A group of leading independent scientists this week voiced their opposition to a plan to remove state protections from Oregon’s wolves, saying the estimated population of only 83 wolves cannot be considered recovered. The scientists identified significant flaws in a “population viability analysis” conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that claims wolves are at low risk of extinction.
The researchers’ critical analyses of the delisting plan are included in comments submitted today by conservation groups from the Pacific Wolf Coalition to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is scheduled to vote Nov. 9 on whether to strip state Endangered Species Act protection from wolves.
“It is logically indefensible, and contrary to the notion of recovery under the Endangered Species Act, to suggest that wolves are in some way recovered when they’re still missing from nearly 90 percent of their suitable range in Oregon,” said Dr. Michael P. Nelson, the Ruth H. Spaniol chair of renewable resources and a professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University. “Dropping state protections for wolves right now would suggest that politics, rather than science and law, are guiding wildlife management decisions in Oregon.”
The state currently has about 83 wolves living in 10 packs, with several breeding pairs.
Under Oregon’s state wolf plan, reaching four breeding pairs for three consecutive years in the eastern half of the state triggers a status review. With its wolf population having reached that population threshold at the end of 2014, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife prepared a status review and recommended that wolves be delisted. But the commission has failed to initiate a formal peer review of the department’s analysis by an independent panel of experts, as required by state law.
The sole outside scientist who was asked by the state to comment on its wolf population status review raised serious questions about the review’s findings. Dr. Carlos Carroll, a wildlife ecologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, whose research focuses on habitat, viability and connectivity modeling for threatened and endangered species, expressed concern in his written analysis that the manner in which certain factors were applied in the analysis “is overly optimistic compared to data from well-studied wolf populations,” and that the status review relied on information “that doesn’t accurately represent what is currently known about genetic threats to small wolf populations.”
The department’s delisting recommendation relies largely on a population viability analysis questioned by multiple scientists, including one who characterizes it as being “fundamentally flawed” and not providing adequate or realistic assessments of Oregon’s wolf population to meet legally required delisting criteria. The scientists also raised concerns about the department’s delisting criteria assessment and about its apparent lack of understanding regarding social tolerance for wolves and other large predators.
“There appears to be little scientific evidence to justify Oregon’s assertion that a population of only 85 wolves is recovered,” said Dr. Guillaume Chapron, associate professor in quantitative ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, where his research focuses on large carnivore conservation and management, with a particular emphasis on modeling and viability analysis.
“According to some of the world's foremost experts in wolf and population biology, the state of Oregon's move to strip gray wolves of protection simply doesn't reflect reality,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The scientists’ comments make clear that removing protections for wolves now runs directly counter to the Oregon Endangered Species Act, which requires such decisions to be based on solid, verifiable science.”
The commission has received more than 22,000 comment letters from the public, plus substantial testimony at three public meetings this year, opposing delisting the wolves.
“The public overwhelmingly supports continued protections for Oregon’s wolves. Conservation groups and tens of thousands of Oregonians have told the commission that delisting of Oregon’s tiny wolf population is premature and that wolves still face threats to their continued existence in significant portions of their historic range — and the scientific community wholeheartedly agrees,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild.
The state’s estimated population of around 80 wolves is only 5 percent of what peer-reviewed science says the state could support, and wolves are entirely absent from nearly 90 percent of their historic range in Oregon.
“We have repeatedly asked the commission to conduct an outside, expert peer-review of ODFW’s status review as required under Oregon law and the Department’s own regulations,” said Nick Cady, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands. “Conducting an external scientific peer review on the Department’s proposal to ensure it can move forward with legal and scientific confidence is the right and only path forward.”
The Pacific Wolf Coalition includes the following member organizations:
BARK - California Wilderness Coalition - California Wolf Center – California Chapter Sierra Club - Cascadia Wildlands - Center for Biological Diversity – Conservation Northwest - Defenders of Wildlife - Earthjustice - Endangered Species Coalition - Environmental Protection Information Center - Gifford Pinchot Task Force - Hells Canyon Preservation Council - Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center – Living With Wolves – Mountain Lion Foundation - National Parks Conservation Association - Natural Resources Defense Council - Northeast Oregon Ecosystems - Oregon Chapter, Sierra Club - Oregon Wild - Predator Defense – Project Coyote - The Larch Company - –Washington Chapter Sierra Club - Western Environmental Law Center - Western Watersheds Project - Wildlands Network - Wolf Haven International