Less than a decade after gray wolves started migrating into Oregon, populations are on the rise, prompting a classification change from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. But conservationists are concerned the change could harm the state’s still-tenuous wolf population.

“While we celebrate the recovery, we’re concerned that this classification makes it easier to kill wolves,” said Danielle Moser, wildlife program coordinator for the Portland-based conservation group Oregon Wild.

On Wednesday, ODFW announced that seven or more breeding pairs of gray wolves were documented living in Eastern Oregon for three years, which prompted the agency to relax restrictions on the way wolves are treated in the portion of the state to the east of U.S. Highways 97 and 395. Among other changes this means private citizens can kill wolves under certain circumstances.

While conservation groups are happy about the increased wolf population, they are not entirely sure what it means for other wildlife as well as livestock.

Their only guidance: regulations contained in a management plan in place since 2005 and updated in 2010.

“In areas where chronic wolf problems are occurring, wolf managers may seek assistance from private citizens through special permits for controlled take to resolve conflict,” the plan reads.

Michelle Dennehy, wildlife communications coordinator for ODFW, said the agency introduced the management plan in 2005 with the goal of bringing gray wolves back to Oregon. The plan was established with conservation in mind, and killing wolves would become a less restricted activity as their population in the region increased, Moser added.

The agency’s annual report in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, showed at least 110 wolves living in the state, a 36 percent increase over the previous year. Dennehy said the packs are concentrated largely in the northeastern and southern portions of the state.

While Dennehy said the agency would continue to emphasize nonlethal methods of keeping wolves away from ranches and other residences, the wolf management plan allows for ODFW agents to kill wolves if there’s evidence wolves are causing declines in deer or elk populations, or if a wolf is determined to be chronically killing livestock.

“We use it sparingly, but it is a tool in the toolbox,” Dennehy said of the agency’s use of lethal force.

She said the agency killed four wolves in northeastern Oregon in 2016 but had not otherwise used lethal force since 2011. She added that there was no evidence wolves in Oregon are harming deer or elk populations.

“We’re not seeing declines in (hooved animals), but it’s something we’re keeping an eye on,” she said.

On the livestock side, Todd Nash, wolf committee chairman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said the new phase of wolf management doesn’t change much for ranchers, who can already shoot wolves in cases of self-defense, or if they catch a wolf attacking livestock. Instead, the association’s focus is on ODFW’s review of the wolf plan, which occurs every five years and is expected to be presented for revision in April. Among other topics, Nash said, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association is pushing for greater local control over managing wolf populations.

“A lot of decisions on wolves get made in a political manner, rather than a practical manner,” Nash said.

For their part, Oregon Wild, a conservation group, is pushing for a greater focus on nonlethal deterrents such as electric fencing and more clarity around when and how wolves can be killed.

“We want lethal control to be a last resort,” Moser said.

Wolf status in Oregon

As of Nov. 10, 2015, wolves are no longer listed as an endangered species in Oregon, according to ODFW. Wolves had been listed for state protection since 1987, when the Legislature passed the state Endangered Species Act. In adopting the law, all federally protected species found or once found in the state also became protected by the state. Wolves had been eradicated from Oregon by the 1940s in part because of state-sponsored hunts.

The reintroduction of wolves to the West started in the 1990s in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Since then wolves have moved into Oregon from Idaho.

The protection classification for wolves in Western Oregon remains unchanged, matching protections implemented when wolves were first listed as endangered by the state. Wolves also remain listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act west of U.S. Highways 395, 78 and 95, according to ODFW.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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