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Wildlife repeal sidesteps black bear rule lawsuit

State wildlife managers have decided how to deal with a lawsuit over a self-imposed rule they've broken the past 13 years — they've repealed the rule.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife leaders last week signed a temporary rule repealing a requirement that they revise and update the agency's black bear plan every five years. The plan had not been reviewed since 1998, which led to the threat of a lawsuit from the Applegate Valley conservation group Big Wildlife.

Dropping the rule eliminates the spectre of fighting a lawsuit, allowing the agency to move forward on the plan without getting sidetracked by the lawsuit, the temporary rule states. A review of the plan began last month.

Having arbitrarily set mandatory reviews are "not wise from a policy perspective," and removing the rule allows agency biologists to review plans as needed, the rule states.

"Clearly, in our minds, it was moot because the deadline was so far past," said ODFW Deputy Director Curt Melcher, who signed the order Dec. 29. "We want to focus on implementing the plan as opposed to litigation."

The temporary rule remains in effect until Friday, when the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will either adopt it or the old rule will return.

Spencer Lennard, Big Wildlife's program director, panned the maneuver.

"I think it's a lame excuse and embarrassing," Lennard said Wednesday. "We needed that legal requirement to make sure they do the right thing. It's the way we and Oregon citizens know they're doing the right thing."

The plan was set for revision in the early 2000s, but the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission shelved the effort in favor of plans for black-tailed deer, cougar and other animals.

ODFW managers last month said revising the bear plan is one of the agency's highest priorities, and its review will include public meetings and the addition of new research from in-house sources and outside entities.

Lennard has asked ODFW to suspend all sport-hunting of bears until the plan is completed, but agency biologists said they have no intention of doing so.

Oregon sells about 30,000 bear tags annually, and about 1,700 bears are killed statewide during the spring and fall hunting seasons, according to ODFW statistics.

The agency estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 bears live in Oregon.

ODFW uses management plans to guide management of specific wildlife species, including population goals for the animals. The plans must be adopted by the commission before they are employed.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.