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Crying wolf as the predator returns

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Monday, June 01, 2009
ATSGrayWolf Admit it: We’re all a little afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. But after wolves killed 24 lambs and a calf in Baker County in April, ranchers in Eastern Oregon are more than a little afraid.

The attacks plus the removal of the gray wolf from the national endangered species list in May caused a long-simmering conflict between ranchers and conservationists to boil over.

Since the wolf is still under state endangered species protection, ranchers cannot go beyond “hazing” — yelling or throwing things at the wolves — or they risk penalties.

Wolves haven’t attacked livestock in more than 50 years. In 1843, the threat from predators to cattle, sheep and hogs spurred Oregon’s 250 scattered settlers to form a government. Oregon’s first law placed bounties on dead wolves: 50 cents for a small wolf, $3 for a big one. By 1946, the wolf had been driven from Oregon.

It’s really fear of the unknown, not livestock losses, that provokes such a strong reaction from ranchers, says Suzanne Stone, a representative for the national nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. Wolf depredation accounts for less than 1% of livestock losses in Idaho, where there are close to 850 wolves, according to the USDA.

“Ranchers have been losing livestock to a number of causes for years, and to have such a strong reaction to wolves based on a couple dozen sheep and one calf is not the kind of reaction you’d see if this had been a domestic dog or black bears,” Stone says.

But ranchers like Mike Colton, a member of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association Wolf Task Force, say the death toll shouldn’t matter.

“We have to have the right to protect ourselves and protect our livestock,” Colton says, adding that it is hard for people who don’t live with predators to understand.

Curt Jacobs, who lost the 24 lambs, and Tik Moore, who lost the one calf, ultimately took a more moderate position than some ranchers who have never met the wolf. Jacobs and Moore went to Salem in April to ask the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Communities Committee to introduce a priority bill granting the right to shoot wolves caught in the act of attacking livestock, but not the right to track and kill them.

“They’re here, I think we need to learn to live with them,” says Moore, whose calf was killed 300 yards from where he sleeps. “We need a management plan that allows the wolves to exist but protects my rights as a rancher.”

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