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House committee, in bipartisan vote, concurs with delisting wolves from state's endangered list

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SALEM — The removal of wolves from Oregon’s list of endangered species has been approved by a key legislative committee, potentially jeopardizing a lawsuit that challenges the delisting.

Last year, Oregon wildlife regulators found that wolves had sufficiently recovered to delist them under the state’s version of the Endangered Species Act.

Because wolves remain protected by the federal Endangered Species Act across much of Western Oregon, the state delisting only has effect in the eastern portion of the state.

Several environmental groups, which worry that delisting will eventually lead to wolf hunting, filed a legal complaint accusing the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission of ignoring the best available science.

That lawsuit prompted two lawmakers from Eastern Oregon to propose House Bill 4040, which would ratify the commission’s delisting decision as having properly followed the state’s endangered species law.

On Feb. 9, that bill passed the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources 8-1 and is now heading for a vote on the House floor with a “do pass” recommendation.

Chairman Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, noted that H.B. 4040 was amended from its original version to eliminate language that would require wolf populations to decline substantially before the species could be re-listed as endangered.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said that worries the delisting will lead to “automatic slaughter” of wolves are unfounded.

“This does not mean we’re going to hunt wolves to extinction again,” he said.

Rep. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, was the committee’s only member to vote against the bill.

While he doesn’t have a problem with the delisting, Gorsek said he was concerned about the precedent set by the legislature inserting itself into the process.

Environmental groups that are fighting the delisting in court — Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and the Center for Biological Diversity — fear that a ratification by the Legislature will hamstring their lawsuit.

Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, recently argued that if the commission’s decision was scientifically sound, there is no reason to pass H.B. 4040. While the plaintiffs groups seek judicial review to determine if the commission acted correctly, they have not asked for an injunction and so the delisting will remain effective while the litigation is pending, Stevens said.

Laurel Hines, a member of Oregon Wild, said that wolf management in Oregon has emphasized the protection of the livestock industry, so conservationists should be allowed to proceed with the lawsuit to protect their interests.

The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association disagrees with the claim that H.B. 4040 will preclude environmental groups from obtaining judicial review, said Rocky Dallum, the group’s political advocate.

H.B. 4040 would not prevent the plaintiff from filing a lawsuit, and since their complaint has already been filed, its merits will still be decided in state court, Dallum said.

A judge may find the commission acted properly regardless of the legislature’s action, or may decide that the question about the delisting’s legality was answered by H.B. 4040, if it passes, he said.

“It’s up to a judge to decide whether the case is moot,” Dallum said.