by Sen. Doug Whitsett
Some of the first governance meetings held in Oregon were convened in 1843, due to concerns over wolves killing livestock. It required more than 100 years of concerted effort before the last Oregon wolf was presented for bounty in 1946. Due entirely to their ill-advised reintroduction, the same issue is being actively debated today, more than 170 years after the first control efforts began.
Last week, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 to delist the Canadian Gray Wolf from the state’s endangered species list. The Commission’s decision came following an entire day of testimony from more than 100 people who signed up to sound off on the matter.
People from throughout the state attended the meeting, including wolf advocates primarily from Portland and Eugene. Their perspective was countered by representatives of the Oregon Hunters Association, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and many other residents of eastern Oregon. Recent Commission appointee Jason Atkinson was once again absent from the proceedings.
The Commission heard presentations from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) wolf program coordinator, as well as one of the program’s original architects, a biologist who has since retired. The presentations included maps of the areas in which wolves are known to exist in Oregon. It clearly showed that the apex predators are found nowhere near Portland or Eugene, but largely in the northeastern part of the state.
The Commission then began hearing arguments representing both sides of the issue including oral testimony from my office. We testified that according to recent press accounts, constituent operators of a century ranch located in northern Klamath County awoke on three consecutive mornings to find that wolves had maimed or killed their cattle. Also placed into the record by my office was written testimony provided by representatives of Oregon Wild and the Sierra Club during a meeting of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last April.
That committee had considered a bill that would have authorized the Legislature to be in charge of the wolf delisting decision. At that time, environmentalists testified they believed the Legislature did not have the expertise to make a delisting decision and that the Fish and Wildlife Commission was the only body capable of making such a determination:
“Managing our state’s wildlife is the role and responsibility of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and decisions regarding listing or delisting species are entrusted to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and decisions regarding listing or delisting species are entrusted to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. These entities have the necessary scientific, policy and legal expertise to make these decisions, and the processes to ensure full compliance with the law and opportunities for public participation.”
Now that the Commission has made its decision, we believe it is important for them to hear and understand that quote. It would be much more difficult to for environmentalists to successfully overturn a delisting made by the Legislative Assembly than a delisting made by the Commission.
We understand that environmental organizations are unhappy with the Commission’s decision and believe they are likely to sue the Commission, even though they nuanced their delisting decision by suggesting that the Legislature should limit the delisting to Eastern Oregon and significantly enhance the penalty for killing a wolf. Under current Oregon law, that penalty is a $6,250 fine and up to one year in jail.
Much of the testimony provided by environmentalists at the hearing appeared to be based on emotion rather than reality. A frequent argument was that the delisting would open the door for the wholesale slaughter of wolves. This is simply not true. This article in the Salem Statesman Journal newspaper provides an excellent summary of what the delisting decision actually means.
Although a giant step forward for protection of some livestock, the state delisting does not allow the killing of any wolf in the area designated as Western Oregon, lethal action may only be taken against wolves in the area designated as Eastern Oregon, and then only when they are literally “caught in the act” of killing or maiming livestock.
The Commission action will provide little help to reduce wolf depredation in Klamath County because, absurdly, Western Oregon is now defined to include most of Central and Southwestern Oregon. Therefore, only non-lethal means are being deployed to discourage the lone wolf that killed and maimed the Klamath County calves.
The Oregon Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires conservation that brings a species to the point where measures are no longer necessary. It requires the Commission to base the delisting on scientific criteria related to the species’ biological status in Oregon and mandates the use of documented and verifiable scientific information.
Oregon’s current wolf plan was developed in 2009, and was a collaborative effort directly involving all of the stakeholders, including environmental groups. It was approved unanimously in the Senate and had broad bipartisan support in the House.
Under the plan, it was agreed that the delisting could be considered once the wolf population reached a specific threshold. That threshold was reached nearly a year ago.
Ranchers and other people in Eastern Oregon upheld their part of the bargain. They endured the last several years abiding by the terms of the wolf plan, with the understanding that delisting would occur once the wolf population reached the milestone established under the agreement.
Last April, ODFW issued a draft evaluation recommending delisting of the wolf. ODFW staff made the recommendation to delist the wolf last month based on their best science and reiterated the recommendation during the hearing.
They based their recommendation on the fact that Oregon wolves are not in danger of extinction, and that existing programs and regulations are adequate to protect the species and its habitat. In short, the plan was created, agreed upon, and the criteria for de-listing has now been exceeded.
The Oregon wolf plan does not allow for hunting or other unauthorized killing of wolves. It only allows for taking of wolves as a management tool, in response to depredation. Nonetheless, environmentalist organizations attempted to use their typical tactics to pursue their agenda. Their rhetoric is reminiscent of the disastrous 1994 Northwest Forest Management Plan, when stakeholders came to an extensive agreement that was almost immediately derailed by environmental groups failing to act in good faith. The lengthy trail of lawsuits and devastated rural communities is now the true legacy of those efforts.
For wolf advocates, the delisting represents a major setback in their concerted, coordinated and continued efforts to eliminate the grazing of cattle and sheep on public lands. The most significant change resulting from the delisting is that environmentalists would no longer be able to use the Oregon ESA to file frivolous lawsuits under the guise of protecting the wolves.
Within hours of the Commission’s decision, the Center for Biological Diversity was already using the delisting for fundraising purposes. They are promising to take the ODFW to court within days to overturn the delisting. Apparently, they now believe the ODFW expert scientists are incapable making a decision based on sound science.
Last week’s delisting decision ultimately represents a hard-fought victory for rural Oregonians who have lived under the constant threat posed by these dangerous and destructive predators. Hopefully, common sense will continue to prevail, and the organized wolf advocates will no longer be able to use the wolves to advance their agenda to deliberately destroy the livelihoods of people outside of the Willamette Valley.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls