When wolves returned to Wallowa County in the early 2000s, ranchers absorbed the cost when one of their livestock became dinner.
As the only county in the state that harbored a permanent wolf population, leaders decided something needed to be done.
The county formed the Wallowa County Wolf Compensation Committee in 2011 at the suggestion of local rancher Dennis Sheehy. According to county commissioner Susan Roberts, the idea began as a community alliance livestock fund to help producers who were hardest hit by depredations.
Eventually, a committee of nine was formed. Eventually the idea came to the attention of the Oregon Legislature.
“We said, ‘Hey, the state has determined we need wolves and here’s how they can help,’” Roberts said.
The legislature ultimately mandated seven-member committees for counties with wolves –– two members from the wolf conservation community, two livestock producers and a county commissioner or designee. That group of five would select two members from the local business community.
As the wolf population spread, additional counties have looked to Wallowa County as a model of management.
“We have shared our methods, forms and papers with anyone who asks for them, so they wouldn’t have to start from scratch,” Roberts said.
The Claims Committee determines the monetary value of depredation losses.
“Knowing ranchers, knowing conditions: it’s all part of the equation,” Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash said.
The group meets annually and uses August as its reference point.
“Usually, by August, you know how the markets are going to be for that year,” Nash said. “We try not to take the high or low, we decide on a reasonable price.”
Market rate for beef doesn’t determine the damage amount. For example, if a 100-pound calf is killed, the damages aren’t set in the $150-$200 range the calf might have brought at auction.
“We don’t sell those calves,” Nash said. “We consider that he would have made it to weaning at 600 pounds.”
A weaned calf depredation that made it through fall might be considered at 800 pounds. Replacement heifers, cows, bred cows and registered livestock present other mitigating factors. Stock dogs and horses are occasional victims and merit compensation.
Current committee members also include Wally Sykes, an original member, and Jacob Johansen from the conservation community, Larry Snook and Bill Phinney from the business community. Jill McClaran and Levi Hermens represent livestock producers.
When a claim is submitted, the county contracts with a member of the Soil and Water Conservation District, Cynthia Warnock, to complete the paperwork.
Warnock collects the paperwork and hands it to Roberts, who reviews the filing before handing it off to the claims committee.
The paperwork details the type of nonlethal deterrents and other preventatives the rancher used, such as increasing patrols, using the range rider and others.
A pasture rotation form is also used, and the claimant writes a narrative as well as having a third party verify a stock count in the spring before cattle are let loose on allotments as well as a third party to verify the stock arriving in the fall.
Additional paperwork includes the rancher having a verifiable and detailed history of livestock loss on a particular range to make a claim that they suffered additional losses since wolves migrated to the county.
“This takes agreement and buy-in from the livestock producer to say, ‘OK, that’s an added thing I have to do, but I understand, and I’m going to do it,’” Roberts said. “Most producers worth anything already keep excellent records anyway.”
Thus far, no depredation claim has been turned down, but several have been reduced from the original request.
Roberts said she has never seen what she considers an outrageous claim. For some ranchers, reimbursement sometimes falls short of full restitution.
The fund is administrated by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Part of the funding is for nonlethal deterrents, such as paying the range rider and providing his equipment, among others.
This year, the county received its full funding of $63,500, $55,000 is for nonlethal deterrents. The remaining funds are tagged for direct-loss compensation. The federal government has also pitched in an extra $13,500 for nonlethal purposes.
Roberts said the compensation program is marginally successful.
“It does help offset some of the losses ranchers suffer,” she said. “It’s one of those questions that has no good answers.”