Pat Matthews could see that something had struggled for its life in the Northeast Oregon forest cattle grazing area, bleeding in at least seven different places, and that its carcass had been dragged away.
But what that unlucky animal had been and what led to its death weren’t clear — there wasn’t any body for him to identify, much less to perform a postmortem on.
No flanks to check for bite marks and no tooth gaps to measure, nor the “grape-jelly” effect that happens when predators bite living animals in the webbing between upper legs.
ODFW’S OFFICIAL DETERMINATION IN THE SEPT. 4 DEPREDATION IN THE DEVILS RUN CREEK DRAINAGE PUTS THE BLAME SQUARELY ON A WOLF ATTACK, BUT WOULD NOT HAVE HAD IT NOT BEEN FOR THE FORTUITOUS TIMING AND PICTURES OF A BOWHUNTER WHO STUMBLED UPON THE ATTACK IN PROGRESS. (ODFW)
There was a potential victim and suspects, however.
He was at the remote site in Joseph Creek’s headwaters on Sept. 6 to investigate a reported calf depredation two days before.
Wolves had been there.
Along with tracks that Matthews found, telemetry data from three different times two days before put OR42, a member of the Chesnimnus Pack, within 350 and 600 yards of the struggle.
But that wasn’t enough for the Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist to make an official determination.
“From my standpoint, I needed more evidence,” Matthews told the La Grande Observer for a story this week.
The case might have gone unresolved had it not been for the fortuitous timing of an archer.
TOM OLSON AND HIS HUNTING PARTNER were tracking different groups of bull elk early the morning of Sunday, September 4 when they heard bawling nearby.
“I thought it sounded like a dying turkey vulture, but my friend said it sounded like a cow,” Olson told the newspaper.
Together they looked towards the noises and saw what they at first thought were six coyotes jumping in the grass but through binoculars determined were wolves, according to the story.
Olson went back to his rig for his camera phone and drove closer to the scene. On foot from a football field’s length away, he zoomed in as best he could and took images of the wolves, which were now bedded in the grass, the paper reported.
One eventually got up and circled around the herd of cattle, apparently without causing much of a stir, and then it decided to take a closer look at Olson and his partner, the Observer wrote.
A warning shot cleared it and the rest of the pack out.
The two hunters went to where the wolves had been and found a dead month-old calf. Its entrails had been eaten, according to the story.
Olson also took numerous pictures of the calf and scene, several of which would become key to Matthews’ investigation.
Later in the day, Olson and his partner ran into a local hunter who would go on to figure out who owned the cattle, the McClaren Ranch, and alert them to the depredation.
Two days later Matthews arrived, but putting it all together would take another month.
ODFW REPORTS THAT IT RECEIVED Olson’s pics in early October, and that the area matched Matthews’ shots from the scene the month before.
Supporting the seven spots of blood on the ground that Matthews had found, Olson’s images showed “bloodstaining in the jaw and throat area [of the calf] with no apparent open wound or feeding activity, which would indicate a premortem injury.”
In other words, the animal that had been attacked in the grass had been a cow calf that was alive at the time of the attack.
The telemetry data, tracks and Olson’s pics put wolves at the site, and additionally, the Observer reported that one of the hunter’s photos showed a wolf with blood on its face.
In witnessing a rarely seen but increasingly frequent event to the Northwest, Olson and his hunting partner provided key evidence that helped pin the blame on the right party.
“No determination would have been made without the pictures,” Matthews tells Northwest Sportsman, “because there would have been no way to know what was killed or fed on by the wolves — cattle, elk, deer?”
It was a calf in fact, and he was able to circle “confirmed wolf” as the cause of its death.