There is a lot of bad news coming out of Salem and the state legislature on the environment these days. One deeply cynical ploy—taking health care in Oregon hostage to try and force more clear-cutting on state lands—has generated headlines and public outrage, but it isn’t the only attack on the environment this session. The worst may be HB 4158, a measure that would declare a “state of emergency” in Oregon in order to immediately exempt our state’s 29 wild gray wolves from state Endangered Species Act protections so they can be shot.
After exterminating wolves from Oregon in 1947 to pave the way for a more lucrative livestock industry, the Beaver State is now home to only 4 known packs.
In a state that prides ourselves on our conservation ethic and connection to the outdoors, the elimination of wolves in the last century is an environmental tragedy. Their recovery has the potential to be one of our greatest conservation success stories. But that won’t happen if the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) and their allies in Salem have their way.
In what’s become an annual affair, the OCA and the legislators who promote their agenda have introduced a wolf-kill bill and more tax breaks for their already heavily subsidized industry. In previous years, we’ve seen bills that would make poaching laws unenforceable or allow them to be killed if they get too near a structure. This year, rather than the Three Little Pigs bill, they’ve introduced the Chicken Little Bill.
HB 4158 is a hysterical piece of legislation, but not in a funny way. Not only does the bill threaten Oregon’s fragile wolf recovery, it sets a dangerous precedent for all wildlife. HB 4158 declares that the 29 wolves now residing in Oregon constitutes a “state of emergency”, and as a result immediately strips them of state Endangered Species Act protection. This would pave the way for members of the Imnaha Pack (or any other wolf pack in the state) to be shot despite their endangered status. In a bit of Orwellian double-speak, the original text of the bill declared that shooting wolves is the same as conserving them.
If passed, HB 4158 would set an awful precedent and open a Pandora’s box of copy-cat measures exempting other inconvenient species. Endangered salmon getting in the way of a plan to clear-cut forests? Declare a state of emergency! Protection for humpback whales restricting energy development on the coast? Emergency! Want to pave over an old-growth forest that contains spotted owls? Go to the legislature and declare an emergency!
Oregon’s state Endangered Species Act has long been known as a relatively weak law, especially when compared to national standards. But it does include the most fundamental protection – the state can’t purposely kill an endangered species. HB 4158 would change that.
It is important to put the wolf issue in perspective. Oregon is currently home to just 29 known wolves. On the other hand, we have approximately 1.3 million cows. In 2010, over 50,000 died before they made it to the slaughterhouse - lost to poisoning, bad weather, disease, domestic dogs, and even human thieves. Less than 3 dozen cows have been killed by wolves in the last 3 years. Yet during that time, the OCA has relentlessly pressured the state to kill wolves at every opportunity while rejecting offers to work on collaborative solutions with conservation groups.
They are badly out of step with the majority of Oregonians. Time and time again, the public has spoken out strongly in favor conserving and restoring our native wildlife, including gray wolves. With the state facing a major budget crisis and more than enough serious problems to address in the short session, is it really appropriate to interrupt the important business of the legislature to rush through such a controversial measure?
But more troubling than OCA’s relentless push to shoot more wildlife is the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources’ willingness to entertain such measures. Over the last several years, this committee – now co-chaired by Brian Clem and Sal Esquivel - has become known as the rubber stamp for anti-wildlife bills, earning it the dubious reputation as the committee where Oregon’s wildlife goes to die.
Thankfully, the Oregon Senate has been a more responsible body, and most of the recent anti-wildlife legislation has stopped there. But that hasn’t stopped the OCA from trying, and in the case of HB 4158, they appear to be going for broke. It is unclear if the Senate will stop this reckless legislation, and there is a very real chance that anti-environmental legislators will take some important legislation on healthcare, the environment, or assistance for low income children, hostage in order to advance the wolf-kill bill.
If that happens, it will be up to Governor Kitzhaber to decide whether or not to defend Oregon’s Endangered Species Act and the wildlife it protects. When it comes to Governor Kitzhaber’s legacy amongst those who value native fish and wildlife, this may be his most consequential decision yet.
When Congress passed legislation stripping Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from wolves on the national stage, Governor Kitzhaber took a strong stand for Oregon’s values writing clearly to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that “this action erodes the integrity of the ESA”. Though HB 4158 functionally accomplishes the same thing on the state level, the Governor was more reticent when the livestock industry demanded state employees kill off the Imnaha Pack last year.
When Journey, the Imnaha Pack’s most famous son, became the first wolf in California in nearly a century, the news went global. His epic 1,000-mile journey was celebrated as a conservation triumph possible only because of landmark environmental laws like the ESA. It was not lost on conservationists that his travels took him to within miles of where Oregon’s last wolf was killed.
Earlier this week, Journey’s brother – OR-9 – swam the Snake River and became the 285th wolf killed in that state since congress stripped them of their federal protections in the budget rider derided by Governor Kitzhaber. The poacher walked away with no more than a warning for illegally killing the wolf, and Butch Otter seized the moment to mock Oregonians outraged by the slaughter.
So what will be the future for the Imnaha Pack and Oregon’s wolves? Will we celebrate the story of Journey by standing up to those responsible for eliminating wolves in the first place? Or will we look to Idaho and repeat the mistakes of the past?
Mollie Beattie – the first woman to head the US Fish & Wildlife Service once said “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself”. The same could be said for a state. And the choice is at hand.