By George Plavin, Capital Press

SALEM — Oregon has revised and updated its plan for managing the state’s growing wolf population, retaining provisions that allow depredating wolves to be killed.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 6-to-1 on June 7 to approve the long-awaited, highly contentious plan after hours of public testimony and debate over last-minute amendments.

Commissioner Greg Wolley, of Portland, was the only member to vote against the plan.

Getting to this point was no easy feat. Wolf management has been a source of controversy ever since the species returned to Oregon in 1999. The state adopted its first Wolf Conservation and Management Plan in 2005, which is supposed to be revised every five years.

The last revision happened in 2010, when wildlife officials identified just 21 known wolves statewide. Today, the minimum known population is 137 wolves. The commission removed wolves east of highways 395, 78 and 95 from the state endangered species list in 2015, and the latest plan revision started a year later.

Gray wolves are still federally protected in the western two-thirds of Oregon, though that could change under a proposal by the Trump administration to delist wolves across the Lower 48 states.

Ranchers have long argued they need to be able to kill wolves that make a habit out of preying on livestock. But environmental groups say management practices should focus more on using non-lethal deterrents to prevent conflicts.

Last year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spent more than $100,000 to hire a professional mediator, bringing the two sides together to try and find areas of compromise. However, the four environmental groups — Oregon Wild, Defenders of Wildlife, Cascadia Wildlands and the Center for Biological Diversity — pulled out of talks, describing the process as flawed and unscientific.

At the heart of the issue is the definition for what ODFW calls “chronic depredation.” Under the revised plan, ranchers in Eastern Oregon can apply to kill wolves if they attack livestock two times within nine months. The 2010 plan allowed for killing wolves after two confirmed attacks over any period of time in Eastern Oregon.

The commission considered changing the proposed standard to three attacks in 12 months, though the motion was ultimately defeated.

Once a wolf or pack meets the definition of chronic depredation, ODFW can issue what are known as “controlled take” permits that allow other members of the public to kill the predators within a limited scope. Wolf advocates staunchly oppose controlled take, fearing it will lead to general wolf hunting.

The commission did approve an amendment to controlled take regulations, stipulating permits can only be approved through a separate rule-making process. In a statement, ODFW says it has not approved controlled take of wolves and has no plans to at this time.

Derek Broman, ODFW carnivore and furbearer coordinator, said the plan is not dramatically different than before, though it does reflect the current situation in Oregon.

“We continue to maintain a conservation-based plan that is true to its origins, but provides additional clarity,” Broman said. “Now we have a decade of our own information.”

Ranchers from across the state traveled to Salem to provide their input on the plan. Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said his members have “suffered enormous losses, both economic and emotional” due to wolves. He and others representing the industry argued for more collaring of wolves and management zones with population targets to assist producers.

Broman said collaring remains a valuable tool, but stopped short of making any promises. “The issue is, collaring wolves is a very exhausting, very challenging practice,” he said.

In a staff presentation to the commission, Broman said the revised plan does not establish population targets or caps.

Broman said the plan will continue to emphasize non-lethal deterrents in every phase of management, and ODFW added a new chapter to monitor potential threats to the species — such as poaching, diseases and habitat destruction.

Rusty Inglis, a rancher and president of the Harney County Farm Bureau, said the success of the wolf is coming at a high cost for the livestock industry and rural Oregon as a whole.

“Ranching is a mainstay economic driver in most rural communities here in Oregon,” Inglis said. “Whenever a ranching family faces economic loss, the whole community loses.”

Veril Nelson, a southwest Oregon rancher and wolf committee co-chairman for the Cattlemen’s Association, said the losses don’t just come from dead animals. He said studies have shown cows suffer stress, weight loss and poor grazing that can all affect a rancher’s bottom line.

Still, ranchers by and large urged the commission to pass the plan as proposed. Environmental groups were more sharp in their opposition to the plan.

“We do not want dead livestock any more than the livestock industry does,” said Sristi Kamal, Oregon senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “We need more from the state to be able to help producers to learn how to live with wolves.”

Ellen Marmon, a resident of Eugene, agreed that more emphasis should be put on non-lethal deterrents and less on killing wolves.

“I think our wilderness should be truly wild,” Marmon said. “(Wolves) are a precious resource, just like our farms and just like our forests.”

Commissioner Holly Akenson said the rising wolf population shows that the state’s management has been working so far, and the new plan will be a continuation of that success. She described now as a time to celebrate.

“I think the plan in the past has shown to be really successful,” Akenson said. “We have a strong wolf population. It continues to rise. I hope everyone here can find some support for this plan.”

Gov. Brown takes ODFW to task over plan

SALEM — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is once again taking the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to task over wolf conservation.

Fish and Wildlife commissioners approved a revised version of the Oregon wolf management plan on June 7, which was immediately met with strong criticism from advocates who argue the agency is not doing enough to protect the species.

Brown echoed those concerns in a statement released through her spokeswoman, saying the plan fails to meet expectations for ensuring a healthy wolf population.

"Governor Brown believes that we must protect our historic and natural heritage in Oregon," the statement reads. "Wolves are part of the landscape, and as their numbers increase and stabilize, we must ensure that Oregon has an effective plan to protect and continue to grow Oregon's wolf population."

In May, Brown also contradicted the stance of ODFW Director Curt Melcher about a Trump administration proposal to remove endangered species protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states.

Melcher wrote a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in support of delisting, saying that Oregon wolves are growing both in numbers and range. Brown quickly countered with a second letter to "clarify and correct" the state's position, that while the success of wolf recovery in Oregon is "unquestioned," a federal endangered species listing is still warranted nationwide.

The Oregon wolf plan is supposed to be updated every five years, but was last done so in 2010. Since then, the minimum wolf population has increased from at least 21 known wolves to 137.

ODFW began the latest revision process in 2016. That included a series of meetings with a professional mediator, gathering representatives from the ranching, hunting and environmental communities to find areas of agreement and compromise within the plan.

Talks began in August 2018, but fell apart by January as the four environmental groups — Oregon Wild, Defenders of Wildlife, Cascadia Wildlands and the Center for Biological Diversity — left the bargaining table, arguing that ODFW was working toward a predetermined outcome.

Specifically, they fear the revised plan will make it easier to kill wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock, rather than focusing on non-lethal and preemptive strategies to prevent conflict.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 6-to-1 to adopt the plan revisions. Perhaps most contentious was the new definition for "chronic depredation" in Eastern Oregon, where wolves are already delisted. Under the plan, ranchers can now request wolves be killed after just two confirmed depredations in nine months.

Wolves in Western Oregon are still federally protected, though that could change if the government goes through with its latest delisting proposal.

Environmental groups also railed against provisions in the plan that allow for issuing "controlled take" permits to the general public. Though the plan explicitly forbids general wolf hunting, advocates worry controlled take could lead to that possibility down the road.

Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, said the plan demonstrates "a spectacular failure of leadership" and called out Brown in his statement.

"Every wolf allowed to be hunted by the public, snared in a leghold trap, or killed for eating its native prey from this point forward will be the direct consequence of Governor Kate Brown and majority of her wildlife commission," Stevens said.

In her statement, Brown made it clear she is also not happy with the final product. It was not immediately clear whether Brown can or will direct the agency to revisit amendments.

"Efforts in the wolf plan to evaluate depredations and prevent them fail to meet the governor's expectations for ensuring the health of the wolf population while also meeting the needs of the ranching community," the statement reads. "And as she communicated to the director of ODFW last month, the plan should give no member of the public the opportunity to hunt wolves."

Members of hunting and ranching groups mostly urged the commission to adopt the revised wolf plan, though it was clear they did not get everything they wanted, either.

Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said ranchers want more wolves fitted with GPS collars. He also lobbied for wolf management zones with population targets, and asked to allow local officials — such as county sheriffs — to investigate livestock depredations.

"Agriculture is our state's second-largest economic driver, and beef is our state's second-largest agricultural industry," Rosa said during testimony. "Our members throughout the state have suffered enormous losses, both economic and emotional."

The wolf plan does not establish management zones, and while the agency says collaring is a valuable tool, program leaders stopped short of making any promises to increase the use of collars.

Derek Broman, ODFW carnivore and furbearer coordinator, said the plan does not forbid local officials from taking part in depredation investigations, but cautioned they must follow rigorous standards.

"If we're not dotting every 'I' and crossing every 'T,' we're leaving ourselves up for quite a bit of criticism," Broman said. "We'll have to continue to try to maintain that level of rigor and effort."

Todd Nash, a Wallowa County commissioner and rancher, said allowing sheriffs to investigate livestock depredation is quicker and helps to normalize local attitudes about wolves.

Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers said law enforcement is willing and able to step up and meet the demand.

"Let me make it clear. We as Oregon sheriffs have every intention of being involved in investigating wolf-livestock depredations," Rogers said. "Our producers are demanding it."

Environmentalists opposed the measure, worrying that investigations by elected officials — such as a sheriff — would be politically motivated.