House passes bill paying ranchers for livestock killed by wolves

House passes bill paying ranchers for livestock killed by wolves
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SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon House unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to pay ranchers for livestock lost to wolves moving into the state.

The legislation had appeared dead, but was revived after ranchers, conservation groups, and the governor's office spent three days in a closed room last week hammering out details of the $100,000 package widely deemed crucial to getting ranchers on board with restoring wolf packs that were bounty-hunted to extinction in Oregon in the early 20th century.

Chief sponsor Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said it is a promising compromise between groups that started off far apart, but ultimately ranchers may have to be given broader rights to shoot wolves. Another bill will be introduced when lawmakers come back in February.

"I think it's important that property owners be able to protect their property, and that's definitely an item where we'll keep up a discussion," he said.

Bill Hoyt, a Cottage Grove cattle rancher and president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said the bill was a good compromise, but the fund would likely have to grow as wolves expand their range. He added that the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife was shutting off their payments to ranchers in September.

While the conservation group Oregon Wild supports the idea of paying ranchers for livestock lost to wolves, it objects to the idea that more money is going to ranchers than protecting the wolves, said spokesman Sean Stevens.

Stevens noted that ranchers turned down a state compensation fund in 2005 when the wolf management plan was adopted.

House Bill 3560 would direct the Oregon Department of Agriculture to establish and implement a wolf depredation fund providing $100,000 to be used for grants to counties dealing with wolf issues. Most of the money would go to paying ranchers, including cases where wolves are not proven responsible. Some would pay for non-lethal protection measures, such as range riders.

The federal government reintroduced wolves into the Northern Rockies in the 1990s and in recent years some have been moving across the Snake River into Oregon, establishing at least two packs and maybe a third that divides its time between Oregon and Washington. They hit a high of 24 individuals, but have since fallen to 14.

Since Congress took the wolf off the federal endangered species list, Oregon has taken over responsibility. Wolves remain on the state's protected species list. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife killed two this year from the Imnaha pack after it was blamed for livestock kills in Wallowa County. And two dozen ranchers have been given permits to shoot wolves attacking their herds.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill this week.

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AP Environmental Writer Jeff Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Ore.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.