A new framework for managing wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock may have the support of both Oregon ranchers and conservation groups, if the state can find enough money to pay for it.
The idea came as groups sat down for the second time with a mediator on Tuesday as part of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s effort to update the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.
Participants include the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Hunters Association and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, along with Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The facilitated meetings are designed to find common ground within the contentious wolf plan.
Tuesday’s session revealed a possible breakthrough in how ranchers can peacefully coexist with wolves on the landscape while minimizing attacks on livestock. Though short on specifics, the strategy generally calls for more site-specific wolf protections with an upfront focus on non-lethal deterrents, such as hiring range riders or stringing fladry along fences to haze the predators.
Under the proposal, a wildlife biologist would meet with individual ranchers to discuss which non-lethal tools would be most effective given their location and geography. ODFW already has conflict deterrence plans where wolves are known to be active, but these new agreements would make it even clearer what a rancher ought to be doing to best protect their animals.
If wolves continue to attack livestock and meet the state’s definition of “chronic depredation,” then ranchers who follow the rules can request killing wolves to stop the damage, which is allowed in Phase III of the wolf plan in Eastern Oregon. Wolves remain a federally protected species west of highways 395, 78 and 95.
Todd Nash, a Wallowa County commissioner and member of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said the proposal would provide much-needed clarity and directions for ranchers to follow when it comes to dealing with problem wolves.
“There should be no dispute whether you did enough non-lethal,” Nash said.
Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, said the concept also holds promise for the environmental community because it prioritizes non-lethal measures ahead of conflict.
“Done well and with a lot of goodwill, this could be effective,” Stevens said. “It really does focus on avoiding conflict.”
It remains unclear how such a program would be paid for in the long term. The group discussed possible funding sources, including the Wolf Depredation Compensation and Financial Assistance Grant Program, which receives money from the Legislature and is administered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
During the 2017 legislative session, Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, introduced a bill that would tie compensation directly to the increasing wolf population. That measure could surface again in 2019.
ODFW staff will write specific language for developing site-specific deterrence plans and present it to the work group Nov. 5 during a webinar and conference call. The next in-person meeting is scheduled for Nov. 27 in Pendleton.
Individual group members made it clear they still have lingering concerns over other parts of the Oregon plan. Stevens took issue with the state’s definition of “chronic depredation” in Phase III of the plan, which is currently defined as two attacks on livestock over any period of time.
ODFW has proposed amending the rule to three attacks on livestock in a 12-month period, but Stevens said even that is too broad.
“We really need to be thinking about an appropriate timeline,” Stevens said.
The group also went back and forth on issues, such as radio collars, and whether it is appropriate for local authorities, such as county sheriff’s offices, to participate in wolf-livestock depredation investigations. Those topics will be up for further discussion moving forward.
For the wolf plan to work, Nash said ranchers and rural communities need to buy in. Right now, he said the current plan is broken.
“Producers don’t call in depredations at this point. Most have chosen not (to) work within the context of the plan, because the context of the plan hasn’t worked,” Nash said. “You’ve lost the human tolerance condition among ranchers, in northeast Oregon especially.”
Kevin Blakely, deputy administrator for the ODFW Wildlife Division, said he was encouraged by the progress Tuesday, and believes it could be a foot in the door for more consensus.
“There’s got to be something for everybody on the table,” Blakely said. “I think that’s how you start to get some movement.”