Cliff Bentz apparently thinks we can educate wolves not to prey on livestock by killing them.
"If we want wolves to serve their ecological purpose, they will eat elk, not cows and sheep," Bentz, a Republican state representative from Ontario, said on Friday. The occasion was the passage of HB 4158, a bill sponsored by Bentz and eight other representatives - including our old friend Gene Whisnant from Sunriver.
HB 4158, introduced at the behest of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, allows the killing of wolves that kill livestock, no matter what the Endangered Species Act or Oregon's own wolf management plan might say. The short-term practical effect of it will be the elimination of the four remaining wolves in the Imnaha pack, which lives in northeastern Oregon.
The language of the bill laughably declares that it's essential for "the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety," but it's hard to see how the 23 gray wolves currently inhabiting Oregon are a significant threat to anybody.
In 2011, Oregon wolves killed a total of 25 cows - out of a state cow population of roughly 1.3 million. Only 39 domestic animals have been killed by wolves since the first wolf arrived in Oregon almost 12 years ago. Susan Stone of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife testified that wolves are responsible for less than 1 percent of the livestock deaths in the state; coyotes alone kill 10 times as much. And there have been only two documented fatal wolf attacks on humans in the entire history of North America. (For comparison, there have been at least 20 fatal cougar attacks since 1890.)
Looking at the situation rationally, HB 4158 and other anti-wolf measures making their way through the legislature are overkill. Under the state's wolf management plan wildlife officials already can kill wolves that prey on livestock, and any human who's threatened by a wolf has the right to kill the animal. There's also a mechanism for compensating ranchers for cattle and sheep lost to wolves. (Maybe the mechanism could stand improvement; that's something the legislature should look at.)
But it's obvious from the statements of the ranchers who support HB 4158 and the other anti-wolf measures that rationality isn't what this debate is about. What it's about is an ancient, irrational hatred and fear of wolves - hatred and fear that won't be appeased until the last Oregon wolf has been exterminated.
Wolves are carnivorous predators and, given the opportunity, some of them will kill cows and sheep; that's a fact of nature. Cougars and coyotes kill livestock too. But we've learned to live with cougars and coyotes, and we can learn to live with wolves. There are many ways to deal with livestock predation short of gunning down every wolf seen on this side of the border.
But we'll never develop a rational approach to the problem as long as politicians pander to the irrational, the-only-good-wolf-is-a-dead-wolf mentality of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and its allies. So we're giving HB 4158 and all of its supporters THE BOOT.