost livestock to wolves, and has paid out more than 6,000 to
180 ranchers since 1987. None of that money has gone to Oregon
"We welcome the day there will be some wolf claims in
Oregon," said Suzanne Laverty, northwest regional
representative for the group. "That will mean there are
wolves in Oregon ... and they belong there."
But Beck argues it is difficult - if not impossible - to collect
on the indemnities offered by conservationists for livestock
killed by wolves, because carcasses and other evidence is
required. Wolves can devour smaller animals, such as sheep,
leaving few remains that may not be found for weeks after a kill,
And once the wolves begin to thrive in Oregon, she argues, the
conservationists' offers of money will disappear.
"They'll compensate you until they get the wolves established
- then the heck with that," she predicts.
Laverty acknowledged that Defenders of Wildlife has only committed
to offering compensations as long as the wolves are under federal
The gray wolf has been protected as an endangered species since
1973, meaning they can't be killed except under special
circumstances. Killing one is a federal crime carrying a maximum
penalty of 0,000 and one year in jail.
So far, only three wild wolves are known to have wandered into
Oregon. Last October, a wild wolf was found illegally shot in the
Blue Mountains. The wolf did not wear a radio collar, and an
examination of its stomach contents showed it had not devoured any
The animal was shot in the same area where two collared wolves
were found the previous summer. One was killed by a car, the other
was captured and returned to Idaho.
More than 40 unconfirmed wolf sightings were reported to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service in Bend last year. Nearly a quarter are
considered "good sightings," agency biologist Jerry
"Every year that goes by, the chances of having animals in
Oregon increases, because the packs in Idaho are increasing,"
he said. "Idaho is basically taken - it's fully occupied by
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department has asked federal wildlife
officials to deport any wolves that come into Oregon. The Fish and
Wildlife Service removed the collared wolf, known as
"B-45," but said it has no plans to capture other wolves
discovered in Oregon unless they attack wildlife.
Maturing wolves naturally break off from their packs to find new
territories. The central Idaho wolves have found a travel corridor
that could make Oregon the first state they colonize outside their
designated recovery zones in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
Wild wolves could follow the scent trail left by those early
explorers, head for the forests and high deserts of eastern
Oregon, and eventually move into the Cascade Range.
If given the chance, wolves would thrive in the Eagle Cap
Wilderness, the John Day Wilderness or in the Umatilla National
Forest and other unclaimed territory, filling a long-vacant
predator gap in those ecosystems, conservationists say.
"The Cascade Range is prime deer and elk territory - and
therefore prime wolf territory," Fahy said. "When these
predators are back within the system, the prey species are more
robust, more genetically diverse."
In Yellowstone, coyote populations ballooned after wolves were
removed but have been quickly returned to a balance since the
federal reintroduction program began, he said.
Conservationists contend the cattle industry isn't really at risk
because wolves naturally hunt deer and elk, not cattle.
Wolves are native to Oregon. Early ranchers and farmers put a
bounty on the animals and poisoned, shot and trapped them until
they were mostly exterminated by the 1930s.
In Idaho, where the animals are listed as an experimental
population, federal officials can issue permits to ranchers to
kill wolves that stray onto their property - if the animals have
been preying on their livestock. Ranchers have the right to shoot
any wolf caught in the act of attacking livestock on private land.
Once the wolves wander into Oregon, where they are regarded as
endangered, ranchers complain they can't protect their livestock
"It's like turning the terrorists loose from a prison in
Idaho," said Mack Birkmaier, a 71-year-old Joseph rancher.
"If he swims the river into Oregon, he's free to attack
The answer, ranchers say, is to down-list wild wolves - moving
them from endangered to threatened - so they could be shot if seen
Fish and Wildlife may decide this spring to give states such as
Oregon and Washington, which neighbor growing wolf populations in
Idaho and Canada, the authority to allow wolves to be shot.
At the same time, the agency is moving toward down-listing the
The agency found 30 breeding pairs in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana
in 2000 and 35 pairs last year, when the total population was up
to 570. If there are 30 breeding pairs again this year, the agency
will begin removing the wolf from the Endangered Species List in
Even if federal protection is dropped, Oregon can keep its own, or
could allow ranchers to hunt them out of the state, the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife's Cordova said.
"We don't have a wolf problem now, but as time goes on, we
will," he said. "We need to be proactive now."
Down-listing or de-listing wolves in Oregon isn't a
"black-and-white" issue, and should be carefully
discussed, said Bill Marlett, of the Bend-based Oregon Natural
"We're not transplanting wolves, but accommodating their
expansion as it occurs over time," he said.
Beck is convinced there is more to the story.
"There is conflict and we don't even have them here,"
she wrote in an editorial that appeared recently in The Oregonian.
"The conflict comes from our complete understanding of their
transparent agenda to transplant endangered wolves into Oregon and
our understanding that (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) will
be doing absolutely nothing about it except celebrating."