It was 3:30 a.m. Friday, March 26, when Karl Patton, a Joseph cattle rancher, knew the wolves were among his newborn calves. Outside the window he kept open as he slept, he heard his three border collies "creating a commotion" and then heard their barking change from aggressive to "getting-away barking."
" I knew at the time it was probably wolves," he said. "I jumped in my coveralls and grabbed my cell phone and pistol and ran out. I could hear the cows calling for their calves in the pasture right next to the house."
Oregon Department of Fish and Game (ODFW) District Biologist Vic Coggins had warned Patton's neighbor, Rod Childers, on March 18 that radio telemetry showed the wolf pack was in the area - four miles east of Joseph on the south end of Zumwalt Prairie. Then, on March 19, some squirrel hunters saw six wolves in the open, in the middle of the day, just up the canyon from Patton's house.
Now, Patton ran through the dark, across the skiff of new-fallen snow, with only his "youngest and dumbest" dog willing to go with him. He was headed toward the sound of his 60 head of distressed mother cows. He'd gone about 100 yards from the house when he saw the wolves.
"The wolves came and they were coming hard," he said.
"Four or more and they were circling us. I just yelled and went to shooting my pistol to scare them off and they turned and ran. My adrenaline was pumping. I don't know if I was scared - I know I wanted the wolves gone. All my cows and calves were in the far corner of the field, bunched tighter than tight, like musk ox do when they face a predator. I was sure we'd find a dead calf."
Patton dialed 911 and then neighboring rancher Rod Childers.
"I wanted confirmation," he said. "I wanted all the official confirmation I could get. I was worried that if I waited and the snow melted so we couldn't see the tracks, ODFW would come out and say we couldn't prove it was wolves."
By morning, Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen, U.S. Department of Agriculture wolf hunter Marlin Riggs and Childers, also wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and vice chairman of the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee, had all seen and documented the wolf tracks. Soon thereafter, ODFW Wolf Program Coordinator Russ Morgan arrived. There were plenty of wolf tracks. Some measured six-and-a-half inches long.
Riggs and Steen also discovered that the wolves had dug up a dead cow Patton had buried about a half mile east of the ranch.
Patton has since moved his burial pit, is digging it deeper and is now armed with tools that will let him know when the wolves come again.
These tools are intended to help him drive off wolves.
He has a "RAG box," a device that sets off an earsplitting alarm that sounds like helicopter blades and gunshots and activates a strobe light when a radio-collared wolf comes within range. He also has a radio that pulses when a collared wolf is within line-of-sight.
It's not as comforting a defense as a loaded rifle, the preferred wolf deterrent of many ranchers.
If the wolves ignore or skirt the RAG box, or if a non-collared wolf arrives, Patton's newborn calves could be torn to pieces before he got close enough to wave his arms and shout.
Furthermore, Patton said, he is already courting disease by keeping his new calves together in the eight-acre pasture near the house. Ideally, calves should be out on broad pastures with plenty of room between them - broad pastures like the one he intends to move his cattle to soon, where wolves have been repeatedly recorded present - too far out for him to hear any commotion outside his bedroom window.
Not 30 hours previous to Patton's experience with wolves, approximately 60 people had gathered at Enterprise's OK Theatre for a special showing of the documentary film, "Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators" and hear a panel of wildlife experts and cattlemen discuss the wolf issue.
At that showing and discussion, the audience was told that the issue was more one of fear than actual danger, the killing of 30 sheep in Keating Valley near Baker City last April was a rare case that had been blown out of proportion by the media, and that only a negligible percentage of cattlemen had any trouble with wolves - just one percent of cattle ranchers according to Idaho statistics.
That last statistic is useless, said Oregon Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who has been "struggling to educate" west side legislators about the true cost of wolves. "That one percent counts every cow in the state, including cattle in feedlots and every dairy cow, it just doesn't make sense," he said.
"Many west side legislators are not having to deal with wolves on a day-to-day basis and their attitude is, 'we'll just have to deal with it.' But they don't understand the livestock industry and the impact this is having on these real business owners," he said.
A more useful statistic would be the percentage of cattlemen in areas where wolves range who have lost calves to wolves, Childers said.
Wolves may be new in Wallowa County, he said, but he has approximately 1,000 pictures of wolf attacks on livestock and wildlife sent to him by ranchers, hunters and others from nearby states.
Even the wolf's best defender, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, reports verified kills of more than 3,800 cattle, sheep or other domestic stock from 1987 to 2009 - nearly 300 in 2009.
Ranchers say that number is a fraction of the actual kills.
"Twenty to 25 percent of what we believe are wolf kills are verified in Idaho," said Childers. Keating Valley rancher Tic Moore lost five calves during the time when two wolves were on a killing rampage in his immediate vicinity. Only one calf was a "verified" wolf kill.
The impact of wolves is sufficient that if Wallowa County cattle ranchers suffer what Idaho ranchers or even Oregon ranchers like Tic Moore have suffered, many will go out of business, Childers said.
Moore told the audience at the OK Theatre that he had suffered a 2.5 percent loss with the loss of his five calves. He was not compensated for the full value of even one calf, he said. Furthermore, his 2.5 percent loss estimate did not include the cost of veterinary bills, the loss of a year of planning and management, the loss of production on the mother cows that he fed for a year, the cost of his bull and the cost of the normal care of the animals for that year.
To put that 2.5 percent loss in perspective, one must understand the very narrow margins by which small cattle operations survive, Childers said.
"The profit margin for small ranchers like Karl Patton and me is 4.5 percent," he said. Childers and Patton each run about 400 cows. "If we lose 2.5 percent consistently, some of us will go out of business. And we're ranchers whose wives have outside jobs to help pay the bills."
No one seems to want the ranchers to go out of business. ODFW has twice attempted to have the Oregon Wolf Plan amended to allow ranchers to take a wolf attacking their livestock and to compensate them for loss. The Oregon Cattleman's Association attempted to lobby for these same changes last legislative session. Defenders of Wildlife states that its goal is to "shift the economic responsibility for wolf recovery from the individual rancher to the millions of people who want to see the wolf population restored."
Ranchers themselves say the same thing.
"Just give us the tools to deal with this," said Tic Moore at the OK Theatre presentation.
"I just want to be able to defend my own property," said Patton.