March 03, 2016
Oregon's Endangered Species Act (ESA) is an essential tool for protecting imperiled species within our borders. Like the federal Endangered Species Act, Oregon's ESA gives wildlife managers the resources and the responsibility to protect Oregon's native, imperiled species and their habitats. To make decisions about what level of protection imperiled species require, the law grants the state's Fish and Wildlife Commission exclusive authority to list, delist or relist species as threatened or endangered.
You'd think politicians in Oregon would honor that law by staying out of complex biological matters, deferring to the commission to use the best available science to make those tough decisions. But that is becoming less and less true.
This week, a bill that would legislatively delist wolves — and open the floodgates for the Legislature to make politically driven decisions in the future about the fate of Oregon's imperiled animals — was passed by Oregon lawmakers. It will now go to Gov. Kate Brown to be vetoed or signed into law.
The commission voted to remove the fewer than 100 known wolves in Oregon from the state's list of endangered species last November. This bill under Gov. Brown's consideration today legislatively ratifies that decision, making delisting permanent and incontestable — and giving politicians, rather than wildlife biologists and the commission, final say. While the bill solidifies a delisting decision that diverse constituencies believed to be premature, the greater concern is the precedent it sets, letting politicians wade into complex biological listing and delisting issues for which they have no expertise.
It is alarming to see what has unfortunately become a national trend enter into our state's natural resource politics. With disturbing frequency, members of the U.S. Congress are interjecting themselves into the species-listing process, instead of letting trained biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make those decisions as required under the ESA. The 114th Congress has proposed a whopping 49 species-specific legislative attacks to weaken or remove protections for imperiled wildlife, and 12 of those attacks target wolves: Eight of these attacks attempt to delist wolves in the Great Lakes and Wyoming; another would remove ESA protections in Washington, Oregon and Utah; two additional bills propose to federally delist Mexican gray wolves, and a final would strip protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes states.
This anti-wolf bill mirrors this disconcerting national pattern. It sets a dangerous precedent for amending state endangered species law and for constraining the commission's authority on a species-by-species basis. Further, it's an unnecessary distraction from the real work that needs to be done this year if Oregon wants to continue its leadership role in wolf recovery.
When the commission delisted wolves last November, it committed to moving quickly to complete an update to Oregon's wolf-management plan. This plan sets the regulatory standards for managing wolves in the state regardless of their listing status. It is the primary tool for ensuring wolf recovery in Oregon continues, providing specific protections for our fragile wolf population and detailing rules for minimizing conflicts between wolves and human activities. The existing plan is the result of a years-long collaborative process involving all stakeholders and is widely seen as a national model for wolf conservation and coexistence.
This anti-wolf bill significantly undermines the collaborative spirit that made the wolf plan what it is today. Wolf delisting bills — in addition to this one — were introduced at the request of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association in 2011, 2012 and 2015. It doesn't take an expert psychologist to understand these efforts dramatically erode the goodwill that will be needed when diverse stakeholders come back to the table later this year to revise the state's wolf plan.
Put simply, if Oregon wants to maintain its national leadership role in wolf conservation, Gov. Brown must veto this anti-wolf bill. She must show her constituents that Oregon's imperiled wildlife are not political bargaining chips and that decisions about wildlife management should be based on the best available science, not politics or the wishes of powerful special interests. A veto of this bill will allow Oregon's wildlife officials to get back to the real task at hand: ensuring robust protections are maintained for Oregon's fragile population as the wolf plan is updated.
Quinn Read, of Oregon, is Defenders of Wildlife's northwest representative.