By BY Tony Schick, OPB
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is distancing herself from one of her agency heads’ support for stripping away federal endangered species protections for gray wolves. She said she was not aware of her wildlife chief’s support for the move and that she doesn’t agree with it.
At least, not all of it. While Brown made clear in a letter sent recently to the Trump administration that she does not support federally delisting wolves, she also doesn’t think federal protections are still warranted in Oregon for the wolves, whose official population count in the state is at least 137.
Brown told reporters that she and Oregon Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher have a “disagreement in philosophy” regarding whether wolves still need to be federally listed throughout the Lower 48.
But she has stopped short of advocating for ongoing federal protection of gray wolves in Oregon, instead walking a fine line in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Oregon’s effort “gives me confidence that wolves are on the path to recovery and do not warrant a listing within Oregon,” Brown wrote. She said wolves should be federally listed because they need protections elsewhere.
Asked whether that stance meant she would support a partial federal delisting of wolves, just in Oregon, Brown was noncommittal.
“It depends upon what the scenario looks like,” she said. “It’s not like wolves pay attention to statewide boundaries. This needs a regional strategy and a range-wide recovery plan.”
Wolves are already partially delisted in the eastern third of Oregon and Washington by a 2011 act of Congress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering removing protections for the wolf across its range, and is collecting public comments on the matter until mid-July.
Removing federal protections would put smaller and less-established populations in western Oregon under state management, opening the potential for more ranchers to kill wolves that attack livestock and removing a barrier to future opportunities wolf hunting.
The blowback Brown received for her agency’s unsanctioned support letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — and her subsequent public disavowal — is the latest of several political controversies regarding wolves since she became governor.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who said he was “shocked and appalled” at the ODFW letter, also criticized Brown in 2016 over her staff’s involvement in a bill that weakened protections for wolves.
Earlier this month one of Brown’s controversial appointments to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, which sets the state’s wolf policy, was rejected by state senators over his big-game hunting and family connection to the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. That group has been one of the staunchest critics of wildlife protections for wolves, which sometimes prey on livestock.
Rodger Huffman, chair of the wolf task force for the Oregon Cattlemen, said ODFW’s support for delisting didn’t surprise him because wolf populations have recovered as intended. He said Brown’s disavowal seemed like a reaction to outrage from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and environmentalists.
“I can’t help but think there was a political motive behind the statement versus science,” said Huffman, an Eastern Oregon rancher.
Brown’s 2018 re-election campaign won the endorsement of the Oregon League of Conservation voters. It heralded her as “2017’s environmental champion.” But she has also repeatedly angered the state’s wildlife lobby.
Oregon Wild Executive Director Sean Stevens said Brown has too often used wildlife as a political bargaining chip.
“It is fair to say we’ve been disappointed in Gov. Brown,” Stevens said. “She’s been asleep at the wheel when it comes to wolves and with fish and wildlife more broadly. This agency has at every turn made it easier to kill wolves.”
The confusion regarding the letter also raises the question of how Brown and the head of her wildlife agency became out of sync to the point that she was unaware of his position on the federal status of wolves, one of the state’s most iconic and polarizing species.
Brown was asked at a press conference whether agency director Melcher should have cleared his letter with her before sending it to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“That probably would have been a good idea,” she said.
Wolves first returned to Oregon more than a decade ago after wandering in from neighboring states.