Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Monday to remove wolves from the state's list of endangered species.
The decision changes little in the short term for Oregon’s known population of 81 gray wolves. A state management plan would continue to permit killing wolves only if they're caught in the act of attacking or involved in repeated livestock damage.
The vote followed a day-long public hearing that kept the commission in session until early evening. It clears the way for a decision in the future to allow controlled wolf hunts, should the predator’s population continue to grow.
Wolf hunting would be allowed for wolves that chronically attack livestock or deer and elk populations. Special permits would be required for those who take part in such hunts. Such a scenario is years away, however, when Oregon has seven breeding pairs for three consecutive years.
The commission considered removing endangered-species status for wolves only in the eastern portion of the state, where most of the population lives. But some commissioners balked because of concerns that it would be challenged in court.
"I think the wolves in Oregon are going to be fine,” Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster said. "I am concerned about the wolf program, and losing Oregonians’ commitment to that program."
Commissioners said they plan to ask the Oregon Legislature for rules that allow a partial or statewide delisting. Commissioners also plan to ask for an increase to the maximum penalty for illegally killing a wolf, currently $6,250 and up to a year in prison.
Commissioner Michael Finley is a former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s. He said the commission should operate with a “scalpel rather than a sledgehammer” in these decisions.
“The science supported both — partial as well as a statewide delisting,” Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher said. “We don’t ever recommend the commission take actions that are not allowed for in statute.”
Nearly 200 people crowded the hearing room for the commission’s decision on wolves. About half of them testified in a day-long process punctuated with applause, tears and angry yells from hunters and ranchers who want fewer protections for wolves and wildlife advocates and environmentalists who argue the animal is not ready for delisting.
Eastern Oregon ranchers saw the vote as Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife leaders making good on promises to eventually delist wolves in the state’s management plan, first developed a decade ago.
"Eyes locked as hands were shook. A contract was signed. A deal was made that had criteria that has now been exceeded," Cheryl Martin, a Northeast Oregon rancher, told the commissioners. "It's simple -- you have an obligation. An obligation to make sure that that deal is honored."
Kevin Noel from Oregon City told the commission only ranchers and hunters' opinions should be considered in the decision.
"Until you've witnessed these animals ripping an animal apart, heard their screams, and seen the carnage and what they can do, you have no idea," Noel said.
Ellen Marmon from Eugene said her family raised sheep. She knows what it's like to lose animals to predators, she said. But she's also an environmentalist and wants to keep wolves on the endangered species list.
"We were raised to absolutely cherish this wilderness," Marmon said. "So I've watched in awe and wonder the return of wolves to this state."
Environmental groups argued the number of wolves in the state, and the percent of potential range they currently occupy, is too low to consider removing endangered species status.
They said they would consider suing the state to reverse the commission’s decision.
Among their arguments was the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's analysis of the state's wolf population. They claimed its scientific review was too last-minute and too reliant on scientists chosen by the agency. They cited the fact that many independent scientists have questioned the decision.
"Soliciting review from a few self-selected scientists in the final few weeks of this process to check a peer review legal box is wildly inappropriate," Cascadia Wildlands Legal Director Nick Cady said.
The scientists who reviewed the state's analysis were largely approving of its methods.
State Wildlife Research Project Manager Darren A. Clark told the commission that his agency's analysis was conservative, and that some may quibble with pieces of the results but, "In the grand scheme of things, that's not going to change the fact that wolves are an increasing population and not at risk of extinction."
Commission members and advocates for delisting the wolf questioned whether environmental groups were reneging on a wolf plan to which they previously agreed.