Sometime around 6 a.m. Sept. 29, a range rider making his rounds through Marr Flat, a remote area 20-odd miles northeast as the crow flies from Joseph, made a gruesome discovery. Riding a four-wheel ATV, he noted an unmoving object just southeast of the corrals.
Upon closer examination, he sees a calf, perhaps two-thirds eaten from back to front. Several calls later, calf owner Todd Nash is apprised as is the Oregon Department of Wildlife.
District wildlife biologist Pat Matthew is contacted to perform an examination of the calf to determine the exact cause of death.
Two of Nash’s cowboys, cousins Wyatt and Clancy Warnock, gather and work cattle that day. They do not disturb the calf, leaving the area as clean as possible for Matthews.
The biologist, a medical examiner of sorts for animals, arrives around 5 p.m. The sun is on the verge of setting and a cold wind is blowing. After some small talk, Matthews drives and the cowboys walk to the calf. Matthews makes a cursory inspection before examining the area for wolf prints and taking pictures when he finds them.
The cowboys do the same with their cell phones, which remarkably, have cell reception in this remote area of Wallowa County.
Everyone meets back at the calf after having found numerous wolf tracks around the carcass. Little remains of the interior of the calf and even the ribs on the right side are eaten nearly to the backbone.
A left rear leg remains intact, and only the portion of the calf from the front legs to the nose seems relatively unscathed. The calf’s hide is examined for puncture and scrape marks. Matthews asks the cowboys for weight estimates, which they offer as 375-425 pounds.
Matthews takes more photos and begins clipping the hide with a pair of shears. More bites and scrapes become evident with the shearing. Those are photographed and measured by Matthews. Much of the hide is skinned from the calf and more shearing ensues as Matthews thoroughly examines the carcass for premortem trauma that will indicate whether the calf was chased down by wolves rather than being scavenged.
Matthews keeps his opinions to himself, and the cowboys are polite and attentive through the process, turning the calf over or helping hold the hide as Matthews works. Talk is pleasant and references either the issue at hand or hunting.
The process takes more than an hour, and it is nearly dark before the biologist is finished. He doesn’t give an indication of his findings but offers to dispose of the carcass, which the cowboys load and watch Matthews drive away.
Not a new experience
The is not new to the Warnocks, who are cousins. Both are working cowboys with good reputations, and they know the country well. They have assisted on nearly a dozen of these incidents in their careers.
“You get a little used to it,” said Wyatt.
Both men think that the calf will go down as a confirmed depredation, although Matthews hadn’t said. Wyatt said the two cowboys have spent the last few days working in the area, and the range rider also makes frequent stops, but he has an idea the Harl Butte Pack might be in the area, which radio collars would subsequently confirm.
“I don’t know if you can blame wolves, but the fact that we’re out as many cows as we are right now, and the cows are getting pushed around and scattered out, you know,” Wyatt Warnock said. “They’re not in the normal places ... There’s all that traffic and they got that (wolf) highway going back and forth at the head of Marr Creek.”
Matthews eventually confirmed the depredation. He spoke of the investigative process, which he’s performed dozens of times, Oct. 2
“Number one, I have to know there are wolves at the site, and tracks tell me that,” he said. “If I just skin the animal, there could be hemorrhaging like we saw on that particular one, and by shaving, those bite marks show up so much better.”
He also said that if there’s bruising on the muscle tissue but no accompanying bite marks on the hide, he can’t confirm a depredation.
“It’s a way of putting a puzzle together and documenting everything with photos so if I end up in court two years from now on that investigation, I can go and look back at my report and the photos,” he said.
That hasn’t happened yet.
For this depredation, Matthews know that a radio-collared wolf from the Harl Butte Pack was in the area at around 6 a.m. the morning the calf was killed, and numerous wolf tracks were found in the vicinity.
“Then it’s a matter of determining whether they killed it or not,” he said. “When we skinned the left back leg, it still had some hide and meat left on it with pretty severe hemorrhaging and bite marks on top of the skin in that location. That tells me these bite marks weren’t from postmortem feeding.”
He also spoke of using his ruler to determine the length and width of tooth scrapes, which can also help determine the type of predator, in this case, a wolf. The ruler in his photos is protection so he isn’t accused of making the bites appear larger or smaller than they are.
Matthews is convinced the evidence, including the fresh carcass, points to a wolf depredation.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that’s what took place,” he said.
Finding a solution
For Nash, this is his second depredation in the same area, the last having taken place in July. He’s been gathering cattle for several weeks from Forest Service leases to private property. About 500 cow and calf pairs are in the area.
“Those wolves have been on Marr Flat for four days,” he said. “They have a whole wilderness to go to, and they’re choosing to go where there’s a concentration of cattle.”
He said that Matthews called him the following Monday and confirmed the depredation.
The rancher said it’s frustrating that much of the depredations get puts back on the rancher as to what non-lethal action is being taking.
“We’ve had someone there every day, and multiple guys there most days,” he said. “You beat the crap out of your rig, burn up fuel and spend your man hours doing that instead of other jobs you should be doing. It’s ridiculous.”
Nash said that taking wolves from the pack incrementally was a ridiculous plan. He noted the ODFW has no idea who the offenders are, and claims all the wolves in the pack are bad at this point. Pup tracks are now among the adults, which indicate to him and other ranchers that the entire pack is compromised. He also said he believes the pack is a remnant of the Imnaha Pack and thus responsible for close to 60 confirmed depredations since 2010.
“If they had done what ranchers requested in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. When a pack becomes depredators, they need to be removed. It’s clean and simple.”
The ODFW met that day and the following day to determine a course of action for the pack.
“If they’re going to take any action –– who knows,” Nash said.
On Oct. 1, another rancher on Marr Flatt found a calf still alive but badly wounded. The incident is under investigation.