By John L. Braese
VALE – For the first time in recent history, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed a wolf kill of six cattle.
The cattle are all owned by Rancher Bill Butler, who said last week he suspects wolves are responsible for killing up to seven of his cattle on pastureland near Beulah Reservoir.
In one instance, a sheriff’s deputy examined the remains of a 500-pound calf.
“I find the death of this calf to be caused by a wolf or wolves,” Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Speelman stated in his report.
His findings contradict those of agents from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The agency attributed the deaths of six cattle to “other” causes but specifically ruled out wolves. As a result, Butler isn’t eligible for compensation from a special state fund set up for ranchers.
“The fact the two reports come to different conclusions is frustrating,” said Sheriff Brian Wolfe. “The sheriff’s office has staff that are educated in this area and continue to receive ongoing training.”
Butler brought the wolf issue into the open last week. He asked the Malheur County Court to end its contract with a federal agency intended to help spare ranchers from predation.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Malheur Enterprise that the last confirmed siting of a wolf in the county occurred in April 2015.
A young male wolf identified as OR 22 spent a considerable amount of time in the area between Adrian and Vale. The collared wolf, a part of the Umatilla pack, was seen by farmers and state wildlife employees.
Although OR 22 was not traced to any local cattle kills, cattlemen worried until the transient male moved on.
Cattlemen may now have a new, bigger worry depending on which agency investigates the recent deaths.
After discovering the calf, Butler says he called the sheriff’s office to investigate. Along with the sheriff’s office, state wildlife officials and representatives from U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife arrived.
A federal fish and wildlife official told county commissioners last week that his agency didn’t do a report on the cattle death.
Reports from the first reported death on Sept. 4 obtained by the Enterprise show the conflicting conclusions by the sheriff’s office and the state wildlife investigators.
In a one-page report, state Fish and Wildlife reported that “an examination of the hide and skinned carcass found evidence of bite marks around the udder, the back, face and neck. None of the bite marks showed premortem hemorrhaging indicating all are from postmortem scavenging.”
The report, filed by Scott Torland and supervisor Phillip Milburn, stated there was no evidence of a wolf presence near the animal and there has been no recent wolf depredation in the area.
Torland didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
The report said that “evidence collected is adequate to determine that the death of the calf was not wolf-related.”
Speelman’s 14-page report stated that Butler Ranch workers found the dead calf, covered it with a tarp, and immediately reported the incident. Aside from the mother cow, no other cattle were in the area.
When found, the calf had fresh open wounds on the right flank and teat area. There was also injury to the nose of the calf and no coyotes had been seen in the area. He documented what he said were other bite and teeth marks.
“The measurements between the tooth scrapes/bite marks are consistent with an adolescent wolf and a mature wolf. The amount of tooth scrapes/bite marks on the calf’s body are consistent with a wolf or wolves chasing/pursuing this calf and attempting to bite it trying to take it down to the ground,” his report said.
The area where the calf was discovered was about 20 feet from a timbered area.
Speelman reported that he informed Torland and Milburn that “I hope their report is truthful and accurate.”
Speelman also examined the mother cow, discovering teeth and bite marks on the lower rib and right hip.
On four later deaths, state officials continued to conclude “other” causes.
State Fish and Wildlife attributed one death of a 1,200-pound cow on Oct. 17 to the cow “breaking through the fence and struggling on the ground adjacent to the fence.” A 625-pound steer found on Oct. 19 was attributed to “mud in the calf’s trachea” from a small watering hole, according to the state report.
Wolfe said his office had training scheduled for both his staff and livestock producers set for January, but due to the recent occurrences, he is attempting to schedule the training later this month.
“These are experts from Canada coming to train,” Wolfe said. “We have a good grip on what is going on and our findings on these kills are rock solid.”
Wolfe said there are several reasons the kills occurring at one ranch.
“His ranch sits on the edge of timberland, prime wolf habitat,” said Wolfe. “He also checks his animals every day either by four-wheeler or helicopter and runs cattle over a large amount of land. We expect as cattle come in for the winter, we will receive reports from other producers.”
Wolfe said both deer and elk hunters in the past few weeks have reported sightings of wolves in the same area. Multiple reports of wolf tracks have also been documented during the recent hunting season.
Wolfe met with state officials last week to discuss the differing findings. Wolfe insists his agency has it right.
“I think any reasonable person would say this is most probably a wolf,” he said. “When we presented our evidence to experts, they believe it is most likely two adults with pups in the area and the adults are teaching the pups. “I don’t even think we have seen the tip of the iceberg on this deal.”
Wolfe is urging producers to call the sheriff’s office whenever a dead animal is found.