PORTLAND, Ore. — Eradicated in Oregon over half a century ago, wolves are re-establishing a foothold in the state — but their fragile comeback is deepening a cultural divide over how much protection they need.
With 81 adult gray wolves now calling Oregon home, wildlife officials last week recommended taking them off the state's list of protected animals. They'll vote on the recommendation on Monday.
Oregon has been considered a model for wolf management, due to its emphasis on non-lethal methods to deter the animals from killing livestock. But the prospect of relaxed protections is pitting ranchers who want more leeway to kill wolves against environmentalists who say their low population does not come even close to recovery.
There will be no immediate impact on wolves if they are delisted because a state management plan determines who can shoot a wolf and under what circumstances. But wolf advocates worry that delisting the animals will send the wrong message to people aching to kill wolves — and will also weaken grounds for filing lawsuits over their protection.
"We are fearful that political pressure from the livestock and hunting industry could tip the scales in Oregon and result in ... more lethal control of wolves," said Amaroq Weiss with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The fight over wolves is playing out in the context of a social and political conflict over wolf recovery in other western states, where the animals were successfully reintroduced, but are now killed by the thousands after being stripped of protections.
Long more feared than admired, gray wolves once numbered in the millions in North America but were hunted to near extinction. They became federally protected and sheltered from unregulated killing in 1973 in the lower 48, when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. Over the years, they were also granted state protections.
But it was wolves' reintroduction two decades ago to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park and their migration further west that ignited the ire of ranchers and hunters. Wolves' protected status was heavily litigated, with the federal government repeatedly moving to delist wolves, environmental groups suing and the courts restoring safeguards.
Four years ago, Congress sidestepped the law and used a budget rider attached to a spending bill to take wolves off the endangered species list in the northern Rockies, as well as in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and parts of Utah.
As soon as states took over wolf management, they launched wolf hunts and instituted increasingly aggressive hunting seasons and quotas. From 2011 to 2014, hunters and trappers in Idaho and Montana killed nearly 2,000 wolves, data show. Wildlife officials and farmers killed an additional 600 wolves to protect livestock.
In Wyoming, where wolves could be shot on sight in most of the state, the animals later regained protections.
Wolf numbers in the Rockies have declined — from a peak of about 1,750 in 2011 to 1,650 today.
Oregon's first wolf pups in nearly 60 years were born in 2008. Five years later, after a legal challenge, the state stopped shooting problem wolves and adopted nonlethal methods to help livestock producers minimize wolf predation, including hiring range riders to patrol pastures, installing fencing and investing in alarms or scare devices.
But ranchers, who are compensated for confirmed wolf kills if they use the measures, want to shoot wolves that menace livestock — though wolf attacks aren't common and more cows and sheep die due to disease or weather.
"We continue to see damage from wolves, and nonlethal techniques have largely been ineffective," said Todd Nash, a rancher and wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.
The Oregon Wolf Plan, the state's management guide for the animals, called for four breeding pairs for three consecutive years in eastern Oregon. The goal was reached this year, triggering the process to reconsider wolves' endangered listing.
State wildlife officials argue there's little chance wolves in Oregon will go extinct under the current plan. But independent scientists say Oregon's wolf population is too small to begin removing protections for them.
Eighty-one wolves "is not a viable population, and yes, they absolutely could disappear," said Dr. Paul Paquet, an international wolf expert and biologist who has studied wolves for 40 years.
Research shows Oregon could support approximately 1,450 wolves.
Conservationists also worry an upcoming wolf plan review could change the state's model approach. Already, wolf safeguards were relaxed this winter, and more lethal measures may be allowed in Oregon as soon as next year.