A federal proposal to strip remaining federal protections from gray wolves could change the trajectory of the species’ recovery in Oregon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it intends to move forward on a proposal to remove protections related to the federal Endangered Species Act from gray wolves nationwide. David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said in a prepared statement that the animal, which was hunted to extinction in much of its historical range, has met the agency’s goals for recovery.

“Today’s action puts us one step closer to transitioning the extraordinary effort that we have invested in gray wolf recovery to other species who actually need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, leaving the states to carry on the legacy of wolf conservation,” Bernhardt said Thursday.

Oregon’s ranchers have largely cheered the proposal, noting that it may make it easier to for them to kill problem wolves in Western Oregon.

“It’s a huge benefit for Oregon’s ranchers,” said Rodger Huffman, wolf committee co-chair for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

However, conservationists were concerned that, without a strong state management plan, wolf populations could suffer in parts of the state where they’re just beginning to re-establish a foothold.

“Wolves in Western Oregon are a long way from recovery,” said Rob Klavins, northeast field coordinator for Oregon Wild.

The decision means the public will get a chance to comment on the protections proposal. Vanessa Kauffman, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the full proposal will be available for review in the Federal Register on Friday, which will begin a 60-day public comment period.

Gray wolves were once found all over Oregon, but conflicts with early ranchers in the state reduced their numbers. Records from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife show that the state offered bounties to kill wolves. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, there were no wolves confirmed to be living in the wild in Oregon.

After gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s, they made their way to Oregon later in the decade. Over the last 20 years, wolves have slowly rebuilt their population in Oregon. ODFW biologists counted 124 wolves in 2017, the most recent year population data is available.

As the wolf population has grown, the mammals have slowly lost state and federal protections. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed wolves from the federal endangered species list for much of the Intermountain West, including Eastern Oregon. Four years later, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission removed gray wolves from the state’s list of protected species.

However, that recovery has not been spread equally across Oregon. The vast majority of the wolves are concentrated in the northeast corner of the state, where the population has grown to the point that the state wildlife agency relaxed restrictions on the animals, making it easier to kill wolves under certain circumstances. In the rest of the state, however, wolf populations are still small and isolated, and the animals have much stricter protections.

Klavins said the potential loss of federal protections in Western Oregon shifts the burden of protection onto Oregon’s long-overdue wolf management plan.

The plan, which was written in 2005 and updated in 2010, guides many aspects of the state’s response as wolves return to Oregon.

The plan is supposed to be updated every five years, but a series of delays and disagreements between stakeholders have left the most recent iteration of the plan more than three years overdue. In January, Oregon Wild and three other environmental groups opted to withdraw from the planning process entirely, claiming that the new drafts of the plan would make it easier to kill wolves.

“What we want to see is a wolf plan that leads to less conflict and less killing,” Klavins said.

Michelle Dennehy, communications coordinator for ODFW, said she was hopeful that a draft of the management plan will be available by the end of March.

Huffman said wolves have met state and federal population targets, and the time has come for the wolves to be managed more like other animals living in the forest. Because populations are growing and the federal government doesn’t have the resources to manage the animals in Oregon, Huffman said he supported the decision to remove them from Endangered Species Act protection.

“It would be good for Oregon,” Huffman said.

Losing federal protection would leave wolves living in Western Oregon vulnerable, said Shawn Cantrell, vice president of field conservation programs for the national nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife.

Western Oregon is home to just one established pack — the Rogue Pack, east of Grants Pass — and Cantrell said state and federal protections have forced ranchers to utilize nonlethal approaches to keeping wolves away from livestock. With federal protection potentially disappearing, Cantrell said he was concerned ranchers would resort to killing wolves without having a stable population in that part of the state.

“There’s very few wolves in that area,” he said.

Additionally, Klavins said the loss of Endangered Species Act protection could keep Oregon’s wolf population from expanding into parts of the state that are suitable for them. Last year, a pair of wolves were spotted in Wasco County with a pair of pups in tow, making them the first wolves confirmed to be living in that part of Oregon for decades. However, one of the wolves died late last year, a sign of the fragility of the population. Klavins and Cantrell agreed that the changes could make it harder for the species to expand outside northeast Oregon.

“They still occupy a small fraction of the habitat that ODFW has said is good habitat for wolves,” Klavins said.

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

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