Oregon cowboy rides range to help track wolves

Oregon cowboy rides range to help track wolves
A range rider monitors cattle and wolf activity in Wallowa County. Photo by Diana Hunter

ENTERPRISE, Ore. (AP) — Jason Cunningham is a true Wallowa County cowboy. This summer he is putting skills he's honed throughout his life to help monitor and track wolves on public lands. For the past four weeks he's camped out with cows grazing in wolf territory.

Cunningham is the area's range rider.

The range rider program is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and supported by Defenders of Wildlife. High atop the Divide country, Cunningham rides old logging roads looking for signs of wolves with a radio receiver and his eyes peeled for wolf tracks, scat and depredated livestock and game.

Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife said the range rider program has been in effect in Idaho and Montana for a few years. With Oregon's burgeoning wolf population, the range rider is one more non-lethal wolf management tool that ranchers and agencies are employing.

PHOTO GALLERY: Photos of range riders, Oregon wolf pups and wildlife biologists

Cunningham hasn't found much in the way of depredation, though he rides more than 12 hours a day four days a week. The country he monitors has steep canyons and thick timber, much of it 20-year growth in an area that was severely burned by a forest fire in 1989.

Stone admits the country is much more rugged than where range riders have been used in Idaho and Montana, but he is optimistic that a human presence will reduce wolf-livestock conflict.

Stone traveled from her office in Boise this week to meet with ranchers, biologists, wildlife activists, representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, ODFW and law enforcement Monday to evaluate the range rider operation.

"We discussed what needs to be expanded on and whether or not to extend the program through November," Stone said.

The wolf issue has been a concern for Eastern Oregonians for more than a decade. When wolves were released into Yellowstone and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s, many were keenly aware that they would eventually migrate to Oregon.

By 2005 the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was rolled out, not without a lot of compromise by all parties involved. The plan is currently under revision, but questions have arisen how it will be used now that the wolves have been re-listed under the federal endangered species list.

"On a daily basis most activities will not change," said Russ Morgan, ODFW wolf coordinator. "We will work cooperatively with USFW to track wolf locations and communicate them with the stockgrowers."

Besides Cunningham serving as a range rider in the Imnaha pack territory, ODFW has employed another temporary employee to work at night monitoring the whereabouts of the Imnaha pack. Soon, Morgan will have a full-time assistant to help him keep track of the two known packs in Wallowa County and other wolf reports around Northeast Oregon.

ODFW hired an intern to study the Wenaha pack and just last week a wolf was trapped and collared, helping the agency follow the movements of those wolves for the first time.

Wolves travel amazing distances in a short time, making the job a difficult one even with increased staff and radio collars. Typically, they shy away from humans and can be difficult to come across.

In the canyon country Cunningham rides, the line-of-sight radio receiver he uses can't pick up signals more than a few miles away. Due to the rugged country, sometimes a wolf must be as close as three quarters of a mile to pick up a signal.

For several months wolf stories have dominated the headlines of the front pages of local newspapers and have been the topic of conversation at coffee shops in Wallowa County. Often, Eastern Oregonians worry about the lack of empathy received from the populated parts of the state. There's a sense that the Willamette Valley residents don't understand how life is different east of the Cascades or are even interested.

This week, in conjunction with the range rider evaluation by a variety of stakeholders, Oregon Public Broadcasting sent a crew to cover the program and the wolf story in general. The crew will return next week to continue its coverage. The stories will air on OPB Radio's news programs and on its television show, "Oregon Field Guide."

Todd Nash of Marr Flat Cattle Co. was interviewed at Salt Creek Summit Monday by OPB's television crew regarding his involvement with the range rider program. Cunningham works for Nash on his public allotment and is paid by the cattle company. Nash will be reimbursed by joint federal and state funding.

"I'm on board with trying the program," Nash said. "I have 200 head on the allotment and 350 elsewhere that need looking after. This frees me up from coming out every day."

Last year Nash was missing 20 calves, 15 more than his average, when they were brought in from the range. At that time he thought there were one or two wolves near his cattle, but a video taken by ODFW last winter documented 10. One of the pack's rendezvous sites is among Nash's cattle.

"I had one of the six confirmed calves killed by wolves this year," Nash said. "Last spring I was putting a lot of miles on my pickup looking for more dead calves and trying to get out there to head them off."

Finding dead calves was much easier when cattle were on private land in the Wallowa Valley this spring. Much of Nash's allotment is in doghair lodgepole, which is virtually impossible to ride through or even walk.

"Finding dead calves in thick timber, the chances are slim to none," Nash said.

He also isn't convinced that a human presence is a deterrent.

"What I understand from Idaho and Montana ranchers, predation has occurred right next to houses," he said.

Yet Nash is willing go along with the range rider program and other non-lethal tools to manage wolves.

"I would hope Jason can find what they are eating," Nash said.

Only one elk depredation has been confirmed and one probable in the area Cunningham is riding, Nash said.

"Most ranchers won't know until November," Nash said, "when the cattle are brought back in what the losses are."

Rod Childers, Oregon Cattlemen's Association wolf committee chairman, is also a permittee on public land. Though unsure of its effectiveness, Childers supports the range rider program.

"We need to utilize every technique. It's something we have to try. There's possibly a chance we can save a calf or two. It should help, but whether it will or not, we don't know.

"We're new to this and wolves are new to Oregon, but it's a national problem, not just one for Oregon."

(Copyright 2010 The Associated Press)