Oregon ranchers, environmentalists reach settlement on wolf management

Jun 10, 2013

In what is being hailed as a watershed agreement, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA), the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Gov. Kitzhaber’s office, and two environmental groups have hammered out a settlement clarifying how wolves are to be managed within the state.

Announced May 24 by the governor’s office, the settlement represents the final chapter in a nearly two-year-old legal battle that in 2011 saw all lethal removal of wolves suspended by the Oregon Court of Appeals, making Oregon the only wolf-inhabited state where wolves that developed a taste for livestock could not be eliminated by state wildlife authorities.

For ranchers, especially in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County where most of the wolf depredation has taken place, it’s been a long, tense wait. But signs are promising that both ranchers and wolf enthusiasts are prepared to set aside differences in order to move forward with a workable management plan.

The terms of settlement—which are expected to be enacted in upcoming legislation—have called for compromises from both OCA as well as environmental organizations Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands, who in 2011 initiated the lawsuit when they claimed that a kill order issued by ODFW for the removal of two wolves in northeast Oregon’s Imnaha pack violated the state’s Endangered Species Act.

Although wolves are federally delisted in the eastern third of Oregon, the species is still listed as endangered in accordance with state law.

The governor’s office has been instrumental in bringing the parties to the table to renegotiate the state’s wolf management policies in a manner that is suitable for all stakeholders.

Thanks to the new settlement, ODFW is once again authorized to issue kill orders on wolves with a proven record of chronic livestock depredation, but the measure can only be taken as a last resort, when extensive non-lethal control strategies have already been tried.

For their part, Oregon ranchers are pleased that ODFW will once again be able to manage wolves with a full complement of tools at their disposal, including lethal removal.

“The unsung heroes of this entire process have been the ranchers who have patiently waited for a resolution to this ongoing wolf depredation problem and have applied non-lethal measures that were applicable to their operations as directed by ODFW,” said Rod Childers, OCA wolf committee chairman, in a statement. “As a rancher, I am relieved to see we now have all the tools in the box necessary for effective implementation of Oregon’s Wolf Conservation Plan.”

Ranchers also welcomed new language in the settlement allowing operators a “permit-less take” of problem wolves caught attacking or chasing livestock— albeit under very restricted conditions. Though it may seem trivial, including the word “chasing” in the criteria for a permit-less take is a key victory for ranchers. In the past, ODFW had occasionally issued ranchers “caught in the act” permits, which authorized killing a wolf literally caught in the act of attacking livestock. The livestock industry viewed the issuance of these permits as an empty gesture, since it proved almost impossible for ranchers to catch wolves in the process of attacking their animals.

Though their representatives have called the agreement “far from perfect,” Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands have applauded the fact that the settlement only authorizes lethal removal as a last resort.

Dan Kruse, an attorney for the groups, said in a statement that the settlement is important because it guarantees a transparent process for justifying and authorizing wolf kills, something, he suggests, that was lacking in the past.

“This settlement will put in place, for the first time, clear standards and public accountability for what must happen before ODFW or livestock interests can kill an endangered wolf, and measures that should reduce conflict between wolves and livestock,” said Kruse.

Although neither livestock interests nor environmental groups got all they wanted out of the compromise, the parties are prepared to move forward with the arrangement. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Kay Teisl, executive director of OCA. “We definitely feel it was a positive, or we obviously never would have agreed to it.” — Andy Rieber, andyrieber.com, WLJ Correspondent