Experiments in Coexistence

In southwest Oregon, ranchers, agencies, and conservation groups are working together to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts.

It’s after midnight, and Alyssa Mahaney is standing at the edge of a pasture, howling.

If a wolf responds in kind, she’ll know better where to focus her nightly patrol. Perhaps she’ll set up a “scare box,” which blasts music unpredictably, or shoot off a few blanks from her pistol to scare it away.

The Rogue Pack is responsible for more livestock kills than any other in Oregon. Its founder was OR-7 (pictured), arguably the most celebrated wolf in the West. Photo by USFWS.

Mahaney is a conflict prevention specialist for USDA Wildlife Services; she works with livestock producers in southwest Oregon who hope to avoid losing cows to an infamous group of wolves known as the Rogue Pack.

The Rogue Pack is responsible for more livestock kills than any other in the state. Its founder was OR-7, arguably the most celebrated wolf in the West.

OR-7, whom fans called “Journey,” made headlines when he showed up in California in the last days of 2011. He was the first confirmed wild wolf in western Oregon since 1947 and the first in California since 1924. After years of wandering, he found a mate in the forests of Oregon’s southern Cascades. Wildlife biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service captured photos of pups the summer of 2014; the pair produced pups every year until 2019.

The Rogue Pack — whose territory straddles two counties: Jackson on the west; Klamath to the east — appears to have a taste for beef. According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the Rogue Pack has been responsible for 16 confirmed depredations this year.

“OR-7 came from Imnaha Pack, which was a chronic depredating pack,” says Mahaney. “He likely came here with knowledge of livestock as an easy meal.” Wolves from the pack have attacked cows, calves, and guardian dogs in both counties, but at first most of the kills were confined to a single ranch in Jackson County. In 2018, the incidents ramped up, perhaps due to the pack’s growing size and aging patriarch.

In any case, it was clear to wolf lovers and beleaguered ranchers alike: The Rogue Pack was becoming a problem that couldn’t be ignored.

After being extirpated in most of the lower 48 states, the federally endangered grey wolf was first reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1985. From there wolves have dispersed into most of the West.

Oregon’s wolf diaspora began in the state’s northeast corner. An annual report from ODFW revealed 22 packs and 158 individuals across the state at the end of 2019. But wolves are not evenly distributed; for example, the Rogue Pack is the only established pack in southwest Oregon, though more wolves are likely on the way to region. A pair has established in Douglas County, just north of the Rogue Pack’s current range, and sightings in the region are “frequent,” says Steve Niemela, District Wildlife Biologist for ODFW.

Detail of Hieronymus Bosch's Visions of the Hereafter. Until the federal delisting kicks in on January 4, wolves in the western part of Oregon where wolf management is led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are protected from lethal control.

Until very recently, the gray wolf was still federally listed as endangered; however, on October 29 the Trump Administration announced that its populations had recovered and was no longer in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves have established successfully in several Western states, and even before the decision, certain states and parts of states had delisted the species. However, wolves still only occupy about 10 percent of their historic range, and in many places with good wolf habitat, there are few to no established packs.

Until the federal delisting kicks in on January 4, wolves in the western part of Oregon where wolf management is led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are protected from lethal control. This has meant the Rogue Pack was safe; ranchers had no choice but to embrace non-lethal control techniques. These include livestock guardian dogs, night patrols, removing carcasses from the field, and fladry, a type of temporary fencing with brightly colored plastic flags that flap in the wind.

The tools must be appropriate for the landscape and the livestock operation, says Mahaney. In the Wood River Valley, where the Rogue Pack has struck several times as of late, livestock operations are sprawling, which makes fencing off an area with fladry impractical. Mahaney’s main strategy has been night watches with hazing.

A typical shift starts at sundown and ends around 9:00 a.m. Mahaney uses a pickup truck or four-wheeler to cover ground, hugging the fence or treeline and doing her best to make sure wolves know she’s around.

It’s hard to be everywhere at once. “If we’re on one end of the pasture, we’ll put out a scare box at other end,” says Mahaney. Sometimes she also deploys fox lights, which emit random patterns of light. Mahaney is quick to point out that she doesn’t work alone. A second conflict prevention specialist, Mason Wolf, was hired in July, and they also coordinate with staff from USFWS and ODFW.

“Everybody’s doing something different, but someone is out there every single night,” says Mahaney. But wolves are smart; once they come to expect humans in one area, they’re likely to move to another, which could spell trouble for a neighboring ranch.

When a livestock owner finds a kill and suspects wolves, they call one of the agencies to request an investigation. ODFW, USFWS, and Wildlife Services work together, inspecting and thoroughly documenting the scene.

“Wolves kill livestock in a very specific way,” says Niemela of ODFW. They’re a “coursing predator” that tries to get its target to run. Unlike a cougar, which can issue a single killing blow, wolves deliver a series of crushing bites to the backs of legs, armpits, and flanks.

Inspectors often shave a carcass to inspect bite marks, then skin it to assess tissue damage deeper down. They also walk circles around the carcass, looking for tracks, scat, blood, and disturbed ground. If the inspectors determine that the cow or calf was killed by wolves, ranchers are paid through a compensation program.

A lot of attention is paid to wolves because of their status as a keystone predator, the newness of their being here, and their federal protections, says Niemela. “But we’ve had a full suite of predators killing livestock for a long time here,” he adds. In addition, not all wolf packs are “depredating packs.” In 2019, for example, fewer than 30 percent of Oregon’s known packs killed livestock. Niemela does, however, call the situation with the Rogue Pack “serious.”

Fladry fencing (electrified strand of fencing with flags attached) installed at the site of Oregon’s first known depredation by wolves, at a ranch in the Keating Valley area of Baker County. Fladry has been shown to be an effective deterrent against wolves, especially for penned sheep operations. Photo by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“A lot of the non-lethal techniques have not been successful with the Rogue Pack,” he says. “Hopefully we can find some non-lethal tools that will turn the key and make things better.”

Mahaney admits that her ranchers in southwest Oregon would prefer to use lethal control. However, she is quick to point out that Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho — states that allow lethal control — still have issues with wolves. Ranchers understand that killing wolves is not a cure-all, says Mahaney. “The ranchers I’ve worked with have come a long way in their mindset,” she says. “They’re recognizing that an integrated approach is the best approach.”

After this past winter, when no tracks were found, biologists surmised that OR-7 was likely dead and confirmed that another alpha male had taken his place.

This shift in the pack’s makeup may have contributed to the latest bout of depredations. “It seems like the pack has changed their denning location and rendezvous sites,” says Zoe Hanley, Northwest Program Representative or Defenders of Wildlife. “Biologists think that’s why they’re spending more time in Klamath County side, under the direction of the new breeder male.”

That the Rogue Pack had such a famous founder is a mixed blessing, says Hanley. On the one hand, it draws more attention to the depredations. “But it makes our work more poignant.”

Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have been strong advocates for non-lethal solutions. The two organizations provided matching funds for Mahaney’s position and many of the non-lethal tools for area ranchers. In 2019, the groups successfully lobbied to secure an appropriation of $1.38 million for Wildlife Services, so the agency could hire conflict prevention specialists in up to 12 states. Among the new hires was Wolf, Mahaney’s colleague.

This fall, Sristi Kamal, Senior Representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Oregon, and Hanley traveled to the area to meet with ranchers, agency reps, and county commissioners to see where the recent depredations had taken place and to discuss the compensation program.

“It’s really heartening to see the collaborative efforts currently taking place by ODFW, Wildlife Services and US Fish and Wildlife to ensure adequate human presence on the ground,” says Hanley. “The conversations left us feeling like there’s a really good effort taking place this year.”

In September, Defenders of Wildlife launched the Working Circle Initiative, which promotes coexistence of predators and ranching communities. The initiative draws on groundwork laid by the California Wolf Center, Northern California ranchers, and other partners, who work together to test strategies that reduce the vulnerability of livestock to predators such as wolves.

“Our hope for this area is to implement more comprehensive and sustainable strategies,” says Karin Vardaman, manager for the Working Circle Initiative. “These are long-term solutions that are focused less on physical tools and more on land and herd management strategies.”

By “rekindling the herd instinct,” for instance, cows learn to stand their ground like bison rather than run like deer or elk. This way, they are better able to take care of themselves and don’t require constant human presence. These strategies work, says Vardaman, although it can take up to three generations for livestock to learn them. Ranchers and ranch hands must also be willing to invest time and energy into acquiring range stewardship skills.

These kinds of initiatives work best when disseminated rancher to rancher, and one of the best ways to start the conversation is during “non-lethal” workshops which bring together agencies, ranchers, and NGOs. Although the Covid-19 pandemic shut down workshops in 2020, Kamal says they hope to resume them in 2021.

Following a spate of depredations in Klamath County in November, the Rogue Pack has moved back into Jackson County. There Mahaney and Wolf are working with area livestock producers until their cattle are sold or moved to California for the winter; they are also doing outreach and education on non-lethal tools with producers in both Jackson County and Douglas County to the north.

It’s not yet clear if how and if the federal delisting will hamper these efforts. Wolves in southwestern Oregon will fall under state management as of January 4, 2021. At that point, a landowner can legally kill a wolf that’s caught in the act of attacking or killing livestock or guardian dogs. In addition, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission can authorize lethal control if all the criteria for chronic depredation are met.

“We’re losing sleep but not losing hope and heart,” says Kamal of the federal delisting. “We’re hoping the courts will uphold science.” Defenders of Wildlife is just one of several conservation organizations that have pledged to challenge the move.

For many, OR-7 was a symbol of hope that humans can coexist with the wild creatures we once called our enemies. Whether his legacy will be one of successful collaboration or of missed opportunity remains to be seen.

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