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Q&A: Congress Puts States In Charge Of Managing Gray Wolves

When Congress passed the federal budget bill this week, it also voted for the first time to remove a species from the endangered list.

The controversial vote gives management of gray wolves to the states – including Oregon, Washington and Idaho. And it shines a spotlight on debates in Salem over how to manage wolves here.

Here to talk about this issue is OPB’s Ecotrope blogger Cassandra Profita.

Beth Hyams: What’s the reaction been to this unique move in Congress?

Cassandra Profita: Congress hasn’t ever voted to remove a species from the endangered list. And some people are worried it opens the door to Congress stepping in to manage other controversial species. But its backer says it’s necessary because everyone pretty much agrees the wolves are recovered and no longer endangered. But the delisting process has gotten hung up in court.

I spoke with Rob Klavins. He’s a wolf advocate with Oregon Wild. And he said as frustrating as that legal battle has become, he still doesn’t think Congress should have stepped in the way it did.

Rob Klavins: “Even if you think that wolves are evil creatures and coexisting with wildlife is too much of a hassle, it’s pretty tough to argue that one of our most significant and popular pieces of environmental legislation should be dismantled by attaching a rider to a budget bill at the eleventh hour.”

Beth Hyams: So, that throws things to the states.  Is Oregon ready to take over wolf management?

Cassandra Profita: Actually, the state is pretty well prepared for this transition. U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service delisted the wolves in 2009, and before the court threw that decision out, Oregon got a chance to put its own wolf management plan to the test for a about a year.

I spoke with Michelle Dennehy. She’s a spokeswoman for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. She said state management won’t be much different from what the feds have been doing because Oregon’s wolves are still protected as a state endangered species, and those protections aren’t going to be lifted anytime soon.

Michelle Dennehy: “Right now we can account for 23 wolves in Oregon. We have low numbers of wolves in Oregon. We’re not going to be looking at a delisting of wolves from the state Endangered Species Act until we get four breeding pairs for three consecutive years, and we haven’t even reached four breeding pairs yet.”

Beth HyamsL So, will the vote in Congress change anything in Oregon?

Cassandra Profita: One sure change will be that ranchers in eastern Oregon can get state-issued permits to kill problem wolves. That’s after they’ve tried non-lethal ways of keeping wolves from killing livestock – things like flagging and electric fencing. The cattlemen are looking forward to having that option. And the conservation groups are worried that Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will be under pressure to authorize more wolf kills.

But Oregon may also be affected by changes in Idaho. It has more than 700 wolves, and can now start allowing hunters to shoot them to control the population. And Oregon’s wolves came from Idaho. So there are some who worry that fewer wolves in Idaho will mean fewer wolves in Oregon.

The federal delisting also raises the status of several bills ranchers have been pushing in the Oregon legislature to change state wolf management.

Beth Hyams: What’s happening with those bills?

Cassandra Profita: I talked with Jim Welsh, he’s a lobbyist for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. And he said only two of the cattlemen’s four bills are likely to move this session. One would set up a compensation program to pay ranchers when they lose livestock to wolves. That one passed unanimously out of a house committee this week. The other one is a bill that allows people to kill wolves in self-defense – if their lives are in danger.

But there are two other bills that Welsh said won’t be moving. One would allow ranchers to kill wolves without a permit if they’re chasing or harassing livestock, or spotted within 500 yards of someone’s home. The other one would remove wolves from the state endangered species list when there were four breeding pairs throughout the entire state - not just in the eastern portion. Welsh says lawmakers don’t support those bills.

Jim Welsh: “They are not wanting to run those particular bills because they are making changes to the Oregon Wolf Plan, and there has been some pretty heavy reluctance coming out of the senate and the governor’s office on making changes to the wolf plan.”

Beth Hyams: So, the Legistlaure won’t be changing the state wolf plan?

Cassandra Profita: Not this legislative session. But Welsh did say the cattlemen will keep trying to get those other two bills passed either through the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission or in the next legislative session.

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