Oregon Appeals Court Nulls Legislature on Gray Wolves

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grey-wolfThe Oregon Court of Appeals has decided to reexamine a lawsuit brought against the state that was previously dismissed. Last week, Oregon’s judges agreed to reconsider a series of decisions made by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission, State Legislature, and the Governor’s office, all regarding the status of Oregon’s gray wolves. A group of environmentalists that tried to sue the state this spring over the Wolf Plan now has a second chance to request a judicial review of the state’s validity in delisting wolves as an endangered species.

The Court’s decision to reexamine the case results from the criticism of several state lawmakers and environmental groups, both of which question the constitutionality of House Bill 4040, a law that passed immediately after the Wolf Plan was challenged—it aimed to close the case and dismiss any new lawsuits.

In November, the ODFW voted to delist gray wolves. Though a public forum encouraged ranchers to voice concerns about livestock, only 82 wolves were known to be alive in Oregon at the time of the vote.

The verdict was marred with controversy over environmentalists’ claims that ODFW’s studies to support the ruling were based on biased and flawed science. Several groups soon challenged the decision without success.

The deslisting decision became so unpopular that Governor Kate Brown, despite claiming neutrality in the situation, agreed in early April to sign a controversial bill created for the sole purpose of preventing three organizations from suing the state over the Wolf Plan.

House Bill 4040 was written after Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, and the Center for Biological Diversity all put the Wolf Plan on trial with claims that the species had not yet recovered and without protection could face annihilation. As a symbol of solidarity to the ODFW, the bill rendered moot any challenges to the Wolf Plan and any judicial review as unlawful.

The House voted in favor of HB 4040 in February, though over 20 representatives including Corvallis’ Dan Rayfield (D) voted against it. Almost a month later, the bill passed through the Senate to the Governor’s office. Corvallis’ Sara Gelser (D) was also opposed to the decision.

HB 4040 was soon blasted by lawmakers for being unconstitutional due to the way in which the Legislature had attempted to control matters that should have been left to the judicial branch.

Governor Brown was also criticized due to her own contradictory statements regarding the bill—though she promised in a public statement that she would not advocate for or against HB 4040, the actions of her office did not convey a neutral stance, but instead, an anti-wolf one. Additional discrepancies were noted by Representative Peter DeFazio, and at last the case was reopened.

It appears that HB 4040, though at first a hindrance, is ultimately a blessing in disguise for conservation groups determined to save Oregon’s wolves. Without the Court of Appeals’ challenge, groups like Oregon Wild wouldn’t have another chance to address the dangers facing wolves—the most imminent issue being the species’ low and stagnant population.

According to ODFW, only 101 wolves are alive right now, and that’s barely any improvement from last year. Biologists say the number is far too low for Oregon’s wolves to be able to stay genetically diverse. With such a small population, the animals are at risk of inbreeding and disease.

Whether or not gray wolves will be reintroduced to the endangered species list is yet unknown, but now that environmentalists can again challenge the validity of the Wolf Plan and the constitutionality of HB 4040, they may have a chance to re-list wolves and thus save them from decimation.

By Kiki Genoa

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