Oregon fish and wildlife commissioners decided Friday that it's time to consider whether gray wolves have recovered enough to take them off the state's list of endangered species.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission launched a public process to decide if the wolf population is robust enough to remove state endangered species protections. A final decision on the issue won’t likely be made until later this summer.
In 1946, that state considered itself rid of wolves. That was the year when the last bounty was claimed for a wolf killed in the state.
Now, nearly 70 years later, state wildlife biologists say gray wolves are back. Certain key conservation goals have been met - namely that the state has had at least four breeding wolf pairs for three consecutive years. Biologists say it may be time to relax protections. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission took that information to heart.
The Commission asked Department of Fish and Wildlife staff to develop two proposals -- one that would delist the wolf statewide and another that would allow for a partial delisting, which would maintain protections for wolves in the western part of the state.
State biologists have determined that Oregon has at least 77 wolves living within its borders. The wolves began crossing into the state from Idaho after federal officials reintroduced the species in the mid 1990s.
By 2014, the state had nine packs and eight breeding pairs. But all but about seven of the wolves live in a relatively small area in Northeastern Oregon.
Todd Nash of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said the decision to reexamine the wolf’s status is a positive one for ranchers and farmers.
“I think it’s a positive thing for the conservation groups as well because it shows that wolves have recovered to the point that there’s a consideration for delisting,” Nash said.
But Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild disagreed.
“It’s hard to make a reasonable case that 77 known animals of any species is a legitimate, sustainable recovery,” Klavins said. “And it’s not appropriate to be treating wolves differently just because they may be controversial for some people.”
Despite the low population numbers and relatively limited genetic diversity, state biologists say the chances of the species becoming biologically extinct over the next 50 years is less than 1 percent.
What exactly a state delisting would mean for the wolf population in Oregon is difficult to pin down because of overlapping jurisdictions and management plans.
Gray wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. So in those parts, state protections are a redundancy – a welcome and necessary redundancy, Klavins said.
“There’s no guarantee that wolves will continue to be protected in Western Oregon under the federal Endangered Species Act,” he said.
In 2011 Congress voted to delist the wolves in the eastern part of the state. And on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., introduced federal legislation to delist the wolf in the rest of Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Oregon has been managing wolves through the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan since 2005. Todd Nash doesn’t think a statewide delisting would have much of an effect on that plan, but he says it could help shield ranchers from legal challenges related to wolf control.
“There’s lots of loopholes in lots of places where the environmental community can slap lawsuits,” Nash said.