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Feds strip wolves of ESA protections

The Trump Administration stripped gray wolves of all federal Endangered Species Act protections Thursday, a move that could remove the last legal barriers that have protected Southern Oregon’s Rogue Pack from retribution for their penchant for killing cattle.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the decision during a visit to Minnesota, saying gray wolves have rebounded in the Great Lakes states enough to warrant federal delisting of wolves in the lower 48 states, including Oregon and California.

“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” Bernhardt said in his Minnesota appearance. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”

Environmental groups already have promised a legal fight, saying gray wolves remain in low enough numbers throughout suitable habitat in the West to warrant keeping their federally endangered status.

Nicholas Cady, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands, called Thursday’s decision a severe setback for wolf recovery in Western Oregon and Northern California — and for the Rogue Pack in particular.

If allowed to stand, the delisting potentially would become a lethal blow to the Rogue Pack, which is famous for being the pack sired by now-dead wolf OR-7, but infamous for committing the most livestock attacks of any established pack in Oregon since wolves returned here from Idaho 20 years ago.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in August said killing one or more of the Rogue Pack’s animals — called “lethal removal” — was warranted but the service’s “hands are tied” by current federal legal opinions deeming they are off limits as government targets.

Federal listing removal would mean wolves in Western Oregon would fall under the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf management plan, under which the pack would have long ago qualified for some lethal measures.

“I don’t think the ODFW would have hesitated for removing that pack if not for the federal listing,” Cady said.

Gray wolves are no longer on Oregon’s Endangered Species List, and wolves in northeastern Oregon are not under federal ESA protection like they are in Western Oregon and California.

Gov. Kate Brown’s office Thursday defended Oregon’s wolf plan as “based on science” but said that a significant part of that plan relies on federal protection across Western states, Brown spokesman Charles Boyle said.

Boyle said the science for wolf management hasn’t changed, and he called the announcement of the change on the eve of national elections “suspect and needlessly politicizes this issue.”

“Our wolf recovery plan is working in Oregon — we don’t need the federal administration to fix something that isn’t broken,” Boyle wrote in an email Thursday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service shows an estimated 4,200 wolves in the western Great Lakes states. Oregon has 158 known wolves, while Washington has 108 and California 15.

The service states that its levels boost wolf numbers above what’s required by the act for either threatened or endangered under the federal act — an opinion conservationists dispute.

Environmental groups can first challenge Thursday’s announcement 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register. That publication is slated for Tuesday, during the national election, according to the Interior Department.

Based on confirmed depredation cases assembled by ODFW, the Rogue Pack is responsible for 34 confirmed incidents since 2016. The most recent came in separate August kills of yearling steers on separate ranches in the Fort Klamath area, making it nine animals attacked in seven instances in less than two months.

That running tally is three more than the Imnaha Pack’s 31 incidents between 2011 and 2016 in northeast Oregon, ODFW data show.

In 2016, aerial gunners under state authorization killed the last four members of the Imnaha Pack, including the patriarch, an aging OR-4, which was OR-7’s father.

OR-7 was a member of the Imnaha Pack when it was collared in 2011, before it left the pack for its search of a mate across Oregon and into Northern California, eventually forming the Rogue Pack. He was not seen last fall and is presumed dead, and the pack’s matriarch apparently has taken up with another male.

No Rogue Pack livestock kills have been verified since state wildlife biologists captured and collared the pack’s matriarch in early September near Fort Klamath, which is the eastern part of the pack’s known home range, according to ODFW statistics.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

photo by Eric AndersonThe first confirmed grey wolf furthest west in Jackson County was photographed Jan. 3 on federal Bureau of Land Management land about 300 yards from a road in the Sams Valley area northewest of Lower Table Rock.