SALEM — A bill to ratify removing wolves from Oregon’s endangered species list came under sharp questioning Tuesday in a key Senate committee.
House Bill 4040, which declares that Oregon wildlife regulators followed the law when delisting wolves last year, was approved 33-23 in the House on Feb. 12 and is now under consideration by the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
Proponents of HB 4040 say it would buttress the credibility of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s decision, while critics say the bill is intended to derail an environmentalist lawsuit against the delisting.
During a Feb. 16 hearing, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, expressed reservations about the purpose of the bill.
The delisting was part of a three-step process described in Oregon’s management plan for wolves, which does not require the Legislature to ratify the commission’s decision, said Prozanski.
“Why are we doing that, if it was never part of the plan?” Prozanski asked Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, who testified in support of HB 4040.
While the Legislature may not have previously ratified a delisting, it’s not unprecedented for lawmakers to ratify decisions by the state’s executive branch, Hansell replied.
The bill isn’t intended to preclude the environmentalist lawsuit, which claims the wolf delisting was not based on the best available science, he said. “If people want to sue, they’ll have the ability to do that.”
If the purpose of HB 4040 is simply to affirm that wildlife regulators have done a good job, then “it doesn’t seem like an appropriate use of our time,” Prozanski said.
Dembrow said he discussed the bill with the Office of Legislative Counsel, which advises lawmakers on legal issues, and was told HB 4040 would effectively force a judge to dismiss the environmentalist lawsuit.
Ratification by the Legislature would cure any legal deficiency in the delisting decision, which Dembrow said he found troubling due to the scientific issues involved.
“Essentially, what we’re being asked to do is say the science is right, the process is right,” he said. “I don’t how many of us in the legislature can say that.”
Dembrow also noted that he’s proposed an amendment to the bill clarifying that the legislature ratifies the delisting as long as the decision is in compliance with the law and administrative rules, which would cause HB 4040 to have no legal effect.
If the bill’s purpose isn’t to void the lawsuit, then “perhaps this amendment would be in order,” Dembrow said.
Hansell said the bill was intended to shore up the commission’s decision in court. “I would never say it has no effect or would not make any difference,” he said.
Rocky Dallum, political advocate for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said HB 4040 wouldn’t preclude a lawsuit but acknowledged that the legislature’s ratification would “go a long way” toward resolving the legal dispute.
If the Legislature doesn’t ratify the delisting, the policy decision will be made by a court or through a settlement between state officials and the environmental plaintiffs, he said. “We do see this will have an effect on the litigation,” he said.
Opponents of the bill said they were worried that HB 4040 will set a dangerous precedent by having the legislature interfere in the delisting process.
“This bill opens the door for the Legislature to make political decisions about the fate of imperiled species across Oregon,” said Quinn Read, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group.
Mateusz Perkowski is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.