Conservationists Challenge Oregon's Wolf Delisting FAQ

On December 30th, 2015, Oregon Wild and our allies at Cascadia Wildlands and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the state’s decision to prematurely strip wolves of their protections under the state’s Endangered Species Act (ESA). Below is an explanation about the effort.

  1. Why did you file the legal challenge?
  2. What are you hoping to accomplish?
  3. Aren’t you just trying to get rich?
  4. Didn’t the wolf plan call for delisting wolves now?
  5. But the state’s doing a good job right now, right?
  6. Shouldn’t you just let ODFW do their jobs? Aren’t they the experts?
  7. Who cares?
  8. Aren’t wolves devastating the livestock industry, killing all the good wildlife, and threatening our children?
  9. What does Governor Brown say?
  10. What’s next?

Why did you file the legal challenge?

Simply put, the government must follow its own laws. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) violated several of its own laws by refusing to consider the best available science, ignoring conflicts of interest, and bending to political pressure to delist wolves. Wolves in Oregon have not recovered.

What are you hoping to accomplish?

Oregon Wild wants to see healthy and abundant populations of all native wildlife. That’s essentially the same mission as ODFW. The return of wolves to Oregon has been a tremendous conservation success story, but it remains fragile and there are a number of cautionary tales that demonstrate the need for continued protections.

We look forward to the day we can celebrate an appropriate delisting of wolves (as we did with peregrine falcons and bald eagles at the state level, and gray whales on the federal level). However, with only 80 or so known adult wolves in the state occupying just 12% of their habitat, Oregon is a long way from recovery. Sadly, ODFW caved to political pressure by prematurely delisting wolves.

We hope to see the state manage wolves and all native wildlife informed by the best available science and guided by Oregon’s conservation values. Living with wildlife can present challenges and we will continue to work with the state and willing stakeholders to minimize conflict and make sure killing is an option of last resort. 

Aren’t you just trying to get rich?

Going to court costs money and isn’t fun. We made every effort to avoid litigation including sending multiple warnings to the agency flagging their violations of the law and offering to resolve the issue out of the courtroom. We were told by a representative of the agency to “bring it on”. We met with agency staff and commissioners, spoke with the Governor’s office, and even sat down with stakeholders from the hunting and ag community to find and propose solutions acceptable to all parties. Win or lose, Oregon Wild will not recoup a single penny of our expenses. But it’s the right thing to do.

Didn’t the wolf plan call for delisting wolves now?

Nearly all interests – including hunting groups, the livestock industry, and conservationists – called for the state to honor the Oregon Wolf Conservation & Management Plan. Speaking at a hearing, a retired ODFW staffer involved in writing the plan stated in no uncertain terms that the intent of the agency and the plan’s authors was that wolves would not be delisted at this time.

One of the most significant compromises made to assuage the livestock industry (who immediately, strongly, and publicly opposed the plan) in 2005 was a recovery goal of 4-breeding pairs for 3-consecutive years. That milestone triggered a status review. The plan states clearly and repeatedly that ODFW may consider delisting wolves but did not require it.

Unfortunately, according to public testimony from the livestock industry, ODFW promised the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association that wolves would be delisted. Faced with a decision to either violate the law or break a promise to the livestock industry, ODFW chose the former. 

But the state’s doing a good job right now, right?

The state has made some recent decisions that give optimistic conservationists hope – like recently choosing not to kill wolves for preying on livestock that were illegally grazing on public lands. However Oregon’s wolf plan is overdue for a review and now outdated. Wolves in Eastern Oregon are managed under what’s known as “Phase II” which includes ambiguity that led to tremendous conflict prior to a 2013 legal settlement between the agency, livestock industry, and conservationists. That ambiguity can allow the state to make good or bad decisions with few to no requirements for transparency or oversight. That’s not good for anyone.

Without state ESA protections, within a year, wolves in Eastern Oregon could be subject to hunting as they are in other states. Though wolves in Western Oregon are still protected by the federal ESA, Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse and others have made efforts to strip wolves of those protections as part of budget negotiations. ODFW has publicly supported efforts to strip wolves of those federal protections.

ODFW is in a budget crisis that only shows signs of worsening. The majority of Oregon’s wolf resources are dedicated to addressing concerns of the livestock industry while important conservation, education, and law enforcement work is not being done. Several wolves have recently been killed. No one has been brought to justice.

Shouldn’t you just let ODFW do their jobs? Aren’t they the experts?

ODFW has many capable staff who are experts in their field. However the agency is heavily influenced by political considerations and special interests. The 4-2 decision to delist wolves was made by a group of Commissioners appointed by the Governor and approved by the state Senate. Such appointments are often the result of political deals dictated by powerful commercial interests. Two re-appointments to the Commission being challenged by the livestock industry were postponed until the week following the delisting vote (both voted to delist and both were re-appointed) and concerns were raised over conflicts of interest. 

Despite a mission to “protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitats” and a statutory requirement for Commissioners to represent all Oregonians, the agency has a history of ignoring important conservation requirements. When it comes to wolves, the agency ignored hundreds of citizens who testified overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining protections for wolves. In the year preceding delisting, ODFW published over 10,000 comments of which over 96% were in favor of maintaining protections for wolves. Conservation organizations account for an additional 24,467 comments in favor of maintaining protections.

Most concerning, the state had a legal mandate to consider the best available science when reviewing the status of wolves. ODFW put forward a formal recommendation to delist wolves before the public deadline they set for scientists and others to provide input. To justify the decision, the agency put forward a “science review summary” that highlighted 4 cursory notes of support they solicited, including comments from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (not known for wolf conservation). Meanwhile they ignored the input of over 20 world-renowned scientists – some of whom provided comprehensive critiques of the state’s proposal. Those critiques were stashed away with thousands of other comments in over 30 files of documents –some of which were not even publicly posted until the hearing to delist wolves was underway. 

Who cares?

Lots of people, for lots of reasons, and the majority support wolf protections. During the delisting process, over 96% of over 10,000 written public comments published by the agency were in favor of maintaining state ESA protections. That gives credibility to poll over poll that has shown support for wolf recovery. Even in rural communities moderate positions and support for wolves dwarf those who oppose wolf recovery.  

Like other native wildlife, wolves have an important role to play on the landscape. They are iconic animals who provide many benefits – ecological, economic, and those harder to quantify. Beginning in the 19th-century, Oregon’s wolves were hunted, trapped, and poisoned as part of a government-sponsored campaign of eradication. They are just now beginning to return to Oregon. However, their recovery remains fragile. Wolves continue to be at the center of a purposeful campaign of misinformation and fear and a vocal, violent minority continues to kill them and argue for more aggressive management, hunting, and trapping.

For now, it’s just wolves that are being treated differently than other wildlife. However stripping protections from an animal that numbers in the low dozens (of related animals) and occupy just 12% of their habitat is a dangerous precedent. ODFW has a responsibility to conserve and restore native wildlife populations in Oregon. Imagine not protecting elk, salmon, eagles, or otters if there were just 80 of them left in the state! 

Aren’t wolves devastating the livestock industry, killing all the good wildlife, and threatening our children?

No. While there may be legitimate concerns about living with wildlife, claims about wolves are often wildly overblown. Oregon is home to over 1.3 million cattle. In the last year for which we have statistics over 55,000 cows were lost to things like weather, disease, human thieves, and domestic dogs before being shipped to the slaughterhouse. With just a few days left to go in 2015, wolves have killed 4. A single truck accident in Madras killed more cows than wolves have in Oregon in the last decade combined! Income in the livestock industry has increased every year since wolves returned to Oregon - even in Wallowa County. Elk herds where wolves roam remain far above objective. In states where wolves have recovered, ungulate herds are above objective in more places than not. Since before 1900, there have been two incidents of wild wolves killing people on the entire continent. According to the CDC, eleven times more people are killed by cows each year in America alone than wolves on the entire continent in over 100 years. 

What’s Governor Kate Brown say?

The short answer is not much. Like all state agencies, the buck stops at the Governor's office. Given that Governor Brown began her administration with promises to run a more accountable, responsive, and transparent state government, the decision, the process by which it was made, and the Governor's silence on it have been troubling.

What’s next?

Since a legal settlement between ODFW, the livestock industry, and conservationists, Oregon has been seen around the country as a model for wolf management. It’s been the only state in the nation with a meaningful wolf population not to kill them. With a focus on conflict prevention, clear guidelines, and agency transparency, the wolf population has increased and conflict has decreased. For all but the most intransigent voices, the plan worked during its first phase after settlement. There are plenty of counterexamples in places like Idaho, Wyoming, and Wisconsin. Oregon’s wolf population is now up to about 80 known adult wolves. They remain mostly confined to the Northeast corner of the state, but are beginning to disperse more frequently.

Nearly every year for the last decade, the livestock industry and their political allies have introduced legislation to undermine wolf protections and make it easier to kill them. They’ve promised to do so again in 2016. ESA protections provided a critical backstop to some of these efforts.

During the push to delist wolves, ODFW ignored a legal requirement to review its now outdated wolf plan. Ambiguity that led to wolf killing and conflict has returned and replaced requirements for transparency and accountability that provided certainty for all stakeholders. Within a year, citizens in Eastern Oregon may be allowed to kill wolves under similar provisions that were used to justify expanded hunting in other states. Emboldened by the state’s recent decision to strip wolves of protections, many conservationists fear poaching may increase.