Ranchers gird for battle over wolves in Oregon
Associated Press


La 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 ranchers.

"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, she said.

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 protection.

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 livestock.

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 Cordova said.

"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 wolves."

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 against them.

"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 us."

The answer, ranchers say, is to down-list wild wolves - moving them from endangered to threatened - so they could be shot if seen attacking livestock.

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 wolves completely.

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 2003.

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 Desert Association.

"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."

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