Oregon’s wolf population is on track to reach a key milestone. If current trends in Eastern Oregon continue, the state can relax protections and consider removing wolves from its endangered species list next year.
Russ Morgan, wolf coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said state rules call for launching a delisting process for wolves when Eastern Oregon has four breeding pairs for three consecutive years. A breeding pair is an adult male, adult female and at least two pups surviving to the end of the calendar year.
The state has documented at least three breeding pairs the past two years, and the three-year mark is coming up at the end of 2014.
At this month’s Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, Morgan proposed starting the delisting process in April, 2015. He said starting the process does not mean wolves will definitely be delisted.
“I don’t want to preclude that wolves will be delisted next year,” he said. “Before wolves can be delisted there has to be public involvement and a commission decision.”
Morgan said delisting wolves won’t really change how they’re managed by the state. However, the same population threshold that triggers the delisting process also ushers in a new phase of wolf management that lowers the bar for killing problem wolves.
Under the new rules that will likely kick in next year, Morgan said, the state will be allowed to lethally remove wolves after two confirmed attacks on livestock. Current rules only allow the legal killing of wolves after four incidents within six months. The new rules also allow ranchers to kill wolves that are chasing livestock, whereas the current rules only allow ranchers to use lethal control in cases where wolves are biting, wounding or killing livestock.
The delisting process and the new rules will only affect the wolves in the eastern half of Oregon; there is only one breeding pair of wolves documented in the western half of the state (that would be the famous OR-7 and his mate).
Before the fish and wildlife commission can decide to delist wolves, it has to confirm that the population is not in danger of becoming endangered or going extinct, that it can continue to reproduce, that it will have sufficient habitat, and that existing programs outside of the state Endangered Species Act will protect wolves in the future.
Morgan said Oregon’s wolf management plan has specific instructions for protecting wolves after they are removed from the endangered list.
“There’s a common misconception out there that delisting means open the flood gates and bar the door,” Morgan said. “But in reality, most of Oregon’s wolf management is already set.”
Rob Klavins with the environmental group Oregon Wild said he doesn’t think the commission should agree to remove wolves from the state’s endangered species list next year.
“We’ve expressed a lot of skepticism that 64 adults of any known species would be a real sustainable and meaningful population,” he said. “Any weakening of protections at this point, I would argue, are premature.”
The next phase of wolf management in Oregon, Phase II, maintains many restrictions on killing wolves until the population reaches seven breeding pairs for three consecutive years. At that point, the state plan calls for a move to Phase III.
Todd Nash of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said he supports a move to Phase II next year, but he called a move to Phase III “a poison pill.” While it opens the door to wolf hunts for controlling the population, he said, it comes along with more wolves and more risks for ranchers.
“It’s a real conundrum for us to say, ‘Yeah, we want more wolves so we can have better management,’” he said. “We know we’re going to have more problems at the same time.”