Sunday, February 28, 2016

Wolf on the prowl

Yamsi Ranch calving complicated by lone wolf on the perimeter

On a remote cattle ranch near the headwaters of the Williamson River, a group of cows is separated from its herd. Protectively, they huddle in a semicircle, nudging their calves to safety behind them.

Cattle owner Joe Jayne loads a shell in his shotgun as a black wolf circles the herd, possibly sizing up the mothers and whether he should try for a calf.

Jayne pauses, holding up his shotgun to aim above the wolf, and fires a shell filled with an M-80 firecracker into the distance.

“I shot over him once, he turns around and looks at us, and kind of trots off. He looks at us again, so I shot in the air and he just kind of trots right through the calves,” Jayne said.

This was the first time Jayne had seen wolf OR-25 at the 5,000-acre Yamsi Ranch, a sprawling cattle ranch marked by miles of open pasture, stands of mixed pine and surrounded by dense forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The 2.5-year-old male dispersed from the northeast Oregon Imnaha Pack in March 2015 and arrived in Klamath County in May. He has left the upper Williamson area several times, sometimes for weeks, to roam the Klamath and Sycan marshes, traveling as far south as northern California.
When Jayne fired the shells, OR-25 was standing only about 60 yards away. Despite the deafening M-80 blast, Jayne said the wolf appeared calm.

“He’s not scared of anything. He knows he’s got a bulletproof vest on him,” he said, referring to protections given to wolves by the Endangered Species Act.

GPS tracking helps, not fool-proof

Seated at her dining room table, and looking through large windows, Jerri Hyde points to a stand of trees little more than a quarter-mile from her house. Jerri and her husband, John, are partners in the Yamsi Ranch’s cow-calf operation, which breeds more than 400 cows each year.

Jerri explains that OR-25 is fitted with a radio collar that intermittently emits a GPS satellite signal and allows wildlife officials to track his movements. Jerri said the ranch has a radio receiver that picks up signals from a less sophisticated collar feature, a VHF (very high frequency) signal that can be tracked from the ground. The signal placed OR-25 in the trees when the cows were were pastured near there.

“He’s very bold,” Jerri said.

Since OR-25 returned to the upper Williamson area a few weeks ago, Jayne, John and Jerri have been scrambling to find ways to keep the wolf away from the cattle and their newly born calves.
As of Wednesday, about 15 calves had been born. Jerri said they are planning to birth calves from each of the ranch’s 450 female cows.

What they did not plan on was keeping a 24-hour watch on the cows because of one very persistent wolf.

According to Jerri, the standard barrage of non-lethal wolf deterrents have not fazed OR-25. In addition to the M-80 shotgun shells, wildlife officials have set up a noisemaker box, a strobe light and fladry fencing. The specialty fencing consists of strips of fabric or colored flags draped over a wire fence.

John Stephenson, a wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the deterrents are the same that are used to protect against wolf depredation in northeastern Oregon. They have been successful on many ranches.

Jerri said OR-25 ran right through the fladry at Yamsi.

“Nothing is working,” she said with resignation. “Sometimes I wonder if he’s deaf.”

Trading shifts 24/7

OR-25 occasionally makes daytime appearances, but he’s most active at night. Now, in addition to the checking the herd for new calves roughly every four hours, someone must keep watch all night.
“At night we’ve been driving the perimeter around the cows and when we get relatively close (to OR-25), we shoot cracker shells,” she said.

Jerri explained that she, John and Jayne patrol the cows until about midnight, then wildlife managers from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) take shifts.

“It’s very helpful, but you worry about these guys when they’re tired and driving back and forth. It’s really not fair to them,” Jerri said.

ODFW assistant district biologist Jon Muir said one main concern is that much of the wolf’s natural prey — big game like deer and elk — haven’t returned from their wintering grounds yet, making calves the most abundant potential food source.

“You’ve got brand new calves hitting the ground and that’s where he’s parked for the time being,” Muir said.

According to Jerri, a wolf could easily pick up a 70- to 85-pound newborn calf and run off with it. A loss could mean hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to the ranch.

“But other than being present, he’s not caused any issues yet, except for the calves in the fall,” Jerri said.

Not the first go-round

OR-25 has been in the spotlight before. After arriving in the Yamsi area last May, he kept to himself throughout the summer. But in late-October, early-November, ranchers became keenly aware of OR-25’s presence in Klamath County after he killed one Yamsi calf and maimed two others.

The three attacked calves were being held in a 100-acre pasture with several other 6-month-old, 300- to 350-pound weaner calves.

OR-25’s GPS radio collar placed him at or near the calf carcass several times around the time of the attacks. The two surviving calves were sent to a ranch in the Willamette Valley. Jerri said one of the calves has died.

She said trauma caused by a wolf depredation, or even just the threat of injury, can be stressful to cows, especially those that are pregnant.

Although no depredations have occurred recently, OR-25 is not shy about mingling with the herd. His radio collar has placed him near or with the animals in the pasture several times.

“I’ve not seen him — just his tracks,” Jerri said, holding up her hand to indicate how large OR-25’s paw prints are.

Stephenson saw OR-25 early Wednesday morning. He said the wolf was running away from the pasture, toward a treeline just off the ranch property.

“It’s hard to know what he was after,” Stephenson said. “It was right at dawn and he was heading back to the woods.”

Running out of options

Assistant district biologist Muir said although the ODFW is does not have authority to manage federally protected animals, such as wolves, he and ODFW district biologist Tom Collom are doing everything they can to help.

Muir said he and Collom have spent several nights at Yamsi, hazing the wolf and trying to run him away from the cattle. Muir called the efforts “marginally successful.”

“I believe that we have been successful in preventing some depredations. We’ll keep doing that until another solution can be in place,” Muir said.

Muir noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead agency when dealing with wolves. He explained that ODFW’s role is only to investigate depredation claims. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife must determine how the animals are managed, he said.

“What we are doing at Yamsi Ranch and everywhere else is just Tom and I trying to be helpful,” Muir said. “John and Jerri are in a bad position.”

Everyone agrees that the help Muir and Collom are providing is making a difference, even if OR-25 is still hanging around. They also agree that what the ODFW staffers are doing is not sustainable. Muir and Collom have taken on the wolf patrols in addition to running the local ODFW wildlife district.

Muir said he is hopeful the Klamath County wolf depredation committee will receive grant funding earmarked for more preventative measures.

“We hope to use some of that money to employ a hazing position,” Muir said. “Somehow somebody else is going to have to do this.”

Living with predators accepted

When OR-25 first appeared near Yamsi last year, Jerri said the presence of a wolf didn’t bother her. She said although the current situation is sometimes frustrating, her feelings haven’t changed.
“I still like the idea of having wolves here. We’ve coexisted with them and I know that we can. But, we need to be able to manage the ones that are creating issues,” she said.

Jerri noted that the ranch is home to a host of predators ranging from coyotes to cougars. She believes the carnivores are attracted to Yamsi thanks to its abundant populations of cottontail rabbits and ground squirrels. She said wildlife is welcome on the ranch.

Jerri’s hope is that future wolves establishing in Klamath County do so without conflict, and that problem wolves can eventually be managed like troublesome bears and wildcats.

“This guy, we can’t manage. The only way to manage is to be out there all night long - and our efforts don’t really seem to be deterring him,” she said.

Stephenson said although wolves are protected under the ESA, officials are concerned about about OR-25’s behavior.

“We’ve got a problem situation here and we’re going to try to do as much non-lethal stuff as we can to try and solve the problem. If we get a chronic depredation situation where it has further livestock attacks here, I do think removal is a possibility, but it would be after several more attacks,” he said.

“We would never try to relocate an animal that chronically depredates on livestock because that’s just moving the problem somewhere else.”

Stephenson said although OR-25 appears impervious to hazing, the wolf hasn’t been aggressive toward people. Stephenson said he doesn’t think it’s likely OR-25 going to become a threat to humans.

Jerri’s advice to other Klamath County cattle ranchers is to learn from people who have experience striking a balance with wolves and to cooperate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other involved agencies.

“Try to be proactive because they are coming no matter what we do. We’re lucky these are collared and we can keep track of them, but they are not all collared,” she said.

Jayne said the best the Yamsi ranchers can do for now is to be aware of OR-25’s location and continue spending more time with the cows.

“I think we’ve been successful in that we’ve not had another depredation on that ranch, but his lack of leaving the area is disconcerting,” Muir said. “It’s going to be an ongoing thing.”

***

Species protections

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife designated an “area of known wolf activity” for OR-25 in August 2015 and expanded the map of the wolf’s known range in November.

That same month, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife commission voted to remove wolves statewide from the state’s endangered species list.

A recent Oregon bill, House Bill 4040, passed out of legislative committee last week and is now on its way to the state Senate, which must pass it before it can go to Gov. Kate Brown’s desk to be signed into law.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the bill would ratify the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission's decision to delist the species. The AP said the move that is not a greenlight for killing wolves but it allows hunting to eventually be considered as one of several management tools under the state's wolf plan.

Although wolves’ status has been downgraded in Oregon, they still have some protection from the state’s wolf management plan, and they are still protected by the federal Endangered Species Act west of Highways 395-78-95.

Gray wolves were reintroduced in the northern United States in the 1990s after their populations were decimated earlier in the century. The species was given ESA protections in 1974.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages wolves and other endangered species, the act prohibits unauthorized taking, possession, sale, and transport of endangered species.


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