Ranchers and politics are killing Oregon’s endangered wolves



Ranchers and politics are killing Oregon’s endangered wolves
© Getty Images

As wolves are recolonizing the wide-open spaces of the West, they are running into a buzzsaw of political meddling at the hands of a ranching industry that yearns for the glory days of its forebears, who killed wolves to the brink of extinction generations ago.

In eastern Oregon, public controversy has erupted over the kill order issued this month by state wildlife officials for two members of the Harl Butte wolf pack in northeastern Oregon, the latest in a long and bloody history of political deals, deception and feuding over the ranching industry’s perceived “right” to kill native wildlife to ease its mind and further its profits.

Unlike many western states, the Oregon has its own Endangered Species Act, adopted in 1984 to protect wildlife rare or imperiled in the state. Wolves immediately became an endangered species when the law was adopted, and it wasn’t very controversial because the species was completely extinct in the state at that time. 

As the gray wolf began its comeback in the inland Northwest, however, the situation quickly got out of hand. In 2005, Oregon adopted a state wolf plan. As usual in collaborative processes, commercial interests got their wish list — including the ability to have wolves killed if they could be linked to predation on domestic livestock. And so the state adopted a plan allowing an endangered species to be killed, in violation of Oregon state law.

And so, when the first wolves made it into Oregon through natural dispersal, the first pack — the Imnaha Pack — was subjected to multiple killings at the request of ranchers. In 2011, the dwindling pack was targeted with a kill order for two of the four remaining pack members, including one of the alpha pair.

Cascadia Wildlands, and Oregon environmental group, immediately filed for a court injunction to block the kill order. Nick Cady, an attorney with Cascadia Wildlands, succeed in having a judge block the Imnaha pack’s kill order the same day.

Thanks to these protections, one of the Imnaha Pack’s offspring, OR-7, established the first-ever breeding pack of wolves in southwestern Oregon, and later became grandsire to California’s new Lassen Pack. Wolves are listed under that state’s Endangered Species Act, and enjoy strong protections because California state law forbids the killing of wolves for the benefit of agricultural operations (or any other reason).

Of course, this scientifically questionable wolf de-listing was immediately challenged in court; the lawsuit is currently pending.

When outgoing Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber left under a cloud of ethics allegations in 2015, Secretary of State Kate Brown became governor. She inherited Kitzhaber’s staff on natural resource issues, who happened to be quite cozy with the eastern Oregon livestock industry. In the midst of the chaos, the cattlemens’ associations pushed through a bill — House Bill 4040 — declaring an “emergency” and blocking the courts from ruling on state endangered species decisions involving wolves.

Brown, newly anointed and perhaps swayed by pro-ranching staff members, signed the bill into law in a move that drew heavy criticism.

Stymied in their efforts to kill endangered wolves, the Oregon ultimately decided in 2015 to remove the legal protections by de-listing wolves under the state Endangered Species Act. The statewide wolf population at the time was only 81 animals, with only four breeding pairs, statewide numbers were tenuous. So the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife concocted a model criticized by scientists for unrealistically assuming the rapid population growth of early wolf expansion would be sustained over time, instead of factoring in known population density limits that halt wolf population growth when all available wolf territories become occupied. In science, this is called “cooking the books.”

Meanwhile, the political circus has careened onward. Earlier this year, a study funded by the Oregon Beef Association found that wolves were giving their cattle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (Conveniently for the ranchers and their concern for livestock mental health, no stress testing was conducted at slaughterhouses.) The industry then tried court filings asserting Oregon wolves aren’t native wildlife.

This summer, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife issued new kill order at a rancher’s request, this time for two members of the Harl Butte Pack, an offshoot of the original Imnaha Pack. This was soon followed by an additional kill order targeting the Meacham Pack at the request of a Umatilla County rancher.

Wolves are rare, highly valued by the public and of incalculable ecological value as a key part of natural systems. Cattle, by contrast, are a dime a dozen— not to mention an invasive species non-native to North America — bred specifically to be killed for their meat. Oregon alone has more than a million of them. If wolves kill a cow or calf before we get a chance to do the same, they deserve a tip of the cap as a professional courtesy to a fellow predator, not a death sentence.

But there is a bigger lesson to be drawn from the dirty politics of Oregon’s state-sponsored wildlife killings. Killing native wildlife shows everyone involved in an unflattering light: Bureaucrats look incompetent (or worse, corrupt), state biologists look like they don’t understand basic science, apologists for predator killing look like sellouts and ranchers look like bloodthirsty killers.

In politics, perception is reality. It is long past time for Oregon to take a look in the mirror, check its reality, and come up with better solutions that afford wildlife — and specifically wolves — their place in the natural order of the state. Where is Brown on solving the state’s problematic approach to wolves? Endangered species recovery based on science and coexistence rather than politics makes everyone look better, and more importantly, it actually works.

Erik Molvar is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife. He is also a published wildlife biologist.


12 thoughts on “Ranchers and politics are killing Oregon’s endangered wolves

  1. Wolves will regulate their own populations relative to pack territory, pack elbow room, available prey. They do not need hunting to be “managed”, not by state wildlife agencies. Usually, it is ranchers, welfare ranchers on public land, and hunters (recreational wildlife killers) who need to be managed, even in wolf friendly states (used to be wolf friendly states like OR and WA). Wildlife agencies in some states like ID, WY, MT and some midwestern states are more hunter agencies than wildlife agencies. Their protocols for wildlife “management” is hunting to drive down the population for hunters and ranchers, or calling in Wildlife Services of USDA. Ranchers leasing land in wolf, grizzly, cougar, coyote habitat in national forest, butted up against such, outside wildlife refuges, bordering national parks, should have high tolerance, even acceptance of stock loss, and better manage their stock relative to wildlife. Many non lethal means are available.

    Northwest Wolves:











  2. I understand there’s a local boycott of Diamond M beef starting in WA, and I hope it is taken seriously – unfortunately these stubborn ass ranchers and F&W people are leaving no other choice. Talk, talk, talk has failed miserably:

  3. Unfortunately, this has been going on at some level since the Europeans and their cattle arrived. The first order of the day was clearing the woods (the wilderness home of the devil, wild “beasts,” and “uncivilized” people). Then the plains had to be rid of bison (death sentence) and Native Americans (reservations for the ones not killed in battle). Finally the big predators (wolves, bears, and cougars) and then the small (pests) got their attention.

    Killing wasn’t enough for many hunters. The animals had to be tortured too. Wolves were trapped, then blinded and turned loose. Others had their mouth wired and turned loose to starve. Wolves were tied to horses and pulled apart. Gas was poured into dens and set on fire. Bears weren’t ignored by the torture brigades either.

    And it isn’t that they treated the cattle well. But that is another ugly chapter in the book of humanity.

  4. I doubt that Molvar appreciates the irony of what he says in this article:
    “State biologists look like they don’t understand basic science, apologists for predator killing look like sellouts and ranchers look like bloodthirsty killers. In politics, perception is reality.”
    As Molvar points out in his bio at the end of the article, he is himself a so-called wildlife biologist, i.e. a game manager and is now a professional environmental lobbyist. His original bio (later removed under protest) when he worked for WildEarth Guardians, described how much he “enjoyed” killing pronghorn and other wildlife. His colleagues at the Oregon and Washington Game Departments set up wolf advisory groups with representatives from groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the U.S., knowing full well, as Molvar now admits, collaborating with the ranchers would only embolden them, resulting in more wolf killing.
    Molvar describes not mere appearance but reality. State game managers are not real biologists, lobbyists are sellouts, and ranchers are, and always will be, bloodthirsty killers.

  5. Well maybe he got fed up with it all, all the rhetoric and selling out of principles, and nothing every changing, and changed his thinking. There are many former government employees, and former hunters etc. who have changed their minds, and I welcome that.

    In this instance, for me, while I’m not crazy about HSUS being involved, they do so much in other ways and are such a strong lobby that I still support them. The strong lobby is needed in Washington DC.

    • If animals are being given more consideration in hurricane zones, and people with pets are being accommodated so much better today, I feel a lot of that is due to the HSUS involvement. They are also more mainstream, and I feel can reach people much better than those who are put down in the media as ‘out there’ animal welfare supporters and environmentalists. Holding the line in WA and OR against ranchers who want no wolf packs at all, period.

    • I’m glad to see HSUS involved in disaster rescue. They should stick to what they know best, which, unfortunately, is not wildlife protection. Personally, I prefer to give my money to Best Friends Animal Society, which has also been working on disaster relief in Texas.
      As to Molvar, he would be a powerful friend of wildlife if he publicly gave up hunting and the game managers who do their bidding.

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