Sharp divide emerges over proposal to increase spending on livestock killed by wolves

Animal rights groups and others oppose the plan but ranchers say a compensation fund for killed livestock has not paid them enough money

By: - February 11, 2022 6:00 am

A wolf pack captured on a trail camera in Wallowa County. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)

A proposal to add $1 million to a state fund that compensates farmers and ranchers who’ve lost livestock to wolves has drawn criticism from conservation and animal rights advocates, who’ve asked legislators to oppose it.

House Bill 4127 would more than triple the amount of money in the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Wolf Depredation Compensation & Financial Assistance Fund. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregon Hunters Association, Oregon Sheep Growers Association and the Oregon Farm Bureau sought the extra funding on top of the $400,000 budgeted for the program over the next two years. 

The bill only has Republican support, with chief sponsors in eastern Oregon: Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo; Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane; Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner; Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena; and Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. 

Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club Oregon Chapter and Oregon Wild say ranchers are getting compensated for cattle and sheep they cannot prove were killed by wolves, and that the program needs to be reviewed before more funding is awarded. 

Haley Stewart, a program manager for wildlife protection at the Humane Society’s Oregon chapter, testified at a legislative hearing on Wednesday that her group fears most of the new funding would go to claims for missing, not killed livestock. 

Missing livestock claims go unverified, and payments provide an incentive to blame wolves for losses that most likely have other causes.

– Haley Stewart, program manager for wildlife protection at the Humane Society

“Missing livestock claims go unverified, and payments provide an incentive to blame wolves for losses that most likely have other causes,” she said.

Advocates, however, say the increase is long overdue, and that the fund has not fully compensated ranchers for livestock lost to wolves. 

Todd Nash, a rancher in Wallowa County and the president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said his members are tired of absorbing financial losses from wolf predation. 

“The whole deal with wolves coming back to Oregon was that no one was to bear the burden,” Nash said. “But it’s landed directly on the shoulders of livestock owners.” 

Besides lost animals, Nash said wolves hurt the herd. They cause livestock to stick together in open areas that have already been grazed, and can lose weight with conception rates dropping, according to the Agriculture Department. 

Nash said the birth rate among pregnant cows in his herd dropped from 95% to 82% when wolves were near. 

At stake is the balance of interests the fund aimed to achieve when it was established more than 10 years ago. 

The return of gray wolves in Oregon

The first gray wolves to return to Oregon wandered into the eastern part of the state in the late 1990s, more than 50 years after they had been effectively hunted and pushed out of the country.  The numbers in the western United States had been steadily growing since the wolves were added to the endangered species list in 1974 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had increased resources to protect them. In 2005, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife created a conservation management plan to ensure the survival of wolves in the state. By 2009, wolves had become more permanently established in Oregon again.

In 2012, the state wildlife agency joined the state Department of Agriculture, livestock owners and conservationists to create the wolf compensation fund to help farmers and ranchers pay for non-lethal methods to keep wolves away from livestock and to compensate for livestock lost to wolves. 

Several other states in the West and the Great Lakes region have created similar wolf compensation funds, but they require proof of wolf predation. Oregon is the only state that pays money for  missing livestock that owners assume have been killed. 

How the program works

The state Fish and Wildlife Department investigates livestock deaths when it’s clear that a wolf was involved. 

The agency investigated 73 deaths in 2020 and approved 31. The owners received full payment, averaging about $1,000 to $1,2000 per animal.

Officials in the 12 eastern Oregon counties that participate in the wolf depredation fund investigate reports of missing livestock. 

We’ve never been able to meet the full requests since the inception of the program.

– Jonathan Sandau, special assistant to the director at the Oregon Department of Agriculture

A county committee considers evidence such as photos of scat, pictures of wolf tracks and footage from trail cameras to decide whether it’s likely the animal was lost to wolves. The committee then asks the Department of Agriculture for reimbursement for the livestock owners one a year. At least one-third of the wolf compensation fund money is set aside for helping owners pay for non-lethal methods of keeping wolves away, like alarm or scare devices, fencing with electric wires and paying range riders who patrol livestock grazing areas.

According to Jonathan Sandau, a special assistant to the director at the state Agriculture Department, 79% of the wolf compensation money paid out over the last four years has gone to non-lethal wolf mitigation methods. 

About 9% of the money has gone to reimbursing owners for confirmed wolf kills.

Between 2017 and 2021, Sandau said, the department received $1.6 million in requests from the fund. The department was only able to pay out $725,000 –  about $181,000 a year. 

It didn’t have enough money to reimburse all of the claims for missing cattle that the ranchers had requested. 

“We’ve never been able to meet the full requests since the inception of the program,” Sandau said.

Disappointment on both sides 

The wolf compensation fund aimed to keep both sides happy, allowing the wolves to roam while compensating farmers. The number of wolves in the state has continued to grow since 2009, from 14 wolves to at least 173 by the end of 2019, according to the Fish and Wildlife Department. 

But livestock owners say they are losing a growing number of animals to wolf kills but don’t receive ample compensation. They also say they have to wait a year to be paid because county commissions only get to request the funds once a year.

The overarching thing is that we need to take a step back and review the program. Is it achieving its intended goal? Making sure we’re actually building social tolerance? Like many programs, we don’t think we should add more to the pot until we ensure it’s being spent correctly.

– Danielle Moser, wildlife program coordinator at Oregon Wild

Nash, of Wallowa County, said many ranchers and farmers want to withdraw from the program because of low and slow payouts and are becoming increasingly weary of the state’s protection of wolves.

“It’s really disheartening to not see full support to fully fund the program that pays just a small portion of what we have to put up with and the losses we’ve endured,” Nash said.

For Danielle Moser, a wildlife program coordinator at Oregon Wild, the number of claims for missing livestock against confirmed kills, and the number of wolves in the state, seem disproportionate. She said the fund hasn’t been audited or reviewed since it was created in 2012. 

“The overarching thing is that we need to take a step back and review the program,” Moser said. “Is it achieving its intended goal? Making sure we’re actually building social tolerance? Like many programs, we don’t think we should add more to the pot until we ensure it’s being spent correctly.” 

Testing the ‘social tolerance’ for wolves

Prior to Wednesday’s  hearing, 50 individuals, ranchers, conservation and animal rights groups and a Wallowa County Commission wolf committee member had submitted testimony opposed to the bill. 

Five powerful groups – the Association of Oregon Counties, the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, the Eastern Oregon Counties Association and the Oregon Hunters Association – submitted letters supporting the proposal. 

Nash said many owners believe the state is undercounting wolves and the number of livestock killed by them. 

“I’ve got $500,000 worth of asks and only $100,000 to go around,” said Nash, who is also a county commissioner who helps review reports. But another member of Wallowa County’s Wolf Compensation Committee, Wally Sykes, said he opposes the bill:

“Sometimes I feel the producer is trustworthy, the claim seems reasonable and I support it. Sometimes the claim seems exaggerated and/or doubtful. How to know what became of the missing livestock or, without independent verification, even to know if the counts are accurate? For 2019, Wallowa County ranchers claimed $1,800 in direct losses, $47,000 in indirect losses. The discrepancy seems out of proportion. Even if the stock count is accurate, all missing cattle are not victims of wolf predation.” 

What both groups agree on is that the fund has not led to an acceptance of wolves among ranchers. 

Ranchers in some other states with similar funds have become tolerant of wolves, said Moser of Oregon Wild. But a fund in Wisconsin has some unintended consequences, according to 

Adrian Treves, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab at the university. “The moral hazard is that negligent owners will reduce protections for their domestic animals because they reason the government will pay them anyway,” Treves wrote in testimony.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.