PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Wolves were once so plentiful in the abundant forests that would become Oregon that the earliest settlers gathered from far and wide to discuss how to kill them.
Those “wolf meetings” in the 1840s, spawned by a common interest, eventually led to the formation of the Oregon territory, the precursor for statehood in 1859.
Today, Oregon’s statehood is secure, but the future of its wolf population once more hangs in the balance. Wolves have returned after decades, and this time, humans are having a much more contentious discussion about what to do with them.
It’s a political debate playing out against the backdrop of a rapidly growing wolf population, a jump in wolf poaching and demands from ranchers and hunters who say the predators are decimating herds and spooking big game.
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The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote in January on whether to adopt a new wolf management plan that could eventually open the door for a wolf hunt for the first time since bounty hunting wiped out wolves in the state 70 years ago. Idaho, which has a much larger population of the animals, allows wolf hunting.
Conservationists worry the plan will erode recent progress, particularly given a rash of unsolved poaching cases and an uptick in state-sanctioned wolf killings in response to wolf attacks on livestock. They are adamantly opposed to wolf hunting and say the population is a long way from supporting it.
The species lost its endangered status under Oregon law two years ago – when the population hit 81 wolves – and is no longer federally protected in the eastern third of the state. Wolves, which were wiped out in the continental U.S. in all but a slice of Minnesota, also are rebounding in other Western states, prompting similar debates about human co-existence.
Oregon wildlife officials have killed or authorized the killing of 14 wolves since 2009, including 10 in the past two years, and 12 more have been poached, including eight since 2015, according to state wildlife officials.
“When we had zero wolves 10 years ago, and now when we have 112 wolves, that’s certainly a success story – but we’re not done,” said Rob Klavins, a wolf specialist with Oregon Wild, a conservation organization. “Can you imagine if there were only 81 known elk in the state of Oregon, or if there were 81 salmon? We wouldn’t think of delisting…