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. "They (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."