Oregon delists wolves, but protections remain

As in Washington, reactions to the predator reflect deep east-west divides in the state.


Oregon has taken its gray wolves – 81 in total – off the state endangered species list.

The decision, which came during a Monday wildlife commission meeting, followed many hours of impassioned testimony both for and against delisting.

The status change will have little immediate effect, though. Management of the state’s wolves is governed by a wolf management plan, created in 2005, which allows the canids to be killed only in self-defense or when caught in the act of chasing or attacking livestock. According to the Statesman-Journal, “while the Oregon Endangered Species Act sounds important, it’s more of a relic from a time before wolves returned to Oregon. It carries little impact on decisions regarding how the state treats its wolf population.”

Radio-collared young gray wolf in Oregon.

Under the management plan, when four or more breeding pairs of wolves are found in the state for three years in a row, a review is triggered to determine if continued protection is necessary. The latest wolf survey, in February, found nine packs of wolves with seven breeding pairs. That met the conditions for considering delisting, a process which began in April.

Although the animal has now been delisted statewide, wolves in the western two-thirds of Oregon (west of Highways 395, 78 and 95) are still protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, which takes precedence over the state’s plan. In eastern Oregon, where wolves lost federal protection in 2011, the state plan requires non-lethal prevention as the first choice for dealing with livestock predation, and doesn’t allow sport hunting. The delisting does open the door for the eventual approval of hunting, though.

The testimony at the meeting reflected the same eastern/western divide seen in Washington state, where ranchers in the eastern plains dislike the predator’s presence and want the flexibility to shoot wolves that come near livestock. Meanwhile, residents of the more urban, liberal, western part of the state are much more receptive to the presence of wolves. OregonLive reported that the meeting room was packed with more than 200 people, and “the lines of allegiance were clearly drawn. On the right side of the room sat wolf advocates, most from western Oregon with several wearing orange T-shirts bearing a wolf's image. Hunting advocates and Eastern Oregon ranchers in cowboy hats sat on the left.”

Map of wolf range in Oregon.

Environmental groups such as OregonWild say the delisting was premature, given that wolves occupy just 6 percent of their historic range in the state, and that the state’s wolf plan is due for a mandatory review that could result in policy changes. They claim the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife was swayed by hunters and ranchers, and failed to get an adequate peer review of its science showing that wolf populations in the state were healthy and growing. One reason for their opposition to delisting, of course, is the loss of their ability to use the state Endangered Species Act as a tool – they’ll no longer be able to file lawsuits that hold the wildlife department accountable if its wolf management fails to meet the Act’s requirements.

 The delisting may also lead to more illegal killing of wolves, critics say. So far this year, at least five wolves have been poached in Oregon; two other suspicious deaths are being investigated, and were most likely due to poachers as well. To help deter poaching, the Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to propose stiffer penalties for killing a wolf, which currently include up to a year in jail and a $6,250 fine. "Everyone on this panel cares about the wolf," commission Chairman Michael Finley told OregonLive. "I think you can see by asking for increased penalties and our statement about the future regulations that we mean that."

 Jodi Peterson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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