Some state legislators are attempting an end run around a legal challenge to the removal of the gray wolf from Oregon’s endangered species list.
Late last year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission removed the gray wolf from Oregon’s endangered species list, threatening the recovery of a species that had been hunted to extinction here in the early 1900s.
Three environmental groups promptly sued, saying it was premature to remove the wolf from the protection afforded by the list. But House Bill 4040, being carried in the Legislature by Rep. Greg Barreto, R-La Grande, would make the commission’s decision to de-list the wolf a law, effectively cutting off judicial review.
The bill — which was drafted before the legislative session began — passed the House by a vote of 33 to 23, with 10 Democrats and 23 Republicans voting in favor and 23 Democrats opposed. (Two Democrats and two Republicans did not vote.)
Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio has sent a blistering letter to his fellow Democrats in the state Senate, urging them to vote against the bill.
DeFazio said it is undermining his fight to keep protections for the gray wolf in place at the federal level. He described it as an attempt to block a judicial review of the decision to de-list the wolf and called it “an extreme precedent-setting measure that should not be taken lightly... or used as a political bargaining chip.”
There are currently about 100 gray wolves in Oregon, or about 7 percent of what studies show the state could support. The species’ still-fragile recovery has occurred while wolves were under both state and federal protection.
But wolves in Eastern Oregon are now off the federal endangered species list — they were removed four years ago — and federal officials are proposing that wolves in Western Oregon also be removed. In addition, Oregon’s wolf plan is coming up for review soon, which could mean the removal of additional protections.
The main proponents for removing protection for wolves, including taking them off endangered species lists, are ranchers, especially in Eastern Oregon.
Despite ranchers’ antipathy, wolves account for very few livestock deaths, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. In Oregon, by far the largest cause of cattle deaths is illness, including respiratory and digestive ailments, according to the USDA. The USDA suggested that, if ranchers want to reduce losses, they should prevent the introduction and spread of disease; improve preventive health and nutrition, and provide timely assistance to cows during calving season.
Of the 3 percent of cattle that were lost to predators, the main culprit was coyotes, according to the USDA. Wolves are coyotes’ natural enemies.
In areas where wolf populations have flourished under government protection, including the northern Rocky Mountains, there has not been a corresponding increase in cattle deaths, according to studies by the International Wolf Center, which notes that wolves prefer natural prey such as deer and elk.
The bill now making its way through the Legislature is an ill-advised attempt to circumvent judicial review of an equally ill-advised decision to dismantle protection for an animal that is an integral part of the Oregon ecosystem.