Eastern Oregon’s wolf population reached a key milestone in 2014 that not only gives ranchers more leeway to protect their livestock, but could lead to removing the predators from the state Endangered Species List entirely.

For the third year in a row, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife counted at least four breeding pairs of wolves among packs east of Highways 395, 78 and 95, triggering Phase II of the agency’s Wolf Management and Conservation Plan.

A breeding pair is defined by ODFW as a pair of adult wolves which produce at least two pups that survive to the end of the year. Of the nine wolf packs in Oregon, seven had breeding pairs in 2014 – six in the state’s northeast corner. Only the Imnaha pack was found without a breeding pair, and the Umatilla River pack has not yet been surveyed.

Under Phase I of the management plan, ranchers were allowed to shoot wolves only if they were caught in the act of biting, wounding or killing livestock. The change means ranchers can shoot a wolf caught chasing after herds on the producer’s own property or allotment.

Non-lethal deterrents are still emphasized first by ODFW. Ranchers are not allowed to bait wolves, and must report any lethal take within 24 hours while making all reasonable attempts to preserve the scene for investigation.

Todd Nash, a Wallowa County rancher and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association wolf committee, said it is highly unlikely for producers to actually catch a wolf causing trouble in the pasture. The rule does, however, make them feel a little more empowered than they were before.

“We didn’t want wolves to begin with,” Nash said. “We’re trying to get along as best we can in the political climate we live in.”

Another change in Phase II lowers the requirement for ODFW to consider lethal control of problem packs. Previously, the department needed to confirm four attacks on livestock within a six-month period, and each of those incidents had to satisfy an additional set of criteria in order to qualify. No pack ever reached the threshold, though the Umatilla River wolves came close last year.

Instead, Phase II allows ODFW to consider killing wolves after just two livestock predations without a set time limit. Nash said lethal control is critical for livestock producers as the wolf population continues to grow.

“Dealing with problem wolves is an absolute must moving forward,” he said.

Ranchers are currently compensated by the state for livestock losses caused by wolves. The Oregon Department of Agriculture awarded $150,830 in 2014 – along with $63,125 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – as part of the Wolf Depredation Compensation and Financial Assistance County Block Grant Program.

But ranchers like Nash see compensation as a Band-Aid, not a solution, for the problem. The Cattlemen’s Association passed a resolution at its annual meeting in December that supports lethal control of wolves in three cases: livestock losses, human health or safety, and when game populations dip below management levels.

Rob Klavins, northeast Oregon field coordinator for the conservation group Oregon Wild, said moving into Phase II of the wolf plan is a positive sign of the species’ recovery, although the population remains “relatively small.”

Oregon had 64 wolves at the end of 2013. The 2014 population will be updated in ODFW’s annual wolf report, slated for March.

And, despite reaching the conservation benchmark for breeding pairs in Eastern Oregon, Klavins said that does not mean their work is done.

“We should look at these numbers in context, and realize wolf recovery is moving in the right direction,” he said. “I think, at this point, killing wolves should still be an option of last resort.”

The transition into Phase II also marks the initiation of de-listing wolves in the eastern third of Oregon. Wolves remain federally protected in western Oregon.

ODFW will begin conducting a full status review and present its findings to the Fish and Wildlife Commission in April. The commission could make its decision as early as June.

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