The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday adopted provisions of a lawsuit settlement that will make Oregon the only state in the West where killing wolves that attack livestock is a last resort.
The rules adopted by the commission amend Oregon's Wolf Management Plan, along with statutory provisions enacted by the Legislature that will be signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber.
The rules require ranchers to show they have taken non-lethal steps, such as alarm boxes and low strings of fluttering plastic flags known as fladdery, to protect their herds before the state will send out a hunter to kill a wolf. There also must be hard evidence, such as GPS data showing a radio-collared wolf was in the area when a cow was killed, that wolves have attacked four times.
In return, ranchers get new rights to shoot wolves that they see attacking their herd, but only if those nonlethal protections are in place, and attacks have become chronic.
The settlement represents a new level of cooperation between conservation groups and ranchers, who have long fought over restoring wolves in the West, where they were wiped out by bounty hunters in the early part of the 20th century.
Ranchers downplayed the significance of the settlement.
"I don't think it's a whole lot different from the wolf plan already being implemented," said Kate Teisl, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. "Now there's just more documentation. Ranchers are out there doing all they can to keep their animals alive, including the non-lethal measures."
But wolf advocates said it was that documentation of nonlethal steps that was groundbreaking.
Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild said the old plan talked about conservation of wolves being a priority, but it was so ambiguous that it was ineffective.
"It's now up to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the livestock industry, and the conservation community to honor the agreements that we have made," he said. "If we do so, I am optimistic we will continue to see conflicts between wolves and livestock continue to be rare, and the need to kill wolves even rarer still."
Brett Brownscombe, natural resources adviser to the governor, said making the rules clear was important as Oregon's wolf population continues to grow, and the Obama administration moves toward lifting federal protections for wolves in areas they have yet to repopulate.
Oregon Wild and other conservation groups had sued the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, claiming that a kill order on the Imnaha pack, the first to establish in Oregon as well as the first to attack livestock, threatened to wipe out the pack. Conservation groups claimed the actions violated the Oregon Endangered Species Act, which still protects wolves in the eastern two thirds of the state, where federal protections have been lifted.
The Imnaha pack only has one more strike against it before a kill order can be imposed, but so far, it has not been linked to an attack.
The Oregon Court of Appeals barred the state from killing wolves for more than a year before the settlement was reached between conservation groups, the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, and the governor's office. During that time, the number of wolves in Oregon went up, while the lethal attacks on livestock went down.