On January 14, the efforts of two lawmakers got underway to make into permanent law a recent decision by state wildlife officials to remove wolves from the state’s list of endangered species. The attempt is opposed by several environmental groups.

The positions of each side suggest sharp divisions in values and disagreement over basic facts.

The 2016 legislative effort to ratify the November 9 “delisting” of Oregon wolves by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is being advanced by Rep Greg Barreto (R – Cove) and Senator Bill Hansell (R – Athena). The two are reacting to a lawsuit filed by Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, and the Center for Biological Diversity, who challenges the ODFW’s November decision. The lawmakers plan to introduce bills this session that will ‘lock in’ wolves as permanently removed from protections of the state’s Endangered Species Act.

ODFW does not take a position on the legislation, says spokesperson Michelle Donnehy, but in voting to delist in November, it acted as it was required to by law. She cites guidelines crafted in the 2005 Wolf Plan that all parties cite, which gives the agency authority to both add and remove species from the list by considering factors including that the animals not be in danger of extinction, that they appear able to reproduce that their range is not actively deteriorating.

In January 2015, eastern Oregon hosted four breeding pairs for three consecutive years, a fact that called for the agency to consider delisting.

photos by Kelly Hazen

photos by Kelly Hazen

Environmentalists who criticize the 4-2 vote on delisting say the ODFW Commission is dominated by hunters who want to reduce competition for elk and deer they themselves want to hunt and who are working towards an eventual go-ahead to hunt and kill wolves on behalf of sportsman constituents. They also argue that commissioners were motivated to keep or expand potential revenue from hunting and fishing licenses that significantly fund their agency.

Two commissioners list hunting or big game hunting as hobbies on their online biographies, and another is a past board member and chair of the 11,000-member Oregon Hunter’s Association. ODFW’s website admits that one-third of its revenue comes from the sale of state hunting and fishing licenses, while the second third is federal money, “much of it tied to the sale of hunting and fishing equipment.”

In 2014, the state of Montana sold more than 20,000 licenses to people who wanted to hunt and trap wolves and 206 animals were reported harvested. In 2014, 256 wolves were taken in Idaho.

But Donnehy says the fiscal impact of hunting “was not a factor” in the Commission’s decision. “This is because the Wolf Plan does not allow public general season wolf hunting as a result of delisting. From a game species (especially deer and elk) perspective it was not discussed as a factor because, first, Oregon has abundant populations of deer and elk, and second, ODFW has no data at this time suggesting declines in deer and elk populations as a result of wolves.”

One of the speakers who testified on January 14th was Oregon Wild’s Sean Stevens. He calls the delisting “a matter of expedience so there will be less constraints on management for ODFW.”

Oregon Wild has closely tracked wolf populations over the decades. It asserts that the November delisting “violated the law by failing to follow best available science.” The group says that protections were prematurely removed “before wolves are truly recovered. With only about 80 known adult wolves mostly confined to one small corner of the state, Oregon’s wolf population is far from recovery, according to leading scientists.”

“It’s simply too soon to remove protections for Oregon’s wolves,” said Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Program director at the Center for Biological Diversity at the time of the December legal challenge. “It’s not rocket science that roughly 80 wolves in 12 percent of suitable habitat in Oregon does not equal a recovered population. The gray wolf remains endangered, and protections should never have been removed.”

Although delisting still prohibits hunting and quick killing by ranchers, environmentalists worry that it introduces a slippery slope, with ranchers and hunters soon pushing for fewer restrictions on hunting the animals.

Stevens testified on the 14th, both to oppose the original delisting in the first place, and then to contradict concepts introduced by Barreto and Hansell to “lock-in delisting into law.” Stevens observes this legislation, if passed, would “make wolves only the third named species in Oregon history to delist under the Oregon Endangered Species Act,” enacted by the legislature in 1987.

One prominent argument for delisting comes from ranchers who say wolves attack and destroy Oregon livestock.

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Environmentalists disagree, arguing that wolves pose an insignificant threat. “Wolves have always been a very small percentage of livestock deaths,” Stevens says, citing ordinary illness and disease as well as attacks by domestic dogs as being more significant.

Four breeding pairs, the number Oregon has now, are considered the minimum conservation population objective in the Wolf Plan.

“We hear this effort is supposed to protect cattle,” Stevens says, “but Oregon has about 80 documented wolves. And there were only 4 documented kills of cows by wolves last year – out of 1.3 million cows in the state.”

Stevens suspects that “there is just a different standard when it comes to wolves, because of how they have been historically misunderstood and maligned.”

Legislators hoping for permanent delisting contest those figures. “4 out of 1.3 million is not accurate in the least,” says Barreto. “This is one of the concerns of the cattlemen, in that it is so difficult to get a kill by wolves confirmed.” Livestock owners have to find the dead animal “almost immediately before any other predators get on the scene,” he says. “The forensics that ODFW use in determining kills is very strict and so it is very difficult to have a kill confirmed unless it strictly conforms to all the criteria.” Barreto, who does not estimate a total, contends that livestock owners lose many cattle to wolves, “but it is very hard to prove and at a point so frustrating to work with ODFW that they just cut their losses rather than deal with the time and frustration” of trying to receive confirmation. He also points out that wolves injure many animals and lessen their value and “livestock in areas of wolf predation also suffer from lower birthrate, birth weight, and weight gain in calves.  This all adds increased cost to the producer.”

Barreto says his and Hansell’s drive to permanently delist is “an integral part” of the Wolf Plan and is time critical because “it must take place before Phase 3 of the Wolf Plan that Oregon Wild, ODFW and stock growers developed and implemented 10 years ago. Phase 3 of the plan is management.  If predators are not managed while other animals in the ecosystem are, the predator numbers get out of control as they have in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.”

ODFW spokespeople such as Donnehy and Wolf Coordinator Russ Morgan argue that whatever the issues raised by ranchers or hunters, they will not change as a result of the permanent listing status of the animals.

“Delisting would result in no immediate changes to wolf management in Oregon,” Morgan said in October 2015. “Wolf management is guided by the Wolf Plan and its associated technical rules, not the species’ ESA listing status… but delisting allows the Plan to continue to work into the future.”

Phase 3 of the plan will be met when seven breeding pairs survive the winter for three consecutive years.