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Legislature looks at two wild animal bills

One bill removes wolf from endangered species list; the other repeals prohibition of certain methods used to hunt cougars

SALEM ' Wolves and cougars and bears, oh my! No, it's not Oz. It's the Oregon Legislature, which is considering two bills that would mitigate state protections for the animals.

One would remove the wolf from the state's endangered species list. The other would repeal a prohibition against hunting cougars with dogs and hunting bears with dogs and bait.

A hearing is scheduled early in March on the wolf bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Beyer, R-Molalla. The bill would declare wolves as predators, putting them on par with coyotes, feral swine, rabbits, rodents and birds that are destructive to agricultural products. Beyer says he doesn't expect the Legislature to go that far, however.

My main goal with this bill is to get the wolf de-listed, said Beyer.

Under current federal and state law, the wolf is listed as an endangered species. It is illegal to kill a wolf not only on public lands but also on private property. In addition, state wildlife managers must adopt a management plan that would restore wolves to a level where they no longer need protection.

There may not be many wolves in Oregon ' yet. But three wolves have ventured into northeastern Oregon from Idaho. Two were killed and one with a radio collar was trapped and shipped back to Idaho. But, says Beyer, They're coming.

Craig Ely, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's northeast regional manager in La Grande, agrees.

As of November, we had 60 wolf sightings, Ely added. Now there are undoubtedly more. The reports were forwarded to federal wildlife officials. Most of the wolf sightings were in the northeastern corner of the state.

We have no plans to reintroduce them, Ely stressed.

ODFW held 15 hearings throughout Oregon recently to seek public comment on wolves. It was the second largest turnout on a wildlife issue in the agency's history, with opinion sharply divided, said Ely.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet March 20 to meld the comments and concerns of witnesses, then attempt to draft a management plan. Federal wildlife managers are expected to remove wolves from the endangered species list and classify them as a threatened species.

Beyer's bill will get its first hearing on March 5. Environmental groups planning to oppose it include the Portland Audubon Society and Northwest Defenders of Wildlife.

We recognize that this is not the Wild West anymore, said Steve Kafoury, who represents the Audubon society. But we believe that wolves can be managed so they are not a threat to livestock or people.

Wolves have a role to play in the natural ecosystem, he added.

No hearing date has been scheduled for the cougar-bear bill, which was introduced by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Voters in 1994 approved an initiative to ban the use of dogs in hunting bear and cougars. An attempt to repeal the law in 1996 was turned down by voters.

Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford, the committee vice-chairman, voted to submit the committee bill but has not decided whether to support it. I'm convinced that cougars are on the increase ' we see more and more of them in urban areas, said Gilman. That's the reason I am interested in hearing this bill, but I haven't committed.

He said another bill that sets up county management units to regulate hunts may be preferable. That goes with my philosophy that local issues should be managed locally, he said.

Gilman also weighed in on wolves. I'm glad we've got them in Idaho. I hope we don't get them here.

Don Jepsen is a free-lance writer living in Salem.