PENDLETON - Approximately 563 gray wolves now call Idaho, Montana and Wyoming home, but some of them may decide to make a move west and become Oregonians.

Dramatic increases in the wolf population as a result of a successful re-introduction program started in 1995 with 66 Canadian gray wolves. The possible migration of some of those wolves into Oregon has prompted the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to schedule 14 public meetings around the state.

The first of the two-hour sessions, titled "A Listening Session on Wolves," was held at the Pendleton Convention Center Tuesday night. Similar sessions are scheduled throughout the state to collect opinions and gather information to help the ODFW determine a plan, should the wolves begin moving into Oregon.

Opinions and information from all the sessions will be presented to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in February 2003.

"We want to hear from Oregonians about the issues of wolves coming into the state," said Craig Ely, ODFW northeast regional supervisor. "We anticipate this issue will be a controversial one."

Oregon has not been home to the gray wolf for more than 70 years, but three wolves were confirmed in the state in 1999 and 2000. All three originated from the packs in the tri-state introduction area. A collared female was sighted, subsequently trapped and returned to the re-introduction area. Another was killed when struck by a car near Baker City and an uncollared male was shot between Pendleton and Ukiah. They could be harbingers of things to come.

"The experts are telling us they will be coming and they will establish a population," said Mark Henjum, ODFW regional biologist. "But we have no plans to actively introduce wolves into Oregon."

Henjum gave a brief slide presentation at the beginning of the meeting that detailed the history of the gray wolf from the time they ranged over nearly all of the United States until 1973, when they were placed on the endangered species list. Wolves in the tri-state re-introduction area are classified as "experimental non-essential" in order to alleviate some of the restrictions on killing or trapping animals. But outside that area they are protected, and anyone killing a wolf could be jailed and fined up to $100,000.

Because the re-introduction has proceeded at a much more rapid pace than expected, the gray wolf is now on the verge of being reclassified as a "threatened" rather than endangered species. To receive this classification the wolves must have established at least 30 breeding pairs producing two pups each per year for a period of three years. The goal is expected to be met this year, Henjum said.

Should this happen, Oregon also will need to make some changes because the gray wolf now is listed as endangered under state mandates and the confusion caused by the conflicting regulations would mean different rules for state, federal and private lands.

The series of ODFW meetings are an attempt to avoid the kind of bitter conflict that occurred in the tri-state area during the re-introduction of the wolves by gathering public opinion before establishing policies for dealing with concerns and management practices of a wolf population.

Following a brief question-and-answer period, the more than 75 people attending Tuesday's meeting broke into smaller groups to discuss concerns.

A common thread seemed to be the already dwindling Oregon elk herds and the economic hardship wolves could cause for livestock producers. People also expressed concern about the need for a strong management plan and identifying funding for such a program.

Although many of those present were openly opposed to the idea of wolves taking up residence in Oregon, that sentiment was by no means a unanimous one. The tone of the meeting seemed to favor compromise and cooperation, with each person being allowed to express an opinion freely.

The next meeting will be held tonight at Eastern Oregon University.

Written comments may be mailed to ODFW, Information and Education Division, P.O. Box 59, Portland, OR 97207-0059, or they can be delivered to any ODFW office, faxed to (503) 872-5700 or e-mailed to ODFW.comments@state.or.us.

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