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EcoThoughts: Media reports often sensationalize true impact of animals

by: COURTESY OF OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE - Wolf pups from Oregons Wenaha Pack take refuge under stumps.  In a state that values its conservation ethic, the purposeful extermination of wolves in years past was a tragedy. Their return represents a historic conservation success.

For most Oregonians, it's a story of redemption. However, judging from recent headlines, you might think we'd returned to the dark days when fear and superstition reigned. 

Hearing the howl of a wolf punctuate the silence while hiking the Eagle Cap Wilderness or another sublimely wild corner of the state makes for a special, transcendent and truly wild experience few Americans will ever have. 

That experience is once again possible in Oregon and — so long as we don't repeat the mistakes of the past — one we can be proud to pass onto future generations. 

However, wolves have become so politicized and sensationalized that Oregon is in danger of behaving more like Idaho or Wyoming than the state with the green heart. Rather than celebrate wolf recovery, headlines in Oregon and elsewhere continue to focus on preventable conflict and controversy.

Consider this recent Onionesque headline in the La Grande Observer: “Calf Found Dead, Not Killed by Wolves.”

In a state with over 1.3 million cows, such headlines could be routine. 

Sensationalized news coverage has primarily been driven by a small number of anti-wildlife voices in the livestock industry.

But some recent non-wolf news items provide surprising context which tends to be missing from most wolf stories:

• Over 600 cows died in Harney County after being fed bad hay.

• 44 unattended cows were killed by trucks in Madras when they broke through a fence. 

• An Amtrak train killed 24 cows that broke through an unmaintained fence near Klamath Falls. 

• Over 1,200 cows were stolen from Malheur County in just three years.

• 95 sheep died last month from eating poisoned grass in Idaho, after their owner illegally grazed his herd in an abandoned mine.

• In a single incident, domestic dogs killed 44 sheep in Wyoming.

• A spring storm killed over 2,250 livestock in Montana.

Maybe you missed those headlines.

But federal statistics indicate over 55,000 cows die every year in Oregon from weather, disease, poison, thieves and other causes before they make it to the slaughterhouse. Less than one-tenth of one percent of that number has been lost to wolves in the entire decade since they began to return to our state. 

However, under intense pressure from the livestock industry and their political allies, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is compelled to issue a press release nearly any time wolves are even suspected of killing, injuring or chasing livestock.

The relentless focus on conflict has serious consequences. Fighting anti-wildlife and wolf-kill bills brought by the Oregon Cattlemen's Association has become an annual sideshow in Salem. Governor Kitzhaber and the state agency charged with conserving wildlife for all Oregonians continue to fight conservationists in court over killing endangered wolves on behalf of the livestock industry.

Science continues to shed an indisputable light on the important and irreplaceable role that wolves and other native hunters play on the landscape. Some Oregonians embrace the economic value of big wildlife as drivers of rural tourism. But for most, their greatest value is simply in their existence.

Coexisting with native wildlife is a responsibility shared by all who are privileged to live near the West's big wild places. Killing endangered species isn't necessary to a healthy bottom line, and there are ways to protect livestock without bullets, snares and poison. 

As the industry learns to coexist with native wildlife, conservation groups are putting their money where their mouth is. So are Oregon taxpayers, whether they like it or not.

Conservationists have provided money to support the use of non-lethal tools to prevent conflict. Oregon has compensation programs and tax credits that pay full market value for livestock lost to wolves — and those that simply go missing.

With the recent suspension of the state's wolf-killing program, wolf recovery is back on track but remains fragile and tentative. Last year the population stood at less than 30 animals. This year it's likely that nearly half the population is less than a year old.

Mollie Beattie, the first female director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once said, “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.”

The return of wolves and other native wildlife like sea otters and wolverines says good things about Oregonians. 

Fifty years from now, we won't wish we'd killed more endangered species. In a state that values native wildlife and healthy landscapes, the return of wolves is a tremendous success story that we should all celebrate. 

Robert Klavins is the wildlands and wildlife advocate for Oregon Wild.

EcoThoughts are provocative essays written by readers. If you have an idea for one, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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