SALEM — The latest count of Oregon wolves shows there are eight breeding pairs in Eastern Oregon, meaning state wildlife officials move into a management plan phase that potentially could ease restrictions on killing them if they decimate deer and elk herds or chronically attack livestock.
Under Oregon's wolf plan, three consecutive years of at least seven breeding pairs advances the state into what's known as Phase III management. The ODFW Commission is scheduled to receive the annual wolf report at its April 21 meeting in Klamath Falls.
Oregon Wild, the Portland-based conservation group that has been heavily involved in development of the state's wolf plan, called the count of breeding pairs "heartening" but warned it could lead to wolves being killed by "trophy hunting" or under the plan's "controlled take" provision.
"Controlled take" means wolves can be killed if they are causing declines in elk and deer populations or are involved in chronic livestock attacks. Arran Robertson, Oregon Wild spokesman, said the group worries the policy will be used to kill wolves. He said more deer are lost to poachers than to wolves.
ODFW spokesman Rick Hargrave said the wolf plan does not allow a general hunting season on wolves. "This policy differentiates Oregon from other states like Idaho and Montana which currently allow general season hunting of wolves," he said in an email.
Hargrave said ODFW has no immediate plans to propose controlled take of any wolves in Oregon. The five-year update to the Wolf Management Plan will provide clarity regarding this issue.
In a prepared statement, ODFW wolf biologist Russ Morgan said the state will continue to prioritize "non-lethal solutions to wolf conflicts."
"Take (killing) of wolves can only be considered as a management response in very specific situations and there are no plans for controlled take at this time," Morgan said in the statement.
Oregon's wolf population has grown steadily in the decade since the first wolves migrated from Idaho into Northeast Oregon. The state had a minimum of 110 wolves at the end of 2015, and the 2016 count, due to be reported at the April ODFW Commission meeting, is expected to top that number.
ODFW officials have described Oregon's wolf population growth as a biological success story, and the state commission took wolves off the state endangered species list in 2015. They remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in areas west of U.S. highways 395, 78 and 95.
The state management plan hinges on the number of breeding pairs, defined as two adult wolves that produce at least two pups that survive through the end of the year. Oregon counted nine breeding pairs at the end of 2014, 11 in 2015 and eight at the end of 2016.