SALEM — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is once again taking the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to task over wolf conservation.
Fish and Wildlife commissioners approved a revised version of the Oregon wolf management plan on June 7, which was immediately met with strong criticism from advocates who argue the agency is not doing enough to protect the species.
Brown echoed those concerns in a statement released through her spokeswoman, saying the plan fails to meet expectations for ensuring a healthy wolf population.
“Governor Brown believes that we must protect our historic and natural heritage in Oregon,” the statement reads. “Wolves are part of the landscape, and as their numbers increase and stabilize, we must ensure that Oregon has an effective plan to protect and continue to grow Oregon’s wolf population.”
In May, Brown also contradicted the stance of ODFW Director Curt Melcher about a Trump administration proposal to remove endangered species protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states.
Melcher wrote a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in support of delisting, saying that Oregon wolves are growing both in numbers and range. Brown quickly countered with a second letter to “clarify and correct” the state’s position, that while the success of wolf recovery in Oregon is “unquestioned,” a federal endangered species listing is still warranted nationwide.
The Oregon wolf plan is supposed to be updated every five years, but was last done so in 2010. Since then, the minimum wolf population has increased from at least 21 known wolves to 137.
ODFW began the latest revision process in 2016. That included a series of meetings with a professional mediator, gathering representatives from the ranching, hunting and environmental communities to find areas of agreement and compromise within the plan.
Talks began in August 2018, but fell apart by January as the four environmental groups — Oregon Wild, Defenders of Wildlife, Cascadia Wildlands and the Center for Biological Diversity — left the bargaining table, arguing that ODFW was working toward a predetermined outcome.
Specifically, they fear the revised plan will make it easier to kill wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock, rather than focusing on non-lethal and preemptive strategies to prevent conflict.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 6-to-1 to adopt the plan revisions. Perhaps most contentious was the new definition for “chronic depredation” in Eastern Oregon, where wolves are already delisted. Under the plan, ranchers can now request wolves be killed after just two confirmed depredations in nine months.
Wolves in Western Oregon are still federally protected, though that could change if the government goes through with its latest delisting proposal.
Environmental groups also railed against provisions in the plan that allow for issuing “controlled take” permits to the general public. Though the plan explicitly forbids general wolf hunting, advocates worry controlled take could lead to that possibility down the road.
Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, said the plan demonstrates “a spectacular failure of leadership” and called out Brown in his statement.
“Every wolf allowed to be hunted by the public, snared in a leghold trap, or killed for eating its native prey from this point forward will be the direct consequence of Governor Kate Brown and majority of her wildlife commission,” Stevens said.
In her statement, Brown made it clear she is also not happy with the final product. It was not immediately clear whether Brown can or will direct the agency to revisit amendments.
“Efforts in the wolf plan to evaluate depredations and prevent them fail to meet the governor’s expectations for ensuring the health of the wolf population while also meeting the needs of the ranching community,” the statement reads. “And as she communicated to the director of ODFW last month, the plan should give no member of the public the opportunity to hunt wolves.”
Members of hunting and ranching groups mostly urged the commission to adopt the revised wolf plan, though it was clear they did not get everything they wanted, either.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said ranchers want more wolves fitted with GPS collars. He also lobbied for wolf management zones with population targets, and asked to allow local officials — such as county sheriffs — to investigate livestock depredations.
“Agriculture is our state’s second-largest economic driver, and beef is our state’s second-largest agricultural industry,” Rosa said during testimony. “Our members throughout the state have suffered enormous losses, both economic and emotional.”
The wolf plan does not establish management zones, and while the agency says collaring is a valuable tool, program leaders stopped short of making any promises to increase the use of collars.
Derek Broman, ODFW carnivore and furbearer coordinator, said the plan does not forbid local officials from taking part in depredation investigations, but cautioned they must follow rigorous standards.
“If we’re not dotting every ‘I’ and crossing every ‘T,’ we’re leaving ourselves up for quite a bit of criticism,” Broman said. “We’ll have to continue to try to maintain that level of rigor and effort.”
Todd Nash, a Wallowa County commissioner and rancher, said allowing sheriffs to investigate livestock depredation is quicker and helps to normalize local attitudes about wolves.
Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers said law enforcement is willing and able to step up and meet the demand.
“Let me make it clear. We as Oregon sheriffs have every intention of being involved in investigating wolf-livestock depredations,” Rogers said. “Our producers are demanding it.”
Environmentalists opposed the measure, worrying that investigations by elected officials — such as a sheriff — would be politically motivated.