Environmentalists pull out of Oregon wolf talks

Three environmental groups have pulled out of discussions over the revision of Oregon’s wolf plan.

CLACKAMAS, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is forging ahead with a long-overdue update of the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, even as four environmental groups withdrew from mediation and announced they will oppose it.

In a Jan. 4 letter to Gov. Kate Brown, representatives for Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity said they will no longer participate in meetings hosted by ODFW to find common ground on wolf management with hunters and ranchers.

Wolf advocates criticized the negotiations, describing the process as flawed and skewed in favor of killing wolves to protect livestock, rather than prioritizing non-lethal forms of deterrence. The groups slammed ODFW staff for “leading us to a seemingly predetermined outcome,” despite the agency paying more than $100,000 to hire a professional mediator.

On Jan. 8, the Wolf Plan work group — or what was left of it — met for the final time in Clackamas, Ore., with remaining members from the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Hunters Association and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Shannon Hurn, deputy director of fish and wildlife programs for ODFW, said the group’s input and feedback helped inform revisions to the Wolf Plan, which staff will present to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on March 15 in Salem.

Though they did not reach a consensus on the plan, Hurn said she felt the meetings were worth the time and investment.

“This is probably our most contentious wildlife subject,” she said. “We did hear what was important to folks, and where there is some agreement.”

Ranchers argue they need lethal control of problem wolves to protect their businesses.

Rodger Huffman, who ranches near Catherine Creek in Union County, said the “chronic depredation” standard of two confirmed kills in nine months is a win for the livestock community. He was also pleased the agency will continue to make GPS collars a priority to help ranchers know when wolves are around their pastures.

“I appreciate where we’re at with a lot of these pieces,” Huffman said.

Jim Akenson, conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association, said at some point the state needs to look at specific wolf management zones with hard population caps to protect deer and elk herds, but for now he is comfortable moving forward with the proposed plan revisions.

“It’s time to move on to the next step,” Akenson said.

Environmental groups, however, claim the Wolf Plan is now weaker than it was before they started, with ODFW cowing to industry demands and racing to kill wolves in response to livestock depredation.

Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the mediation process “failed miserably, because wildlife managers wouldn’t listen to the most recent science or Oregon residents who say we need to stop killing wolves.”

“We’ve tried for years to come to an agreement, but the state won’t fix its broken, outdated approach to wolf management,” Weiss said.

ODFW is supposed to update the Wolf Plan every five years to reflect the wolf population and distribution statewide. According to the most recent annual report in 2017, Oregon has at least 124 known wolves, and the minimum population has risen every year since 2009.

The latest Wolf Plan review began in 2015. The Fish and Wildlife Commission was set to adopt a revised plan in April 2018, but after hearing from opponents on both sides of the issue, they postponed voting and ordered ODFW to try and build more compromise.

That is when the agency hired Deb Nudelman, a professional mediator with the firm Kearns & West in Portland, and convened the work group to begin negotiations.

At one point, it appeared they were on the verge of a breakthrough, discussing a framework for ranch-specific wolf deterrence plans emphasizing non-lethal deterrence. Hurn said it was a good idea in theory, but would have required the agency to hire more than 20 new full-time staff across the state, costing more than $3 million.

“That’s a big request,” Hurn said.

In her proposed budget, Gov. Kate Brown does set aside roughly $1.2 million to help implement the updated Wolf Plan. The money would go toward hiring five new full-time employees, who would help with wolf surveys, collaring and assisting ranchers with non-lethal deterrents.

Environmental groups sharply criticized other parts of the plan, such as lowering the proposed definition of “chronic depredation” in Eastern Oregon from three conformed attacks over 12 months to two attacks in nine months. Once that condition is met, ODFW can consider killing wolves from these packs, as it did with the Pine Creek pack in Baker County in 2018.

“The return of wolves to the Pacific Northwest is an incredible wildlife success story that all Oregonians should be celebrating,” said Nick Cady, legal director at Cascadia Wildlands. “Instead of assisting this recovery, our state government is fixated upon killing the species at the behest of the commercial livestock industry.”

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