By KALE WILLIAMS
The two sides of the wolf conservation movement faced off in Portland on Friday as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hosted a public meeting on the proposed conservation management plan for the embattled canid.
On one side, ranchers, mostly from the northeastern corner of the state, told wildlife commissioners that the current draft of the plan didn’t give them enough leeway to take lethal measures to protect their cattle and other livestock from wolves.
On the other side of the debate, conservation advocates referred to the most recent numbers released by the state — which showed population growth of wolves was stagnant at best — while arguing that wolves needed at least the same, if not greater, levels of protection they’ve enjoyed in the past.
“This is a very divisive issue,” said commission chair MIchael Finley, addressing the dozens of people who gathered in a conference room at the Embassy Suites Hotel near Portland International Airport. “Our job is to come together to protect these animals and to do so reasonably.”
As a backdrop, fish and wildlife officials said in February that the wolf population had stabilized and passed a threshold of three consecutive years with greater than seven breeding pairs. Officials decided to remove the animal from Oregon’s endangered species list in 2015, but the wolf remains under federal protections in Western Oregon.
There were at least 112 wolves counted in the state in 2016, but that represents an increase of only two over the previous year’s count. Last year’s annual wolf report documented seven wolf deaths in 2016.
One of the most-urgent requests from ranchers was to include language in the plan to give some local control to officials who could facilitate investigations after livestock is killed. Specifically, ranchers have asked the state to empower state police and county sheriff’s to make rulings on the cause of death.
Jill McClaren, of the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association, said that one of her calves was discovered dead on her property earlier this month, but because it was a weekend, there were no investigators available to take on the case. She had to wait until the following Monday to drive the carcass into town herself, and by then, she said, evidence the kill had been perpetrated by a wolf had been washed away by rain.
The state eventually ruled the cause of death as “other.”
Rob Klavins, a farmer from Wallowa County and field coordinator for the advocacy group Oregon Wild, told the commission that local elected officials should not be the ones ruling on the cause of death in suspected depredation events.
“Local control sounds good,” he said. “But consequential decisions should not be subject to local politics and pressure.”
State officials documented 24 confirmed killings of livestock in 2016, a significant increase from the nine confirmed the year before. The state investigated 67 incidents in 10 counties where ranchers or livestock owners claimed a wolf killed their animal, but were only able to confirm the 24 incidents.