SALEM — A bill that would uphold the state’s contentious decision last year to remove the gray wolf from its endangered species list gained traction at the Legislature on Tuesday.
Ratifying the decision in state law could stop a lawsuit by conservationists. Removing wolf protections has drawn thousands of comments from powerful farming and ranching groups who support it and environmentalists who oppose it.
Delisting is not an automatic greenlight for killing wolves, Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel said before voting for House Bill 4040.
“This doesn’t mean we’re going to go out and hunt wolves into extinction again,” Esquivel said during a hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources hearing.
The measure cleared the committee and heads to the House floor.
Delisting allows the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to consider hunting in the future as one of several tools under its wolf management plan. Hunting is not part of the discussion now.
The management plan says the species can lose state protections if certain benchmarks are met that prove extinction is no longer a substantial threat. The commission overseeing the wildlife department voted to take the gray wolf off the state’s endangered species list in November, following a recommendation by state biologists.
That led three conservationist groups to sue. They want an impartial judicial review of the commission’s decision, arguing it failed to follow the best available science or get an independent examination.
If the legislation is approved, state law would uphold the commission’s decision and negate the request for a review, said Nick Cady, legal director at Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups that sued.
“It’s inappropriate because they’re depriving the public of its right for judicial review,” Cady said. “It’s kind of undemocratic.”
Lawmakers tried to ease the tension through another bill approved in the same hearing Tuesday. It would raise fines for illegally killing various wildlife species, including the gray wolf.