When the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife brought in a third-party facilitator over the summer to lead meetings on Oregon’s new gray wolf management plan, wildlife advocates looked at it as an opportunity to start fresh on the much debated issue.

Four conservation groups that have led the charge on protections for wolves announced this week they would withdraw from the talks, just five months after the meetings began.

For Oregon conservationists, many of whom have worked on wolf issues for more than a decade, the decision shows a willingness to sacrifice leverage and years of work rather than greenlight what they saw as a flawed process to construct a flawed plan.

“It was clear that we were giving cover to the agency to produce a bad plan,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild.

In a letter addressed to Gov. Kate Brown, representatives from Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Oregon Wild claimed their concerns weren’t being listened to and deemed it more prudent to not participate in a plan they feel will make it easier to kill wolves in Oregon.

“We were coming to the table and really trying to find those places of common ground, but pretty much everything we suggested was rejected,” Stevens said.

Derek Broman, state carnivore biologist for ODFW, said he was surprised and disappointed by the groups’ decision to withdraw from the conversation, as he felt the groups were beginning to work toward tangible progress.

“We were really finally getting into the weeds on a lot of points,” Broman said. “We missed on an opportunity.”

Gray wolves are native to Oregon and once lived all across the state. However, Oregon’s early ranchers found themselves increasingly in conflict with the predators, which killed cattle and other livestock. ODFW’s records show the state offered bounties to kill wolves, which left the state with no confirmed wolves for much of the latter half of the 20th century.

Gray wolves from Canada were introduced in Idaho and Montana in the mid-1990s, and they came to Oregon several years later. In 2017, ODFW biologists counted 124 wolves in the state, primarily concentrated in the far northeast corner.

Oregon’s original wolf management plan was drafted in 2005, as a document that would guide the then-­theoretical return of wolves to the state. The document was updated in 2010, and new updates were supposed to come forward every five years. However, a series of delays, including the removal of the species from the state’s endangered species list in 2015, have frustrated environmentalists, hunters and other stakeholders.

After a proposed draft of ODFW’s management plan drew criticism from ranchers and conservationists alike, the agency went back to the drawing board. A third-party facilitator, Deb Nudelman with Kearns & West, was brought in over the summer to lead meetings and talk to individual stakeholders about their concerns.

Quinn Read, northwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, praised Nudelman and said she was encouraged by the tone and tenor of early meetings, which focused heavily on ways to deter wolves from attacking cattle without resorting to violence. However, Read said ODFW stepped in repeatedly and circumvented the discussions.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the facilitator wasn’t able to do their job,” Read said.

Broman disputed that account, saying mandatory deterrence the environmental groups were pushing for required time and resources that the agency was not prepared to commit to.

“As written, it just wasn’t right,” he said. “It had some fatal flaws in it.”

Before the most recent meeting, held in Clackamas on Tuesday, ODFW proposed voluntary nonlethal deterrence plans, which had the support of skeptical ranchers.

“It’s just simply going to be template for producers to use if they want to,” said Rodger Huffman, chair for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s wolf committee.

Another point of contention was the definition of chronic livestock depredation: how many livestock a wolf could kill before ranchers can seek a permit to kill the wolf in question. The 2010 plan allowed for a wolf to be killed if it killed two cows over any period of time. Before the meeting Tuesday, ODFW proposed two confirmed kills over a nine-month period as a compromise, which Huffman said he supported.

“Three is just absolutely not acceptable for the livestock community,” Huffman said.

However, Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, said the proposal was a significant change from the 2017 draft, which defined chronic depredation as three confirmed kills in 12 months. Cady said he was afraid this change would make it easier to kill wolves in the future.

“The outcome that we fear is more dead wolves and more conflicts with livestock operators,” he said.

Read acknowledged that stepping away from the discussions could do more harm than good, robbing the conservation groups of chances to weigh in on the draft, which is expected to be released in early march ahead of an ODFW meeting March 15. Still, she said, the groups are not going to stop fighting and said they would focus on lobbying the governor and the Legislature to take a more active role in shaping wolf management in Oregon.

“We’re not abandoning the communities where wolves and humans cross paths,” Read said.

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

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