Gray wolves confirmed in Umpqua National Forest (copy)

In this March 2019 file photo, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed three wolves were living in the Umpqua National Forest, to the southwest of Bend. 

Environmental groups fighting to put the gray wolf back on the Oregon Endangered Species list lost a legal battle when their case was thrown out by the state’s Court of Appeals.

The appeals court tossed out the complaint on Wednesday, saying House Bill 4040 rendered the petition irrelevant. The bill, which became effective in March 2016, ratified the decision of the Fish and Wildlife Commission to remove the gray wolf from the state list of endangered species.

“In this case, the legislature has ratified the delisting, thereby providing the delisting with the statutory effect of removing it from a rule challenge,” according to the appeals court ruling. “Consequently, a decision on our part regarding petitioners’ challenge would have no practical effect, and the petition is therefore moot.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau, which joined the lawsuit as a respondent, called the decision a huge win for ranch families and Oregon’s livestock industry, which blames wolves for attacks on sheep and cattle. Other respondents in the case included the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

The petitioners included Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, nonprofit environmental organizations, and the California-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Oregon was home to about 80 gray wolves when they were delisted. The decision cleared the way for controlled hunts to limit the spread of wolves, which are blamed for livestock deaths.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2016, the number of wolves have increased to 137 individuals across the state. The state also has 16 packs and 15 breeding pairs.

Wolves are federally protected in Western Oregon and parts of Eastern Oregon. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife follows a wolf conservation plan, adopted in 2005, that seeks to balance the interests of environmentalists and ranchers.

The plan is more protective while the wolf population is low and less restrictive as the population increases.

The plan does not set a maximum population cap for wolves, but there is a minimum population objective of seven breeding pairs on each side of the state. The numbers are managed once they reach that level.

Some groups, including the Oregon Farm Bureau, support proposals to have them delisted on the federal level.

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will seek to end federal protections for the gray wolf throughout the lower 48 states. The service said it intends to return management of the species to states and tribes.

If the decision passes, it will be up to individual states to map out rules for hunting and culling of wolves. In May, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she opposed the federal delisting of wolves. In a letter to the Department of the Interior, Brown said wolves do not warrant a listing within Oregon but supported federal listing to protect wolves in other states.

Erik Fernandez, program director for Oregon Wild, said it’s not clear yet if the petitioners will appeal the Court of Appeals decision, but insisted the groups will continue to fight for the protection of gray wolves.

“It’s disappointing when science is cast aside,” Fernandez said. “If wolves are going to survive in Oregon long term, they are going to need better leadership from Gov. Brown and the Legislature.”

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