State lawmakers get the local ‘wolf tour’

<p>State senators Bill Hansell (far left) and Jackie Dingfelder (far right) converse during Saturday's wolf tour with Brett Brownscombe, natural resources policy advisor for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. This photo was taken down one slope of the Cat's Back on The Divide.</p>

THE DIVIDE – Three Oregon lawmakers took a whirlwind tour Saturday of some of Wallowa County’s more wide-open spaces where stockgrowers must cope with depredating wolves.

The lawmakers – senators Jackie Dingfelder and Bill Hansell, and Rep. Bob Jenson – were part of a larger group of government officials and stockgrower advocates interested in addressing issues arising from Oregon’s growing wolf population.

Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts, one of the people on the tour, said the group visited the operations of Todd Nash, Eric Porter, Scott Shear, and Karl and Karen Patton, located (in no particular order) in the Zumwalt Prairie area, on The Divide, and on Tucker Down Road east of Joseph.

While they were on The Divide, a strong, cold wind induced the group to seek relief from it by walking a little way down one sloping side of the “Cat’s Back,” a road-topped ridge. There, taking advantage of the wind break afforded by a basalt formation, approximately a dozen members of the tour took part in what Hansell later dubbed the “discussion on the ledge.”

Roberts said sweeping views of the landscape helped local people already familiar with the wolf problem to show first-time visitors to the area how daunting a challenge it can be to monitor for wolves with only two range riders.

Sunday morning, April 14, after Hansell and Dingfelder visited Wallowa Lake Dam (see related story), they resumed discussion of wolves at Enterprise’s Cloverleaf Hall, where several members of Wallowa County’s wolf compensation committee shared their perspectives on what has been an evolutionary process: developing protocols and valuation formulas for responding to wolves’ livestock depredations.

Hansell, whose Senate district includes Wallowa County, noted the county was the state’s first to form a compensation committee, and that Umatilla County, the second to the task, was able to use much of what Wallowa County had already worked out.

Another visitor, Brett Brownscombe, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s advisor on natural resources policy, agreed that what Wallowa County had produced was “a potential model for the rest of the state.”

Cynthia Warnock, the county wolf committee’s staff person, briefly related the group’s history, which actually began the year before the state’s 2011 legislation offered any guidance.

In charting its own course, Wallowa County established two committees on wolves – the compensation committee, which sets policy and guidelines, and a claims committee, which commissioner Roberts says is a group of five livestock producers deciding outcomes of individual claims.

The compensation committee originally held nine members, but that was reduced to seven in line with later-emerging state requirements.

In 2012, the local compensation forces began considering “indirect” losses, allowing producers to seek compensation if a significantly reduced number of their animals survive to be gathered from the range. A minimum requirement for qualifying: enlisting a third party – not a family member – to count the cattle when they are turned out to range, and to count them again when they are gathered.

Some Wallowa County producers have begun following this procedure, but Oregon Cattlemen’s Association president Curtis Martin, a resident of the North Powder area, said he was personally put off by it. “That’s bizarre, folks... We’re getting into the Twilight Zone, seriously,” he told Sunday’s gathering.

Martin and fellow OCA officer Rod Childers both made pitches to visiting officials to give ranchers more leeway in dealing with wolves. A “permitless take” bill introduced by Rep. Jenson would let ranchers shoot wolves that have been harassing their livestock. A different version of the bill introduced earlier in the Oregon Senate was considerably more restrictive, only allowing wolves to be shot while caught in the act of attacking livestock.

Sen. Dingfelder, a Portland Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee – the Senate panel that can boost or kill the chances of any wolf-related measure – noted during a Sunday interview that stockgrowers had in past years testified in outright opposition to wolves. More recently, though, she and other lawmakers have been hearing ranchers concede that wolves are here to stay. “In my mind, that’s been a positive step,” she said.

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