By Erik Fernandez

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The Bulletin recently reported on the status of Oregon’s wolf recovery. The top-line numbers showed cause for celebration. But a deeper dive shows another public agency that has lost its way.

Exactly 124 wolves have been counted in Oregon. That’s 123 more than just a decade ago. But imagine if there were only 124 salmon, deer or eagles in the state. Would we be declaring mission accomplished, arguing for trophy hunting and making it easier to kill them? By any reasonable measure, wolf recovery remains fragile.

Before wolves were prematurely stripped of state endangered species protections in 2015, wolves were on a better trajectory. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s press releases glossed over the fact that, in the last three years, wolf killing has increased. The number of packs and breeding pairs has not grown at all.

Until 2015, Oregon had clear requirements for nonlethal measures meant to prevent conflict with livestock. Under those provisions the wolf population grew and conflict decreased. That’s what everyone says they want: fewer dead livestock, fewer dead wolves and fewer angry people.

Now, amidst a poaching epidemic, the state continues to set the bar ever lower for nonlethal requirements and when wolves can be killed. The result? More killing and conflict.

Omitted from The Bulletin story is that Gov. Kate Brown’s agency just permitted the killing of five members of the Pine Creek wolf pack, including a pregnant female. The beneficiary is a livestock manager at the center of the controversy surrounding fraud and abuse of the state’s wolf compensation program. Allowing the killing of a pregnant female calls into question the state’s moral compass.

That’s on top of a modern record for wolf killing in 2017. Most of last year’s killing was done to appease the state’s most vocal anti-wolf activist.

With a compensation program already in place, this isn’t pay up or the wolf gets it, it’s pay up AND the wolf gets it. That does not bode well for the future of our wildlife.

The return of wolves to their rightful place on the landscape is good news for those who care about healthy ecosystems, native wildlife and Oregon’s conservation ethic. If the state is ever to move past unnecessary conflict and a token persecuted population of wolves, something needs to change.

Like all wildlife, wolves evoke strong emotions. For most of us, wolves are a symbol of freedom, wilderness and the American West. They provide economic opportunity and healthier wildlife populations.

But they remain at the center of a stubborn campaign of misinformation and fear. Wolves make good scapegoats, but a little context is important. Each year over 50,000 of Oregon’s 1.3 million cows die from things like weather, disease, domestic dogs and theft. Last year 11 unattended calves were killed by wolves. Though compensation was available for every loss, ODFW issued kill orders for 10 wolves.

Coexisting with native wildlife is a responsibility we all share — especially those of us lucky enough to live near the big wild places of the American West. We can do it without resorting to 19th century solutions like bullets, traps and poison.

It’s time for Governor Brown to step up. She needs to rein in her rogue agency so they can begin honoring their mission and rebuilding trust with Oregonians who value all native wildlife.

Wolves would be a good place to start. Oregon’s wolf plan is now three years out of date. The plan should ensure killing wolves is truly an option of last resort. Rather than follow the lead of state’s like Idaho and Wyoming, Oregon can look to provisions in place from 2013 to 2015 when Oregon was a national leader in wolf recovery.

The alternative is the path we’re currently on: More dead livestock, more dead wolves and more angry people.

— Erik Fernandez is the wilderness program manager for Oregon Wild in Bend.