PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Court of Appeals has decided to reconsider a lawsuit against the state that was dismissed months ago over its decision last year to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list.
It means environmentalists will have another chance to argue for an independent, judicial review of the delisting decision - as well as challenge the validity of House Bill 4040, one of the Legislature's most controversial new laws this year that ultimately led to the case's dismissal in late April.
There are an estimated 110 wolves currently living in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The wildlife conservation group Oregon Wild, which supports the lawsuit, said that number is not ideal for genetic diversity, making future generations of wolves susceptible to inbreeding and disease. The group said wolves have killed approximately 110 livestock in the past decade, far less than coyotes.
Four wolves have been killed by state officials since the bill's passage.
"The issues presented by this judicial review and by HB 4040 are complex matters of public importance," Judge Erika Hadlock wrote in the court's decision Tuesday. "Without deciding what, if any, effect HB 4040 has on this judicial review, the court determines that the issues of possible mootness and the validity of HB 4040 are more appropriately decided by a department of the court following full briefing."
The controversy stems from the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission's November decision to delist the gray wolf as endangered, a move aimed at managing the species' replenishing population that environmentalists say was premature and based on questionable science.
As environmentalists were asking the court for a review of the delisting decision, some Republican lawmakers crafted HB 4040 as a means to block the case. The idea was that, with the Legislature's stamp of approval that the decision was air-tight according to law, reviewing that decision was a moot point and the case itself, therefore, would be too.
The bill was blasted by many residents, conservationists and Democratic leaders, including Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, as an overreach by the Legislature into judicial branch-matters and therefore potentially unconstitutional - an argument environmentalists reiterated in court this week.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a "notice of probable mootness" soon after HB 4040 was signed into law, prompting the case's dismissal on those grounds on April 22.
It appeared Oregon Governor Kate Brown was under intense pressure to veto the bill. But her office has been accused of working to pass the bill, while appearing nonpartisan in public.
A letter from DeFazio sent to Gov. Brown after HB 4040 was signed accused the governor of contradictory statements about the bill. DeFazio said Brown's office advocated on behalf of the bill's passage, at the same time that she stated publicly she would not advocate for or against the bill.
KGW obtained the email DeFazio cited, showing Gov. Brown's office sent DeFazio's letter to members of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, with the subject, "Heads up."
"FYI -- seems the Representative continues to feel strongly about this issue and is focused on the non-farm, ranch, other portions / interests in his district. He also weighed in like this at the F&W Commission level," wrote Brett Brownscombe, Gov. Brown's Natural Resources Policy Advisor.
When asked about the discrepancy, Gov. Brown's spokesman Bryan Hockaday said, "Governor Brown supports the Wolf Plan's collaborative review process, which is consistent with her public statements, direction given to staff, and the conversation she had with Rep. DeFazio after receiving his letter."
Nick Cady, attorney for Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, which brought the case along with Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity, said the case was reconsidered after they challenged the constitutionality of HB 4040 and also the court's process for the dismissing the suit.
"It's really a crazy, convoluted issue that makes it that much more confusing," Cady said. "Now we're going to be dodging around the issue of whether or not (the wildlife commission) used the best-available science, which is why we were all here in the first place, and now we have to also argue about separation of powers and other legal nuances that's just going to make this more convoluted."
Officials at the wildlife department and Gov. Brown's office declined to comment. The Oregon Cattleman's Association, an intervener in the lawsuit that also helped craft HB 4040, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel Oregon Farm Bureau, also an intervener, said in a statement her group didn't take a position on Tuesday's reconsideration.
"However, nothing in the ruling pertains to the merits of the Commission's decision to delist the wolf, which Farm Bureau firmly believes was good law and good policy," Nash said.