MEDFORD, Ore. — The Rogue Pack’s taste for livestock in Jackson County alone would’ve put lethal removal of one or more of them into public discussion had the new proposal to drop federal endangered species status for gray wolves been in place this winter.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced March 6 it planned to propose a rule to delist wolves in the Lower 48 states, which would mean OR-7’s Rogue Pack and other Oregon wolves would be managed under the state’s Wolf Plan should the service deem that gray wolves have recovered as a species.
However, a lengthy public comment period and suspected lawsuits challenging the ruling could take years before federal Endangered Species Act protections for these wolves disappear, experts say.
But if delisting does occur, the Rogue Pack would be managed under the state plan’s “conservation phase,” under which killing damage-causing wolves could occur after four confirmed livestock depredations within six months, and only in situations where non-lethal measures failed.
However, additional public notification and oversight would be required under these rules written in a settlement between the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife with wolf-conservation groups and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
The Rogue Pack has 10 livestock deaths attributed to it since October, including five dead cattle on Ted Birdseye’s northeast Jackson County ranch and in the Rancheria area. Also, the Rogue Pack was deemed responsible for four dead cattle in western Klamath County in October.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said it already has seen enough damage by the Rogue Pack and would seek lethal removals.
“Absolutely we would,” association Executive Director Jerome Rosa said.
“Ted Birdseye has had a tremendous amount of losses there and has done all kinds of nonlethal measures and continues to be pummeled,” he said.
Under conservation-phase rules, the ODFW allowed for two wolves to be killed for predation in Baker County in 2009 and two more in Wallowa County in May 2011, ODFW records show.
Northeast Oregon wolves are now managed under a later phase in the state plan.
John Mellgren, a Eugene-based attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said he believes the ODFW would move forward with killing Rogue Pack members if they were delisted based on the agency’s past decisions.
“I think what’s going on with the Rogue Pack, when that level of activity has occurred elsewhere in Oregon where wolves are delisted, the state has not hesitated to move to lethal,” Mellgren said. “I’m certain the state would do so with the Rogue Pack if it could.”
Michelle Dennehy, the ODFW’s Wolf Program spokesman, said that under state law, every circumstance would require that nonlethals had been tried but failed, and the state declines more lethal-removal requests than it grants.
“We have not discussed if suddenly the federal listing protections were to be dropped, what that would look like for the Rogue Pack,” Dennehy said. “We have not had those conversations and we’re not having them.”
If the service makes the formal proposal as expected, the government would have to first take public comments, and “we expect a boat-load of comments on this proposal,” Mellgren said.
The fish and wildlife service would then have to analyze the comments and have the science peer-reviewed and then come out with a final rule, and most such reviews have taken close to a year.
The law center has a record of successfully suing the government over delisting plans for such animals as the wolverine and Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear.
“If the decision to delist is not based on good science, we definitely would be suing them,” Mellgren said.
Delisting decisions are required to be made based on the best available science, and “based on our current understanding of the science we don’t believe that wolves are required,” Mellgren said.
“Assuming that’s what the proposed rule shows, we’ll certainly see them in court,” Mellgren said.
The Rogue Pack, which was listed last spring as having at least six animals, is the only known pack in Western Oregon, according to the ODFW. The White River area has a pair of wolves that were seen with at least one pup this summer, and there is an isolated wolf known to be in the Silver Lake area.
Under Oregon’s plan, a pack is at least four wolves traveling together in winter.
The ODFW’s updated wolf counts are expected in April, Dennehy said.