Oregon wildlife commissioners, the recent recipients of a public “correction” by the governor on the state’s stance on removing wolves’ protection under the Endangered Species Act, said Friday they may allow wolf kills by private citizens at some point – even on public land.
The meeting comes at the end of a week of political upheaval over wolf management in the Beaver State. After reports Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director Curt Melcher had signaled his department’s support for the Trump administration’s proposal to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to “clarify and correct” Oregon’s position.
“Oregon supports the current federal listing status for gray wolves, and opposes delisting,” Brown wrote Wednesday.
But some of Brown’s language was less equivocal.
“Our commitment to the Oregon way gives me great confidence that wolves are on the path to recovery and do not warrant listing within Oregon, but their listing under the federal Endangered Species Act affords them some protection across their range,” Brown wrote.
Her office said the governor was saying wolves don’t need protections under Oregon’s state Endangered Species Act, but federal protection should remain in place.
“Based on the wolf population in Oregon and its consistent increase, wolves are not in danger of extinction within Oregon and do not warrant listing under the state ESA,” Brown’s spokesperson Kate Kondayen wrote in an email. “However, since wolves only occupy a fraction of their historic range across the country, and since we have a cultural history of extirpating wolves in Western states, the species should not be delisted from the federal ESA.”
Federal law only protects wolves in the western half of Oregon, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife removed their protection under the state version of the law in 2015. The west side of the state is home to two known wolf packs and a potential third filmed on a trail camera in March.
Arran Robertson, communications manager for Oregon Wild, said he interpreted Brown’s letter to be supporting potential federal delisting in Oregon.
“She wrote to say, “Oh no, I disagree,’” Robertson said. “But then she very specifically says Oregon’s fine – we can delist in Oregon. The thing is, we’re only talking about 15 wolves. There are 15 wolves in Oregon that make up that section for the state and the governor is saying we don’t need to protect those ones.”
On Friday, commissioners for the Oregon Department of Wildlife met to hear a staff presentation explaining the department’s proposed update to the wolf conservation plan. The commission will vote on the plan June 7.
Points of contention involve when and how the department will authorize the killing of wolves deemed to be chronic livestock predators and those determined to have too heavy of an impact on deer and elk.
The plan proposes culling of wolves after two confirmed livestock predation events and contemplates deputizing private citizens to do the killing.
Kevin Blakley, the department’s deputy wildlife division administrator, explained Friday the department softened the scientific term they previously used to describe wolves’ effect on deer and elk or “ungulate” populations, which can justify the killing of wolves, because the scientific language wouldn’t have held up in court.
“Ungulate” is the blanket term for hooved mammals.
“We could not scientifically justify calling changes in the ungulate population ‘a significant factor’ or say they ‘can be attributed to’ wolves, Blakley told the commission. “So we settled on ‘major cause’.”
Fish and Wildlife director Melcher said the state can authorize killing wolves for taking livestock on federal land, but said the department also has the discretion to refuse a cull request even with confirmed livestock predation.
“While we don’t view depredations any differently whether they have occurred on public land or private land, on the implementation side, when we’ve received a lethal removal request – and we’ve received many that we’ve denied – we do look at the circumstances,” Melcher said. “For example, we had an application where kills were confirmed, but they were on public land and it was near the end of the grazing season and we said no we’re going to deny it.”
He added letting private citizens kill animals whose recovery status is unclear is a decision based on financial considerations.
“We don’t have unlimited staff and resources,” he said. “We will need to engage the help of the public to manage their population.”
Commissioner Greg Wolley called the idea “problematic.”
“There are a lot of conflicts of interest,” Wolley said. “We’re talking about communities of people that may or may not have a stake in wolf/livestock conflict, but they’re going to support each other’s efforts. It’s problematic to have citizens authorized to kill wolves in support of their neighbors because there’s inherent bias involved.”
Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast advocate for wolves with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the department should rely less on hunters, trappers and anglers and think more of Oregonians who love wildlife.
“I think Oregon has really continued to amaze many of us over the past two weeks,” Weiss said. “We are just seeing a series of things happening in Oregon that are not happening the way they should in a state that has a reputation of being green and of listening to the science.”