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State and federal wildlife officials and county sheriff host meeting to update ranchers on recent developments

PHOTO COURTESY OF ODFW - Gray wolves are believed to be in Crook County.

They're here.

Recent data compiled by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirms that some gray wolves have definitely passed through the Crook County area. In fact, they are telling livestock producers that at this point, they should assume at all times that wolves are present in the county.

WHEN WOLVES RETURNED

The gray wolf was reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone Park in 1995, a time during which the animal was federally listed as an endangered species. Since that time, wolf populations have grown, and packs have gradually moved west toward Oregon, arriving in the northeast portion of the state midway through last decade.

In anticipation of the predatory animal's arrival, state officials approved the Oregon Wolf Plan in 2005. The plan divided the state into two halves, the divider line following U.S. Highway 97 from the Washington border south to U.S. Highway 20, then east to where it meets U.S. Highway 395, then south to the California border.

Since that time, according to ODFW officials, the gray wolf population in Oregon has grown from a small number of sightings in northeast Oregon a decade ago to 124 known wolves making up 12 packs (four or more adults running together during the winter), 11 breeding pairs (two adults and two pups that survive through Dec. 31 of a given year) and other lone dispersers.

ODFW wildlife biologists have collared a small percentage of those wolves and have tracked the movement of lone dispersers through several counties, including Crook County. However, thus far no ODFW or county law enforcement officials have been able to link suspicious livestock deaths to wolf attacks.

TIME FOR AN UPDATE

Local livestock producers and other county residents learned these details and others during a recent meeting hosted by the Crook County Stock Growers Association and the Crook County Sheriff's Office last week.

During the event, which drew about 35 people to the Crook County 4-H building, staff from ODFW and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined Sheriff John Gautney in presenting up-to-date data on wolf populations and their movement through Crook County and the rest of Oregon. Presenters also spoke about depredation — when a wolf attacks and kills livestock — and how such incidents should be reported and how they are investigated.

The session was the latest in an ongoing effort to minimize the harm to local livestock and keep producers aware of wolf activity locally and statewide.

When Crook County officials first learned that gray wolves had arrived in Oregon, they created a local wolf committee whose role was to get ahead of any problems the presence of the predatory animal might cause. Meeting regularly, the group determined in 2013 that the best way to prevent wolves from setting up residence in Crook County was to remove bone piles from area ranches. The bone piles tend to attract the animal, which is in search of its next meal.

This idea was spurred forward when the wolf committee secured a grant agreement with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The funding would be provided through a cost-sharing program that required producers to cover half of the cost to remove the bone piles, an estimated expense of about $300 per ranch.

During last week's meeting, several producers in attendance noted that the effort stalled due to a lack of support and interest from area ranchers.

WHAT DO WE KNOW?

Holli Kingsbury, vice president of the Crook County Stock Growers Association and a county wolf committee member, said Thursday evening's session was called to provide producers a laid-back, informative meeting on what to do when they either see a wolf or experience depredation.

Greg Jackle, district wildlife biologist with ODFW, presented first, explaining the current laws regarding gray wolves in Oregon. He noted that land west of the Oregon Wolf Plan divider line remain in Phase I of the plan while those east of the boundary have moved forward to Phase III. The phases determine how the wolves can be managed in a particular area.

He went on to note that wolf management has become confusing for ODFW and producers alike because Oregon has removed the animal from its endangered species list, but it is still listed federally on all state land west of U.S. Highway 395. This means lethal wolf control is still not an option in Crook County.

Jackle went on to highlight known wolf data, telling those in attendance about the 124 known wolves in Oregon. However, he added that those numbers do not likely represent the true number of wolves in the state.

"It is a known number and it is definitely a minimum number," he said. "We know there are more wolves out on the landscape."

He showed a map, noting that the majority of the known wolf packs still reside in the northeast corner of Oregon, although some packs are as nearby as northeast Grant County. In addition, some estimated packs are believed to exist near White River, northwest of Madras and near other locations near Jackson County in southwest Oregon.

ODFW officials have tried to put a GPS tracking collar on at least one wolf in each of the known packs, which has helped them determine where wolves are located and where they are going. They have learned that many wolves have left their pack and traveled through Oregon from the northeast to the southwest and in one case, down into northern California. Crook County has often been a part of the path, although for reasons unknown, none of them have stuck around for long.

"We have had multiple wolves come through and go back," Jackle said.

While this is what data suggests, Jackle was quick to point out that only about 11 percent of the known wolves in Oregon are collared.

"There a lot more wolves out there that don't have radio collars, so there are definitely more wolves that have moved through this part of Central Oregon."

A GOOD DEFENSE

Though wildlife officials cannot explain why the wolves have not stayed in Crook County, Jackle did note that the presence of bone piles increases the likelihood that they will. He showed data of a wolf that spent a significant amount of time near The Dalles because of a nearby butcher shop.

"Even old (bone piles) are very important to get cleaned up," he said. "You don't want to attract a predator into your area if you don't have to. Cleaning up bone piles is the best defense."

While this defense will help, John Stephenson, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told producers in the audience that they should assume wolves are in the area at all times. And though they are not legally allowed to kill them, he recommended several non-lethal methods of keeping the predators away from livestock.

"The presence of people out in the pasture is generally enough to scare them away," he said, adding that people can fire cracker shells or shotgun blasts over the heads of the wolves to scare them away.

"There are a variety of tools that are actually pretty effective in scaring them away," he said.

WHEN WOLVES SHOW UP

Producers are strongly encouraged to report a wolf sighting or depredation incident as soon as possible. Gautney spoke at Thursday's meeting about how to report wolves and what to do to preserve the scene for the best investigation possible.

"First thing, don't disturb any of the evidence," he said. "Leave it in place and protect the carcass as much as possible."

Gautney also stressed the importance of reporting as soon as possible.

"If we wait several days, we lose a lot of evidence."

The investigation process is carried out collaboratively by both the Sheriff's Office and ODFW, although ODFW must make the final determination on whether the sighting or attack was associated with a wolf.

Gautney said the Sheriff's Office has investigated many sightings and taken several reports so far this year on suspicious livestock deaths. So far, none of the reports have resulted in a confirmed wolf sighting or attack, although he noted that in some cases, the animal sighted has been a coyote, which is much smaller but bears many similarities to a wolf.

Like the wildlife biologists who spoke at the meeting, Gautney could not explain why Crook County has not yet seen any confirmed wolf depredation incidents.

"Why are we not seeing more reports here in Crook County when we have sightings all around us? Maybe because we are not getting those reports. Maybe people are not seeing them. I'm not sure," he said.

BETTER COMMUNICATION NEEDED

Producers in the audience contended that they might fare better if ODFW officials ramped up efforts to alert property owners when they know a wolf is nearby. Jackle noted that the agency will alert ranchers when a wolf or a pack stays in an area for a prolonged period of time, but when a lone disperser is passing through, they move too quickly to make the communication worthwhile.

"When an animal is moving like OR 44 (which passed through Crook County on route to California), I could call everybody who is within that path and get everybody stirred up," he said. "Then you drive out there and it's already 10 miles away."

However, newly hired Crook County Natural Resource Manager Tim Deboodt disputed that philosophy, asserting that any information would help.

"If there is no communication about wolves in the area, nobody is going to think there is an issue and therefore they are not going to show interest," he said. "So what if they move 20 miles a day. Information is pretty powerful, and it seems like there has got to be a way to communicate to those who need to know where these critters are."

In response, both Jackle and Stephenson said they could look into improving communication with local producers and see what improvements could be made.

As the meeting was concluding, Gautney reassured those in attendance that while wolves have indeed come to Crook County, the situation is not as urgent as it is in Oregon's northeastern counties.

"It's not that we have a big issue, but be aware of what to look for and report," he said. "It is not a panic situation."

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