Saturday, September 24, 2016

Lawsuit: Oregon wolf decision violated Endangered Species Act

Oregon prepares to update wolf management plan 

By Hilary Corrigan / The Bulletin

Oregon violated its own Endangered Species Act and failed to follow its rules when it removed gray wolves from the endangered list late last year, conservation groups argue in a lawsuit.

The Tuesday filing comes as the state prepares to update its wolf management plan — last updated in 2010 — and as some federal legislators question protection levels for wolves and seek more state control over wolf management.

Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild challenged the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission at the state Court of Appeals late last year soon after the commission decided to remove wolves from the state endangered listing across Oregon. A state law soon followed, underscoring the delisting. State Fish and Wildlife then sought to deem the conservation groups’ legal challenge as moot and an appellate commissioner dismissed it. But a July court ruling reinstated the groups’ challenge, calling the issues presented for review “complex matters of public importance.”

The commission had delisted the wolf after finding the species was not in danger of extinction in a significant part of its range and that existing programs could protect the wolves and their habitat, among other factors. The commission had found that the wolf population was projected to increase; that wolves showed up over a large geographic area in Oregon; and that the state’s wolf management plan ensures their protection regardless of endangered status.

But wolves are still in danger of extinction through much of their range in Oregon and should not have been delisted, said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

In its Tuesday brief, the conservation groups argued that wolves occupy only 8 percent of their natural range in Oregon and are absent from 92 percent of it. The Fish and Wildlife Commission must consider whether wolves were endangered in a significant part of their range in Oregon, not just parts of the range that are now suitable habitat — meaning the agency must consider an animal’s historic range, including areas affected by human development, when either listing or delisting a species, the groups said. The groups also argued that the commission’s decision lacked required independent scientific review; and that the related legislation violates the separation of government branches’ powers and is nonbinding.

Michelle Dennehy, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, had no comment on the conservation groups’ court filing. The state may file a reply next month.

Oregon has both federal and state protection levels and management for wolves. Last year’s commission decision removed state endangered status for wolves across all of Oregon. Federal Endangered Species Act protection still covers wolves in the state west of highways 395, 78 and 95 that serve as a boundary for federal and state designations. Those roads reach from north of Pendleton to Burns and then veer southeast to the southern end of the state. Wolves in that eastern third of Oregon have been removed from the federal endangered listing. The state’s wolf management plan covers those wolves and the state contends the plan protects them like state endangered-status would.
The commission will discuss updating the plan Oct. 7 in La Grande. Department staff could present a draft updated plan at a December commission meeting and the commission could approve it next year.

“It really guides the whole program. It’s important,” Dennehy said. The plan details actions to take in response to wolf conflicts with livestock and criteria to count wolves and to collar them for tracking and research, among other issues.

Meanwhile, ongoing efforts both in Congress and at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seek to delist wolves across the lower 48 states.

A House Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee hearing Wednesday reviewed the status of the federal government’s wolf management and recovery efforts. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, complained of mismanagement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and called for Oregon and other Western states to control their own areas’ wolf management efforts. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., responded that gray wolves are only starting to return to their old ground in the Northwest and objected to removing federal protections where they’re still listed.

Tom Paterson, owner of Spur Ranch Cattle Co. in Luna, New Mexico, said that he has lost several cows to wolves so far this year. He noted the difficulty in confirming that a wolf killed an animal and in finding some of the dead animals, estimating that wolves kill many more.

John Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technological University’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, pointed out that wolves once inhabited most of the lower 48 states, but were wiped out to a remaining few hundred in northern Minnesota and now have a total population of about 5,500.

“There’s still much work to do,” Vucetich said. But concerns like conflicts with livestock and the effects on elk hunting and perceived threats to public safety — while challenging — are also “very, very manageable issues,” he said.

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