A male yearling from the Imnaha Pack was one of eight Oregon gray wolves collared in 2013 by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The agency uses signals from wolves' collars to track their dispersal throughout the state. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife photo)
on October 29, 2015
On Thursday, they issued a report advising the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to remove Oregon Endangered Species Act protections for the animal statewide.
The commission is twelve days away from a scheduled vote on the fate of protections for Oregon's 81 known wolves. Typically, commissioners vote in step with staff recommendations.
Thursday's recommendation marks the first time state wildlife officials have given any public indication of their plans for Oregon's wolves since the animals met a population target this year that triggered a review of their endangered status.
Oregon's wolf plan directs the state to consider removing wolves from the list once their population reaches four breeding pairs for three straight years.
Wolf advocates, angry that staff made their conclusions before reading through public comments that continue to amass in advance of a Nov. 6 deadline, said they plan to submit a packet Thursday identifying gaps in the state's science.
State biologists concluded wolves will continue to thrive in Oregon, finding new range and growing more numerous regardless of whether they remain on the list.
Failing to delist wolves, they argued, could erode public support for the animals and the state's management plan, leading more people to poach wolves and kill them legally.
But wolf advocates and several prominent Oregon wolf researchers questioned the mechanism state biologists used to arrive at those findings.
In testimony urging commissioners to keep wolves listed, a group of scientists outlined the benefits wolves pose to the ecosystem and questioned the parameters state researchers used to justify their recommendation.
"Prematurely weakening gray wolf protections is likely to reverse years of progress, put recovery in jeopardy, and exacerbate conflict," the 14 scientists wrote in the jointly-penned letter.
Amaroq Weiss, with the Center for Biological Diversity, contended the department's own science refutes the idea that wolves aren't endangered.
Oregon's wolves occupy about 12 percent of their available habitat in the state, and about 6 percent of their historic Oregon range. Their population is less than one-sixteenth the size Oregon State University scientists have determined the state can sustain.
"There is no other species in the world for which you would say it's only occurring in a tiny portion of its range, and yet it's not in danger of extinction," Weiss said. "It's completely illogical."
The state wildlife commission is expected to vote on the future of wolf protections during a meeting Nov. 9 in Salem.
Previously, they've considered keeping wolves on the list, removing them only in the eastern portion of the state where most wolves roam, or removing them throughout the state.
If removed from the list, wolves would remain protected under the Oregon Wolf Plan, which tightly controls who can and cannot kill a wolf, and under what circumstances. Wolves in the western part of Oregon are also protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In a statement, state wolf coordinator Russ Morgan said removing wolves statewide stays true to the wolf plan, a 10-year-old document that "envisions wolves being delisted as Oregon moves into the future phases of management."
"Delisting allows the Plan to continue to work into the future," Morgan said.
Once the wildlife commission decides whether wolves should stay or go from the list, they'll take a hard look at the plan, considering possible changes to how the state manages its 81 known wolves.
Wolf advocates and enemies are already gearing up for a fight over the plan review.
Todd Nash, wolf spokesman for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said Eastern Oregon ranchers are pushing for a delisting, but the real battle will be over the plan review. Ranchers plan to lobby for greater license to shoot wolves caught chasing their cattle.
Wolf advocates say they want more limitations on killing.
At present, Eastern Oregon ranchers can only shoot wolves under certain circumstances, while ranchers in the Western part of the state must first obtain a permit. The state can also shoot wolves after two attacks on livestock.
"There's a frustration level that most of Western Oregon doesn't see here in Eastern Oregon," Nash said. "We've had a few ranchers pay a really high cost and would like to see more control for those people who are being affected."
Last week, conservationists urged the commission hold off on a vote until outside scientists can vet the research state wildlife managers used to back up their recommendation to take wolves off the list. Failing to do so, they warned, would violate state law.
The state has maintained its research meets state standards because state scientists relied upon other peer-reviewed studies to arrive at their findings. Rob Klavins, Northeast Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild, argued that's not enough.
"This has been a politically-driven process from the beginning," he said. "Maybe they're concerned that if they get an independent review, it's not going to turn out the way they want it to."
In the near term, removing endangered species protections for Oregon's wolves would change little about the way they're managed in the state. However, if wolves continue to recover in Oregon, it could open the door for controlled hunting and trapping to minimize wolves' impact on livestock, deer and elk.