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Ruling revives endangered status for wolves

Federal protections are back in force in Oregon and the West, derailing a state recovery plan that's up for a vote
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
MICHAEL MILSTEIN

The Bush administration illegally weakened protections for gray wolves before their return to Oregon and neighboring states, a federal judge has found.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones of Portland rescinded a 2003 federal rule that allowed ranchers to kill wolves attacking their livestock and to harass wolves for any reason. His action restored their status as a fully endangered species in Oregon.

It means that wolves may retain strict federal protection until they have expanded across much more of the West than Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, states at the core of the government's recovery program. That includes Oregon, where their recovery may become a greater priority.

The administration contended that a booming population of about 850 wolves in the three Rocky Mountain states is sufficient to assure the survival of the species across the West, with no additional wolves needed. But environmental groups said that was not good enough, and Jones agreed.

He said the administration violated key elements of the U.S. Endangered Species Act by, for instance, reducing protections for wolves in the Pacific Northwest without first assessing threats to the species. The death or removal of three wolves that entered Oregon from Idaho since 1999 proves they are not safe in the region, he said.

One wolf was captured and returned to Idaho. Another was struck and killed by a car, and a third was illegally shot.

"The Pacific Northwest contains major geographical areas in which the wolf is no longer viable but once was, suitable habitat to which wolves have dispersed, and threats that demonstrate the wolf is in danger of extinction," the judge wrote.

He said the administration's attempt to reduce wolf protections were "not based on the present or future threats to the wolf or the best available science."

The decision comes as a state recovery plan for wolves in Oregon nears approval and just after a pack of wolves was identified immediately across the Snake River from Oregon.

Wolves were exterminated from much of the West decades ago but returned under the recovery effort in 1995.

"This puts the burden on the federal government to look more carefully at where the wolf was historically and whether it can recover there before it makes the decision to write those areas off," said Brett Brownscombe of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande, one of 19 groups behind the lawsuit that produced the judge's decision.

The Oregon Cattlemen's Association and Oregon Hunters Association intervened on the side of the Bush administration.

Oregon's blueprint

The ruling snarls Oregon's attempt to design its own blueprint for wolves entering the state. A plan up for a vote next week by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission sets a goal of four wolf packs each in Eastern and Western Oregon. It also would allow ranchers to shoot wolves going after their livestock.

Oregon's state Endangered Species Act does not give ranchers that freedom. But the state plan, a compromise drafted by a diverse citizen committee, says the Legislature should allow that.

State attorneys are reviewing the federal ruling to determine how it affects Oregon's efforts, said Craig Ely, who is coordinating the state plan for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"We're trying to work together to be proactive and give the landowner tools to manage wolves if they need to," Ely said.

Ranchers frustrated

Glen Stonebrink of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association said the court ruling makes the state plan useless. He said frustrated ranchers may be left on their own.

"They have to keep them from becoming established here, and I only know one way to do that," he said.

But Ed Bangs, the federal wolf recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont., said Oregon should not give up. He said the federal government could appeal the court ruling or ask the judge to modify it.

Biologists say it's likely at least a few wolves are roaming Oregon, although none has been confirmed. Idaho officials found that a wolf pack killed an elk last month near Brownlee Dam, which spans the Snake River at the Idaho-Oregon border.

Wolves also were reported in the fall around nearby Lookout Mountain in Oregon.

Jones cited signs that the federal government downgraded protections for wolves in Oregon and other states in a rush to remove them from the list of endangered species. A co-author of the federal rule said the action "is the best and quickest way to get the policy and legal framework greased for delisting."

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

 

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