There’s good news and bad news for wolves in eastern Oregon. The good news: they just hit another population milestone, showing the recovery effort is working.
The bad news for the predators? It’s getting a little bit easier for humans to kill them.
Oregon wildlife officials have counted at least seven breeding pairs of wolves for three straight years in the eastern part of the state. This indicates a degree of stability in that wolf population. It also triggers a change to how wolves are managed in the region.
Oregon’s Wolf Management Plan lays out a three-phase process for wolf reintroduction and recovery in the state. The western part of the state remains in Phase I, in which wolves are still considered imperiled and have the highest level of protections. The packs in the eastern part of the state just entered Phase III.
Phase III gives ranchers and officials more flexibility to hunt and kill wolves that kill livestock or hurt deer and elk populations.
“Before… in situations where we needed to remove a wolf, the agency would have to do it. Now that we’re in Phase III, the agency could authorize somebody to do it,” said Russ Morgan, Wolf Program Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Conflicts between wolves and livestock or large game have led to outspoken opposition to wolf expansion from the cattle industry and some sportsmen’s groups. The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association did not return a request for comment.
Morgan stressed that the changes in protection levels does not call for an open hunting season for wolves.
Still wolf advocates don’t approve of the use of lethal control for wolves, especially when there are so few on the landscape. In 2015, ODFW estimated there were 110 wolves in Oregon. The 2016 numbers have not been released.
“We’re still in this very delicate phase when it comes to wolf recovery,” said Arran Robertson of Oregon Wild.
Oregon’s wolf population is relatively concentrated in the northeast part of the state.
“If you had something like a disease outbreak, that could affect a huge chunk of the population,” he said. “So we still want keep protections in place… because we could end up falling backwards very easily.”
In addition to changes to lethal control restrictions, Phase III of the wolf recovery plan also allows wildlife officials to assess populations by counting packs instead of breeding pairs. ODFW's Morgan said the new way will require less staff time and agency funds.
ODFW will also be allowed to bring in USDA Wildlife Services to handle livestock predation investigations and assist with lethal removal. But that partnership is contingent upon federal approval.