Umatilla County commissioners Wednesday approved spending $10,000 to pay a federal agency for aerial hunting to protect livestock from predators. And commissioners found out Umatilla County is the only county in Eastern Oregon paying for the service.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service operates the aerial hunting program, which primarily targets coyotes. Commissioners last year gave $10,000 to the program, and this year the federal agency asked for another $10,000. Patrick Smith, the Wildlife Service district supervisor, told commissioners at their Wednesday meeting that last year wildlife specialist Ken Mitchel clocked close to 100 hours in flight time over Umatilla County.

Smith said he didn’t know how much money was left from last year, but he thought most of it was gone. Board of Commissioners Chairman Larry Givens asked what the budget is for the aerial hunting program. Smith said he didn’t have that figure, either.

He said the program flies aircraft out of La Grande and Burns, and most of the hunting happens in Umatilla County. But the aircraft also cover six or seven other Eastern Oregon counties.

Givens asked how much the other county governments pay. Smith said no other county governments contributed to the hunts. Givens said those governments should “pony up a little bit,” and Smith agreed.

Interim Commissioner Dennis Doherty said ranchers pay for these hunts, and the county’s money also helps. The money comes from the county’s contingency fund, he also said, so it’s not coming from other programs.

County commissioners in December asked the Umatilla County Cattlemen’s Association to provide some funds for the hunts; Smith said he hasn’t heard from the association.

Givens told Smith he needs to pressure other counties for money. If each of those gave a few thousand dollars, he said, the program would be in better shape. Commissioner Bill Elfering said the board needs to know what benefits Umatilla County receives. He also said he wanted to know how much other organizations contribute to the program.

The trio of commissioners then approved spending the $10,000.

Some candidates for Umatilla County commissioner attended the meeting. Jack Esp of Echo let out an audible gasp when the board voted 3-0 in favor of the expense. But George Murdock of Pendleton thanked commissioners on behalf of cattleman. Murdock owns a cattle company near Pendleton that will calve about 500 cows this year.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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