SALEM – After nearly 11 hours of emotional testimony, back and forth discussion and two timeouts for legal advice from a state attorney, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 Monday to take gray wolves off the state endangered species list.
In making the decision, commission members agreed with an ODFW staff appraisal that the state’s wolves have expanded in number and range to the point that they no longer need protection under the state Endangered Species Act.
Oregon’s wolves remain covered under the federal ESA in the western two-thirds of the state, and ODFW officials say the state wolf management plan remains in effect and will protect wolves from illegal hunting.
The decision doesn’t close the book on Oregon’s work to manage wolves. Some commission members made it clear they preferred to delist wolves only in the eastern third of the state, where most of Oregon’s 82 confirmed wolves live, but were prevented from doing so by language in the state law.
Meanwhile, conservation groups are expected to file a lawsuit over the commission’s decision.
“I think that’s very likely,” said Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think they’re in violation of the law. They didn’t pay attention to the science.”
Conservation groups believe Oregon’s wolf population is too small and too fragile to delist, and is present in only 12 percent of its potential territory.
“There’s no other species we would delist when it’s absent from almost 90 percent of its habitat,” Weiss said.
Oregon’s ranchers, who had urged the ODFW commission to follow the guidelines of the wolf plan and the recommendations of the department’s biologists, cheered the decision.
“I’m relieved,” said Todd Nash, wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. “This sends a message to cattle producers that the ODFW Commission will stand by its commitment.”
Nash said ranchers would not have supported a partial delisting.
“When we were paying the price (of livestock attacks) in Eastern Oregon, we fully believed we were doing it for the whole state,” Nash said. “And we were proud to do it.”
More than 150 people packed the ODFW hearing room and 106 signed up to testify. Activists opposed to delisting wolves, many of them wearing matching orange T-shirts, made up a majority of the audience. A sprinkling of men in cowboy hats – Eastern Oregon cattle ranchers who have borne the stress and cost of wolf attacks on livestock – clustered on one side of the hearing room.
The testimony echoed the arguments that have been made since Oregon’s wolf population reached the number of breeding pairs that trigger consideration of delisting under the management plan.
Conservation groups and their allied argue that the state’s biological status report on wolves was flawed and should have been peer-reviewed by other scientists. ODFW staff belatedly circulated the report to biologists they knew, but conservationists said that was insufficient.
“If this commission chooses to delist it will make a very sad and powerful statement about who and what it serves,” said Jonathan Jelen, development director for the conservation group Oregon Wild.
Livestock producers, however, argued they’d followed the wolf plan in good faith and expected the ODFW Commission to to the same.
“Oregon ranchers honored their obligation to follow the plan,” said Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. “This is one of the reasons wolves multiplied in our state.”