By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

SALEM — A conservation group that has challenged state and federal management of gray wolves in Oregon has filed a complaint against lawmakers for what it says were misleading and inaccurate statements during debate on a wolf bill in the recent legislative session.

Cascadia Wildlands filed the complaint Monday with the Government Ethics Commission alleging Reps. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie; Greg Barreto, R-Cove; and Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, misled colleagues who later approved a controversial wolf bill.

The lawmakers said House Bill 4040, which affirmed the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s 2015 decision to remove the gray wolf from the state Endangered Species List, wouldn’t block a lawsuit challenging the delisting. The lawsuit last month was thrown out, with the court citing the passage of House Bill 4040.

“Some level of accountability in Salem would be awesome,” said Nick Cady, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands. “I think that’s what we’re trying to work toward.”

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 in November to delist the gray wolf when there were around 80 wolves in Oregon, mostly in the northeastern stretches of the state but also in Lake, Klamath and Jackson counties. There was a minimum of 110 wolves as of the end of 2015, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The bill’s supporters said removing the wolf from the state’s Endangered Species Act was the continuation of Oregon’s 2005 wolf-management plan. Opponents who challenged in court questioned the accuracy of the science on which the commission based its decision.

Wolf advocates for weeks told lawmakers the bill would nullify their lawsuit, yet the three representatives misled House members when they said the lawsuit wouldn’t be blocked, Cady said.

“The question is … does this basically prevent litigation?” Barreto said on the House floor Feb. 12, shortly before lawmakers voted 33-23 to send the bill to the Senate. “The answer that I have come up with, or that I could find, is that no, it doesn’t.”

Senate Democrats in the final days of the session held up the bill and nearly prevented a vote, but they eventually voted 17-11 to send the bill to Gov. Kate Brown, who later signed it.

Just over two months later, the Court of Appeals ruled the lawsuit moot, citing House Bill 4040.

Barreto referred all questions about the complaint to House Republican spokesman Preston Mann, who said in a written statement: “This is nothing more than an attention-seeking stunt. It’s disappointing that special interest groups continue to try and undermine our political process through frivolous attacks like this.”

Witt didn’t respond to a request for comment. In a phone interview, Esquivel said he hadn’t known about the complaint until a reporter called him and that he didn’t know the bill would block the lawsuit.

“Don’t tell me that it smells because you weren’t there,” he said, adding: “I’m just wondering if we aren’t (being used as) a recruitment tool” for the conservation groups that filed the complaint.

Ron Bersin, executive director of the Government Ethics Commission, confirmed the complaints were filed but said he couldn’t comment on them. The commission has 135 days for a preliminary review of the complaints before it must decide whether to move forward with an investigation, which can last six months.

Cady said Cascadia is planning to ask the court to reconsider its motion on the grounds that the bill is unconstitutional. Wolves, meanwhile, remain listed on the federal Endangered Species Act in western Oregon and delisted in the eastern third of Oregon. Hunting wolves remains illegal statewide, but they can be killed in self-defense or if they’re caught chasing or attacking livestock.

Cady fears the new law will eventually lead the way to wolf hunting in the eastern third of the state.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347, tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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