It was standing room only at the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s meeting in the taxidermy-adorned ODFW headquarters in Salem. The only topic on the agenda for the day-long meeting? Whether Oregon’s 81 confirmed wolves should be stripped of protections under the state endangered species act.
After months of heated debate, this was the public’s last chance to provide input to the commission before a decision was made on whether to delist wolves statewide. Oregon residents — 106 of whom signed up to give testimony — packed the room. While there were many remarks from residents who don’t support keeping wolves on the state’s endangered species list, the majority of folks present, including Defenders’ staff, came to tell the commission that a state delisting for Oregon’s fragile wolf population was incredibly premature. In addition to the testimony at Monday’s meeting, the commission received more than 22,000 comment letters from the public opposing a state delisting of wolves. Indeed, most recent polling shows that over 66 percent of Oregonians want to see wolves continue to recover in the state.
Unfortunately, in a precedent-setting move, the commission voted to remove state protections for wolves. No other species has been removed from the state’s endangered species list with a population of fewer than 100 individuals statewide, or when they were still absent from a significant portion of their historic range.
Headlines this year touting wolves’ continued expansion have warmed the hearts of conservationists nationwide. Wolves from Oregon even made the long journey south into the Golden State where the species has been absent for over 90 years. But, keep in mind, the progress wolves have made in Oregon is precisely because Oregon has remained committed to responsible wolf management, prioritizing the use of preventative measures to manage potential livestock-wolf conflict, instead of quickly resorting to killing wolves.
One of the many issues we take with the commission’s decision is that it was made before wildlife managers and stakeholders had the opportunity to review and update Oregon’s wolf management plan. This plan, drafted in 2005 and extended in 2010, is overdue for its required five-year review. Without certainty in the plan, delisting could make it easier for wildlife officials to use lethal control to manage livestock-wolf conflict instead of prioritizing non-lethal tools.
As Defenders newest staff member in Oregon, I will work tirelessly for wolf conservation. And, my first focus will be working with Oregon’s wildlife managers to ensure that precautionary and protective measures for wolves remain in any revision to the wolf management plan. It’s critical that any changes to the plan keep guidelines in place for using non-lethal conflict avoidance tools, like livestock guard dogs or fencing, to reduce potential livestock-wolf conflicts. The single greatest threat to wolf recovery is human impacts, particularly poor management when it comes to livestock-wolf conflicts. It will be equally important that any update to the plan includes a prohibition on any sport hunting or trapping of wolves, which at this time would certainly keep this fragile population’s from continuing to recover.
The commission should also uphold its promise to work with the Oregon legislature to increase penalties for poaching a wolf. Recent headlines show that a hunter who killed a wolf in Baker City was charged with two Class A misdemeanors: one for taking the life of a threatened or endangered species, and a second for hunting without a big game tag. If wolves are to continue their recovery, it will be essential that the commission and the Oregon legislature stand firm on penalties for poaching like they’ve done here, and that the state’s fish and game agency continue its efforts to educate residents about wolves presence in Oregon, the protections that apply, and how to tell the difference between wolves and coyotes.
This delisting decision is certainly a setback to continued wolf recovery in the state, but we’re not giving up. Oregon can continue its role in the success story that is the recovery of the wolf in the American west. But to keep this success story going, Oregon will need clear guidelines in place for managing wolves in the state. There’s work to be done, and we’re rolling up our sleeves to make sure Oregon’s 81 wolves get the chance they deserve to thrive throughout their historic range.