Wolf plan review brings management zones, hunting to forefront

A remote camera took this image of an adult wolf from the Snake River Pack on June 26, 2012.

Living with wolves remains a polarizing subject in Eastern Oregon as wildlife officials chug along with a five-year review of the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission heard from 53 people who testified during an informational hearing Oct. 7 at the Blue Mountain Conference Center in La Grande, highlighting some of the chief concerns for managing wolf packs into the future.

The first Oregon wolf plan was adopted in 2005, and since then the fledgling population has grown to a minimum of 110 wolves at the end of 2015. Russ Morgan, wolf program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, said the agency is required to look back at the plan every five years to determine what is working, and what could be changed to improve management — all while maintaining a conservation focus.

Not surprisingly, Morgan said stakeholders are divided about the 2016 update.

“Certainly, many of the comments we heard at the meeting were divided along expected lines,” Morgan said.

Two issues under review include whether the state should create more local wolf management zones with their own population targets, and whether ODFW should allow controlled hunting as a management tool in certain situations.

Currently, the wolf plan divides the state into just two broad management areas — eastern Oregon, where ODFW removed wolves from the state endangered species list last year, and western Oregon, where the predators are still protected by federal law.

Both the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners and Union County Cattlemen have submitted written comments in support of local management zones, which they argue will help alleviate the pressure on landowners dealing with higher concentrations of wolves.

“Wallowa County is where the largest amount of (livestock) depredations have occurred,” county officials wrote. “The impact of wolves to the community in general, and the impact to livestock producers in particular, has been a very serious problem now for over six years.”

John Williams, associate professor for Oregon State University Extension Service in Wallowa County, estimates the annual cost of wolves on a 400-cow operation totals $152,080. That factors in actual livestock losses, as well as increased labor costs and a lower conception rate for the herd.

The Union County Cattlemen suggest creating three different types of zones: the “wolf-safe” zone, in remote areas where wolves receive the most protection; “wolf-harassment” zones, where wolves can be harassed, chased and trapped; and private land, cities and towns, where wolves can be fully controlled by whatever means necessary to protect life and property.

Cattlemen also want to see the state use controlled hunts to manage wolves that make a habit of preying on livestock, and to protect game animal populations. That would take effect when the wolf plan enters Phase 3, which ODFW expects will happen by the end of 2016. Phase 3 is triggered when the wolf population reaches a minimum of seven breeding pairs for three consecutive years.

Environmental groups, however, argue it is too early to consider additional wolf management zones, and oppose creating any new zones for the purpose of instituting population caps or allowing hunting of wolves.

Defenders of Wildlife, an organization based in Washington, D.C., wrote there is no scientific justification for hunting or trapping wolves — especially in lieu of effective non-lethal measures to reduce conflict with livestock.

“Oregon has been among the most progressive in wolf conservation and management in the United States,” the group wrote. “Today, fewer wolves and fewer livestock have been lost as a result of depredation conflicts than any other wolf-occupied state in the nation.”

Conservationists also point to a recent poll conducted by Mason Dixon Polling and Research that indicates most Oregonians oppose hunting wolves. According to the poll, 72 percent oppose trophy hunting of wolves, 67 percent oppose hunting wolves to maintain deer and elk populations and 67 percent believe wolves don’t pose an economic threat to the cattle industry that necessitates lethal take.

In its staff report to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, ODFW agrees it would be premature at this point to establish new wolf management zones. An analysis conducted last year showed wolves run a higher risk of falling back under seven breeding pairs if the population is kept to fewer than 250 or 300 animals.

ODFW said the population won’t reach 300 wolves for another three to five years. The department recommends maintaining the east-west area concept, while revisiting local management zones at a later date.

ODFW does recommend hunting and trapping of wolves in Phase 3, but only by permit and only under strict criteria. Morgan said there are no plans to allow trophy hunting of wolves.

“It is a little disheartening to see so many comments about that when it’s not even part of the process,” he said.

Other issues under review in the wolf plan concern redefining population objectives, and whether a third party should conduct livestock loss investigations.

In order to address continued social conflict over wolves, ODFW also recommends creating a state Wolf Advisory Group, where members would collaborate on management solutions. The original wolf plan itself was crafted with extensive input from a 14-member advisory group representing a variety of interests.

“Proponents of this concept believe that the development of a WAG in Oregon would help resolve long-term and deep-rooted social conflicts related to the management of wolves,” ODFW wrote in its staff report.

A first draft of the updated wolf plan is expected to come before the Fish and Wildlife Commission in December, Morgan said. Any changes wouldn’t be adopted by the commission until 2017.

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