Oregon Legislature kills wolf bill, retains compensation program

Mar 23, 2012

A bill that would have allowed Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials the legal latitude necessary to control problem wolves failed to make it to the Senate floor prior to the March 5 adjournment of their most recent session, effectively killing the bill and allowing wolf depredation of livestock to continue unchecked in Oregon’s northeast corner.

Essentially, House Bill 4159 would have codified existing administrative rules, written into the ODFW wolf management plan, that allow for the removal of wolves that chronically kill or harass livestock. Although several wolves have been removed in Oregon under this rule in recent years, an injunction last year by the Oregon Court of Appeals called a halt to the practice, pending the results of a lawsuit filed by conservation groups to prevent the removal of two members of Wallowa County’s Imnaha pack. The lawsuit alleged that ODFW’s practice of killing problem wolves violates the state’s Endangered Species Act, which currently protects wolves within Oregon.

“This bill would have taken (ODFW’s) administrative rule and put it into statute,” said Wallowa County rancher and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) wolf committee chair Rod Childers. “It would have made the challenges brought by the lawsuit a moot point.”

Despite a 42-15 passage by the house, and bipartisan support, 4158 failed to make it through the Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Portland Sen. Jackie Dingfelder. Childers and other OCA members expressed frustration at the committee’s apparent smothering of the bill. “We had bipartisan support in the house to get the bill heard, and there were senators that asked for a hearing,” he said. We had worked with ODFW, and the governor´s office; and the Defenders of Wildlife was aware and had indicated support for what we were doing, and still (the committee) wouldn’t allow it.” According to Childers, Oregon’s affected ranchers are disappointed by the apparent ability of environmental groups to short circuit the workings of Oregon’s wolf plan, a plan they themselves had a hand in creating. “They’ve been telling us since 2009 to trust their wolf plan, to leave it alone and let it work, and that everything will work out,” says Childers. “But the minute that ODFW moves to take out wolves under the plan, they sue. They’re the ones that have been telling us how great the plan is; now they won’t allow it to work.”

The Imnaha pack, meanwhile, has continued its established pattern of live stock damage in recent months. On March 8, three heifers near the town of Joseph were injured by the pack, one so badly that euthanasia was required. This brings the official count to 24 livestock kills confirmed by ODFW since 2009, with an additional 70 head missing above the levels typically experienced by Wallowa County ranchers. With the injunction still in place, ranchers and ODFW personnel are left with little recourse, and no relief in sight. Although the trial has been expedited, Childers points out that resolution is still in the distant future. “We’ve been told the quickest we could probably expect any resolution would be the middle of this summer, and it’s highly possible that this thing could run on through 2013,” he said.

Although the Senate failed to pass 4158, it did retain funding for Oregon’s wolf compensation plan. While Oregon ranchers have stated in the past that they do not view compensation as an adequate response to the growing wolf conflict, many are hopeful that the program will provide at least some assistance to afflicted operations.

The Oregon plan, administered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), allocates $100,000 for compensation, 30 percent of which must be used for non lethal control methods, such as fladry or the addition of range riders. The remaining $70,000 may be used for additional non lethal controls, for the direct compensation of confirmed kills, or as compensation for missing livestock in regions known to be frequented by wolves. In order to qualify for funding, each county must form a committee to apply for money at the state level. Each county committee, which is comprised of one commissioner, two ranchers, two wolf proponents, and two business owners, is responsible for identifying qualified uses for the funding within their county and submitting a request to ODA. While initial requests have exceeded the $100,000 allocation, Childers points out that this is the result of confusion in several counties regarding how the program worked. “Several counties thought that they needed to set aside money for future depredation,” said Childers. “What they actually need to do is apply each year for funding to cover the previous year’s kills.” Wallowa county, says Childers, requested $25,000 for non lethal measures and an additional $13,000 in direct compensation for kills. Other counties with known wolf populations have applied for funding for non lethal controls, and Childers states that the expected total request for this year will approach the $100,000 limit.

“We’re spending a lot more than the requirement on nonlethal controls,” points out Childers, adding that Wallowa County ranchers elected not to include requests for missing livestock this year, which would have added roughly $25,000 to their request.

In addition to the compensation program, a bill introduced by Sen. Bob Jensen this year adds a tax credit for ranchers who experience wolf kills. Capped at $37,500 over the next few years, the credit is allowed on kills confirmed or deemed probable by ODFW or law enforcement, and may not be used for animals compensated through other means.

Even this may prove insufficient, say ranchers, as wolves spread throughout the state. They also worry that, as the Imnaha pack disperses, its members will carry the pack’s livestock killing habits to new areas, a concern, they say, that makes the outcome of the current court battle all the more important. “Even some (wolf supporters) are saying that this pack has got to go,” says Childers. “They used the Imnaha pack for this lawsuit, but they’re suing over an endangered species and a rule. If they win this, as long as wolves are listed in the state of Oregon, OD- FW won’t be able to kill one.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent