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Oregon's Wolf Delisting Is Challenged In Court

Oregon’s controversial decision to take gray wolves off the state’s endangered species list is headed to court.

Three environmental groups filed a legal challenge of the decision Wednesday under the state’s Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild claims the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife violated its own laws by failing to use the best available science and prematurely removing protections for Oregon’s 81 gray wolves.

When Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission removed wolves from the state endangered list in November, Eastern Oregon ranchers and advocates for delisting saw it as fulfillment of a 10-year-old promise made under the state’s original wolf plan. Environmentalists disagreed and said they were likely to challenge it in court.

Wolves have been the subject of litigation and fierce political debate throughout the West ever since they were reintroduced in parts of Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s and soon began migrating to nearby states.

Losing state endangered status in Oregon changed little in the short-term for wolves, which are protected statewide by a regulatory plan and still federally listed in Western Oregon and Washington. But the decision does clear the way for controlled wolf hunts in Eastern Oregon if the population grows.

Wolves occupy an estimated 12.4 percent of their potential range in Oregon, according to the state’s fish and wildlife agency. The legal challenge claims that is too small of a percentage for wolves to be considered recovered.

The environmental groups take issue with the state’s scientific review of its wolf population analysis. They say many outside scientists were critical of the agency’s decision, yet the agency relied more on the largely positive feedback from the few scientists it hand-picked to review its work.

“The state didn’t just ignore the best available science, they preferentially treated statements from scientists that supported their predetermined decisions over those that were critical,” Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild said.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said the agency had not seen the lawsuit but that it “is confident the department followed statutory and legal requirements in its process and that the commission acted legally when it removed wolves from the state’s list of endangered species.

“Our scientific analysis was based on documented and verifiable information and used a peer reviewed population viability model,” Dennehy said. “This included review from the scientist who developed the model along with other prominent wolf experts.”

This is the second lawsuit the three environmental groups have filed over wolf management in Oregon. In 2011, the groups sued over state wildlife officials’ plans to kill wolves involved in livestock depredation.

Hunting groups, ranchers and others who favored delisting say the environmental advocates are refusing to honor the original wolf agreement they helped create.

“Many words come to mind: hypocrites, spoiled brats, untrustworthy,” Dominic Aiello, President of the hunting advocacy group Oregon Outdoor Council, wrote in a newsletter his organization distributed Wednesday. “Emotions aside, this is more evidence that Oregon's legislators and management agencies should refuse to work with these groups and we will continue to beat that message home in 2016 and beyond.”

In an interview, Aiello said he thinks environmental groups like Oregon Wild want to keep gray wolves on the endangered species list for their own financial reasons.

“If they can’t sue over the wolf anymore, they see it as a loss. I think that’s what it boils down to is money,” he said.

Anticipating such claims, Oregon Wild published an online question-and-answer article Wednesday when it filed the legal challenge.

“Going to court costs money and isn’t fun. We made every effort to avoid litigation,” Oregon Wild stated. “Win or lose, Oregon Wild will not recoup a single penny of our expenses. But it’s the right thing to do.”

Five species have previously been removed from the state endangered species list: the Columbia white-tailed deer, the Aleutian Canada goose, the American peregrine falcon, the Artic peregrine falcon and the Bald Eagle.

Gray wolves are the first species to be the subject of litigation after their removal from Oregon’s list of endangered species. The question of how much protection should be extended to wolves has been the subject of lawsuits in other states and at the federal level.

Wolves are still on Washington’s state endangered species list. Environmental advocates favor Washington’s state wolf plan over Oregon’s because it requires more wolves established across more of the state’s potential range before the animal can be considered for delisting.

Idaho’s wolves, also the subject of multiple legal battles, are no longer considered by the government to endangered. Idaho wolves are managed as a big-game species with a hunting season and an annual hunting derby.

The groups behind the latest legal challenge in Oregon say it is about more than the actual delisting, and that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife should be held accountable for following its laws and a thorough scientific review in such processes.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said he would not consider it a victory, however, if their legal action prompted a more robust scientific review but did not change the outcome.

“We’re looking for the decision to be reversed,” Greenwald said.

Update: 4:50 p.m. This story has been updated with reaction and details providing context to the November delisting of wolves in Oregon and the lawsuit challenging that decision.

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<p>The female known as OR-21 was one of two wolves found dead in northeast Oregon.</p>

Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

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The female known as OR-21 was one of two wolves found dead in northeast Oregon.

Tony Schick