UPDATE (Friday, May 17 at 9:45 a.m. PT) —
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 to the Trump administration Wednesday that she does not support federally delisting wolves, she also doesn’t think endangered species protections are still warranted in Oregon for the wolves, whose official population count in the state is at least 137.
Brown told reporters Thursday 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. She believes the federal government should keep its current endangered species listing, which currently includes Western Oregon.
But she has stopped short of advocating the need for an endangered species listing within the state, instead walking a fine line in a letter this week 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 Thursday 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 for 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. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said he was "shocked and appalled" at the recent ODFW letter. In 2016, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., also criticized Brown 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 Blumenauer 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 reelection 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 the Thursday 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.
It’s unclear to what level ODFW and the governor’s office had discussed federal management of wolves before Melcher sent the letter on May 9.
A spokeswoman for Brown declined to answer follow-up questions sent via email and text message about why the governor didn’t know her agency’s position or whether she’d take a more active role in wildlife issues to avoid a repeat of the situation.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife did not respond to a request for an interview with Melcher or to questions sent via email about what contact it had about the issue with the governor’s office or members of the agency’s governing commission.
“Governor Brown addressed this in her press conference today,” agency spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy wrote in an email. “ODFW appreciates and respects the Governor’s clarification of the state’s position on federal wolf delisting in the lower 48.”
Wolves first returned to Oregon more than a decade ago after wandering in from neighboring states.
Out of 16 packs in Oregon, all but one successfully reproduced last year. Wolves have also become better established in western Oregon, according to the report, with 15 total wolves and in three different groups.
Oregon is in the midst of adopting a new management plan for wolves, which the state's Fish and Wildlife Commission is slated to vote on at its June meeting in Salem.