State report questions federal wolf investigations

PORTLAND — A new report from a wolf management review panel says state and federal biologists are unreasonably far apart in determining the cause of cattle deaths, stating that national scientists have reached "difficult to understand" conclusions that would financially benefit cattlemen and could harm wolves.

The report scheduled to be presented today to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission states that some findings reached by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services appeared "to be inconsistent with evidence presented and in a number of instances appeared to be the result of misidentification of evidence."

At stake are set-aside state funds that would reimburse cattlemen if the state determines wolves were behind a livestock kill. Also, ranchers with such claims could be allowed to take potentially lethal deterrent measures.

State wildlife biologists have been far more cautious in their assessments of canine guilt than their federal counterparts.

Further, the report notes confusion about how state and federal agencies reached different conclusions based on the same data, calling into question federal determinations.

"The panel found it difficult to understand how (Wildlife Services) investigators reached their conclusions from their written reports," according to the report.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife identified 33 livestock kill investigations, 10 of which were confirmed wolf kills. But in at least three instances where state biologists said the source of a livestock death couldn't be determined, federal biologists said they found conclusive evidence of wolf culpability.

"There's several instances and cases where you have differences of professional opinion," said Wildlife Services state director Dave Williams on Thursday. "We have a long history of working together on all types of wildlife management plans."

The $100,000 compensation fund, established by the Legislature in 2011, is controlled by the Oregon Department of Agriculture but will be administered on the local level by county committees.

Ranchers who have lost livestock or who plan to install deterrents such as special fencing must file claims with county committees, which in turn must apply for money on Feb. 15 each year. Also, 33 ranchers have obtained state permits that would let them kill wolves seen biting or killing livestock, but ranchers have to visually witness the attack. Wolves typically hunt at night.

Sean Stevens, spokesman for conservation group Oregon Wild, said the report calls the Wildlife Services investigations' credibility into question.

"What this panel report shows is Wildlife Services isn't following evidence in reaching their conclusions," Stevens said.

The panel's report comes days after Oregon's most famous wolf, called OR-7, crossed into California.

OR-7 left the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon last September, shortly before the state put a death warrant on his father — the pack's alpha male— and a sibling for killing cattle.

He is a descendant of wolves introduced into the Northern Rockies in the 1990s, and represents the westernmost expansion of a regional population that now tops 1,650.

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