Opinion: On wolves, state fish and wildlife agency has lost its way
June 14, 2019
by Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio
Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife — the agency tasked with protecting and enhancing Oregon’s wildlife for present and future generations—continues to unjustifiably focus on the killing of wolves as a predator control tactic. With a biased commission overseeing the agency and a director willing to sabotage the species instead of treating it as an important part of our environment, the fish and wildlife department has lost its way.
After being hunted to near extinction, wolves are slowly fighting their way back. They’ve begun a fragile recovery across their former range, including our state, thanks in large part to protections under the federal Endangered Species Act. Currently, wolves number just 137 here, their growth hindered by a patchwork of inconsistent policies, poor enforcement, and the rejection of modern science and husbandry practices proven to protect livestock.
Wolves are both iconic and integral to improving the environment. When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, the entire ecosystem improved. Elk and deer were no longer able to linger along streams, devouring vegetation and degrading fish habitat. Because these animals were no longer able to eat young willow trees and other plants without fear of predation, tree stands have recovered. It has also been an economic success story: wolf-related tourism around Yellowstone generates more than $35 million annually for local economies.
As an apex predator, and by competing with other species, wolves help restore natural balance. If we can prevent more wolf deaths in Oregon, we’ll see this “trophic cascade” effect here. Ultimately, this benefits us all.
Despite this, Oregon’s fish and wildlife agency continues to dismiss wolves and their benefits. The agency’s draft wolf plan opens the door to trophy hunting and trapping, guts requirements for non-lethal deterrence, and makes it easier to kill wolves accused of chronic depredation of livestock. Will the agency’s dwindling budget be enough to support the wolf conservation efforts they promise? To the contrary, we fear that fish and wildlife officials calculate that fewer wolves means decreased competition with hunters who purchase licenses to hunt deer and elk, putting money back into agency coffers. The state wildlife commission, which appears to have become more of a political bargaining tool than a science-led, conservation-focused body, will vote on the plan in early June. The department of fish and wildlife is stacking the deck against wolves, and it’s a rough road ahead.
To add insult to injury, state agency director Curt Melcher recently endorsed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to delist gray wolves across the lower 48 states — to Gov. Kate Brown’s strong objection. The governor’s clarification of her support for federal protection for wolves, makes clear that Melcher acted out of turn. But his initial support for this proposal is just another in a series of red flags from the agency. If delisted, gray wolves would lack federal protection and be subject to the state agency’s destructive and myopic management practices.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s primary job is conservation for the future, not sacrificing “challenging” species to appease private industry or pad budgets. Amid conflict with its mission, budget, and the governor, it is clear the agency needs a fundamental reset on wolves.