Gray wolves are once again the center of attention for Oregon wildlife officials.
The state is considering revisions to the state’s Wolf Management Plan, which directs how the state’s gray wolf population is protected. The plan also addresses how conflicts with humans, livestock and deer and elk population goals should be handled.
“We’re looking at plan, how we implemented it, what works and what doesn’t - and what we could do better,” Wolf Program Coordinator Russ Morgan said Friday at an Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting in Klamath Falls.
At that meeting, wolf advocates and livestock operators hurled criticisms at the proposed changes.
Morgan said a goal of the draft plan is to improve flexibility when dealing with problem wolves.
The proposed plan for the first time specifies potential conservation threats to wolf population health – things like human-caused wolf deaths, disease and genetic health. It also calls for a citizen’s panel that would advise the agency on wolf issues.
Perhaps most controversially, the new draft maintains the ability of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to use hunters and trappers to kill wolves that are causing too many problems for ranchers or others. But it provides more stringent requirements — like a higher number of confirmed livestock killings by wolves within a defined period of time — before such lethal action could be taken against wolves.
These changes didn’t sit well with livestock producers at Friday’s meeting. Some wore buttons and stickers reading, “Don’t Cry Wolf, Manage Them.” Many asked that ranchers be give more rather than fewer options to keep their cattle and sheep safe.
“We ask for better local control over investigations and ultimate determination of wolf depredation incidents,” said Jerome Rosa of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
The proposed higher standards are coming after a year with the highest confirmed number of livestock losses to wolves, according to the ODFW, since they were reintroduced in the state.
Despite the higher threshold, wolf advocates worry that the new draft plan leaves too much leeway for the state to allow wolf hunting in the future. They asked that the language in the draft plan be clarified and that non-lethal control of wolves be more clearly prioritized.
“Science should guide the proposed action in this draft,” said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We should be using science instead of social compromise.”
The ODFW does wolf counts every year. Officials say there were a minimum of 112 gray wolves in Oregon. That includes 11 packs and eight breeding pairs. This count represents only a slight gain over population estimates in 2015.
Some wildlife advocates cited this lack of population growth as evidence that greater wolf protections are needed. But the number of wolves in the state is difficult to assess.
Making it especially challenging in 2016 were weather conditions in Eastern Oregon. Heavy snows delayed the census, which meant many of the juvenile wolves had already dispersed, or left their packs, and were likely not counted.
Roblyn Brown with the Oregon Wolf Program said the annual counts establish minimum numbers of wolves, so are considered low. But this year’s discrepancy between counted and actual wolves in the state is likely greater.
“I think we have a greater percentage of wolves that were not counted this winter because of the snow conditions,” Brown said.
Wolf Plan updates are required every five years, but the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission delayed the 2015 update while deciding to remove the gray wolf from the Oregon list of endangered species. Wolves are still protected federally in the western two-thirds of the state.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will host another public hearing on the draft wolf plan in Portland on May 19.