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OR: Oregon ‘problem wolves’ proposal draws howls

State officials call it a wildlife management tool, but critics say it’s wolf hunting by a different name

By Zach Urness
Statesman Journal

SALEM — Oregon wildlife officials have long maintained that no hunting season is planned for the state’s wolf population, even as the number of wolves in the state continues to grow.

Wolf hunting is legal in nearby Idaho and Montana — with around 400 animals taken annually between the two states — but officials have said no similar plan is envisioned for Oregon.

Environmental groups disagree, and say the state is planning to offer wolf hunting in Oregon, and possibly soon, just by a different name.

A proposal that could allow the public to hunt “problem wolves” — animals that attack livestock or cause a big decline in game populations — has become a flashpoint in negotiations over revisions to Oregon’s wolf plan.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said in reports that it’s only considering a more cost-effective management tool for wolves.

“This isn’t sport hunting because we’re not going to have a season — we’re not looking to create an opportunity,” state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said. “This would be a ‘controlled take’ intended to address damage in very specific circumstances.”

Hunting and ranching groups support special permits allowing the hunts, pointing out that the animals in question otherwise would be killed by state officials.

But environmental groups strongly oppose any public hunting of the state’s roughly 150 wolves.

“Regardless of how it is framed, the hunting proposed will result in annual wolf killing — the very reason this species was wiped out from the Lower 48,” said Nick Cady, conservation director for the environmental group Cascadia Wildlands.

The proposal is one of 10 being considered during revisions to the wolf plan, a process that occurs every five years. The proposals will go before the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission during a meeting on April 21 in Klamath Falls.

The confusion — and disagreement — boils down to how hunting is defined.

When wolves in Northeast Oregon repeatedly attack livestock, the state is empowered to take lethal action. In March, for example, state officials killed four wolves in the Imnaha Pack.

In the proposed revision, the state wildlife department is considering allowing members of the public — defined as licensed hunters and trappers — to kill the wolves instead of state officials. The move would save the department time and money, a state report says.

“A large expenditure of personnel and financial resources is involved,” the report says. “It follows that the future use of hunters and trappers … would be expected to assist.”

The hunting would apply only to wolves in the eastern third of Oregon after they reach Phase 3 of the wolf plan — seven breeding pairs for three consecutive years. That could happen as early as 2017, but given the small wolf population, and the fact that any use of public hunters would need to be approved by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, it may not happen very quickly, officials said.

Jim Akenson, conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association, said he supports a highly regulated permit system being implemented.

“Right now, a wolf biologist goes out and shoots the wolves when there’s a problem,” Akenson said. “Why not utilize the situation in a manner that provides a hunting opportunity, while also serving a management need?”

Environmentalists worry that issuing a special permit to hunt wolves would create a financial incentive for Fish and Wildlife to allow more opportunities, Cady said.

“The hunting proposal sets up an incentive system whereby funding for the wolf program will rest upon making chronic depredation determinations and commissioning these hunts,” he testified.

It’s also premature, said Arran Robertson, spokesman from the environmental group Oregon Wild.

“The wolf population is still very small and in recovery,” he said. “Deputizing the public to kill wolves on the agency’s behalf presupposes that ODFW is going to need to kill so many wolves that they can’t afford to do it anymore.”

Even more controversial than allowing the public to hunt is the proposal that wolves be eliminated for “causing major declines of ungulate populations,” such as deer and elk.

That question is also being considered by the state wildlife department.

“Wolves can be very hard on ungulate populations,” Akenson said. “We’re just asking the department to look at specific cases and keep the hunting community as part of the equation as we move into the future.”

As a University of Idaho research scientist in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Akenson said he documented an elk herd reduction of over 50 percent in five years in one area caused primarily by wolf predation.

Environmental groups say killing any of the about 150 wolves to save a population of about 125,000 elk or 220,000 mule deer is premature and unnecessary. And, they said, wolves bring equilibrium to the ungulate population.

“Let us put to bed the great unwashed notion that wolves routinely so negatively impact wild ungulate populations that there is a precipitous decline in deer and elk,” said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Wolves and their wild prey evolved in lockstep for tens of thousands of years; it simply defies ecological sense for wolf predation to have a catastrophic impact on its wild prey.”

Somewhere between nine and 14 wolves have been illegally killed in Ore­gon since 2007, according to police reports and state wildlife data. That number may be higher, given most of the wolves tallied were wearing radio collars.

The two sides disagree about the impact public hunting would have on wolf poaching in Oregon.

Todd Nash, a rancher from Enterprise, said he thought allowing the public to hunt could alleviate some of the frustration rural residents have felt with the arrival of wolves.

Environmental groups disagreed, and referenced a study published in the Royal Society Publishing that said “allowing wolf culling was substantially more likely to increase poaching than reduce it,” according to the authors.

State wildlife staff will make a recommendation on the issue and report to the commission.