SALEM — Two Oregon lawmakers plan to introduce bills that would ratify the decision by state wildlife officials to delist wolves as an endangered species.
The proposals, which will be considered during the upcoming legislative session in February, are planned by Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, in reaction to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
In November 2015, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to delist the wolves under the state’s version of the Endangered Species Act after several criteria for their recovery had been met.
Under a management plan for wolves first created in 2005, the species could be delisted after having established four breeding pairs for three years and no longer facing a substantial risk of extinction in a significant portion of its range, among other criteria.
Wolves were delisted by the federal government in the easternmost portion of the state, but remain protected in the rest. Oregon wildlife officials have the jurisdiction over those wolves under the state ESA.
However, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and the Center for Biological Diversity recently challenged the state’s delisting decision in court, arguing the decision unlawfully ignored the best available science about wolf recovery.
The bills, which will be introduced in the House and Senate, will provide the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife — which is overseen by the commission — more ammunition in defending itself in court, Barreto said.
“We’re shoring up what the commission has already decided,” he said during a Jan. 14 hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Oregon has 81 documented wolves, but the actual population is likely in the range of 100-120 animals and a delisting is necessary for the ODFW to eventually manage the species, said Sen. Hansell.
Such management could involve hunting to keep populations in check
Ranchers in Oregon have abided by restrictions on wolf management for the past 10 years, so now that the criteria for delisting have been met, the state government should uphold the wolf plan’s credibility, said Rocky Dallum, political advocate for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
“The goal was to strike a balance between reestablishing wolves in Oregon and meeting the needs of those producers,” he said.
During the decade that the plan has been in place, ranchers have felt a great deal of “heartburn” as state wildlife officials have refused to remove wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock, said Todd Nash, a rancher and chairman of the OCA’s wolf committee.
The wolf plan should be followed as planned rather than allowing the courts to take over the process, he said. “I want to bring some sanity to this and let the scientists and wildlife managers manage, instead of some conservation groups and a judge.”
Environmental groups oppose the proposed legislation, claiming that it will unnecessarily interfere with the authority of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Oregon has fewer than 90 wolves, but the state could sustain up to 1,400 of them, said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild.
Currently, the species occupies only 12 percent of its potential habitat, he said. “The status of wolves in Oregon is still tenuous.”
In the past year, wolves have only been confirmed to have killed four cows, while the state has more than 1.3 billion cattle, he said. The cattle industry generatied more than $1 billion in revenues, making it Oregon’s top agricultural sector.
“The industry’s growth has not been stymied by the arrival of wolves,” Stevens said.
The proposed bills would set a dangerous precedent of the legislature inserting itself into delisting decisions on a species-by-species basis, said Quinn Read, Northwest representative of the Defenders of Wildlife environmental group.
“We’re concerned by initiatives that would circumvent the (wolf) plan,” she said.
Scott Beckstead, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group, said he’s worried about the possibility of trophy hunting of wolves in Oregon.
Hunters in Idaho, where such hunting is allowed, have demonstrated a “cruelty and depravity” in killing wolves that wouldn’t be tolerated by the public in Oregon, he said.
“It’s certainly something I don’t want to see in Oregon, and I worry about us heading down that path,” Beckstead said.