Friday, August 19, 2016

Oregon’s “Progressive” State Legislature and Wildlife Conservation

I sat in on a wolf forum held last Tuesday at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene with speakers that included Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild, Nick Cady from Cascadia Wildlands and Christy Splitt of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, titled “Howling Mad – A Forum on wolves, politics and restoring Oregon’s environmental leadership.”

Congressman DeFazio, a solid supporter of wolf recovery, gave the keynote speech and talked about his experience dealing with past anti-wolf legislation at the federal level and current efforts to remove all gray wolves throughout the US (except for Mexican gray wolves) from the federal Endangered Species list, while Klavins and Cady gave updates on the population and management status of Oregon’s wolves, and a lawsuit challenging the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s decision to remove wolves from Oregon’s State Endangered Species list last November. But it was Christy Splitt’s presentation on her experiences during the 2016 session of the Oregon State Legislature as a lobbyist fighting House Bill 4040 and her insights on the dynamics of the legislature involving conservation issues that I found especially interesting.

House Bill 4040 was a livestock-industry supported bill introduced into the Oregon State Legislature during the 2016 legislative session that purported to affirm the state’s decision to delist wolves at the state level. But its real purpose was to codify the delisting into Oregon law and render moot a lawsuit wolf advocates had filed challenging the delisting. Splitt told of her frustration trying to convince legislators what the true intent of the bill was, many of whom considered it to simply be a formal “pat on the back” to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for the good job it was doing managing wolves. Many legislators told her she was just being paranoid and hysterical. After a considerable effort, she finally managed to convince many state representatives of the bill’s real purpose and saw opposition to the bill go from one to 23 in committee.

But the House Republicans had a trick up their sleeves, requiring that all House bills be read in their entirety that would trap legislators in chambers for hours, day after day. Because they are the minority party, the Republicans did not have to stay themselves to maintain a quorum, leaving the Democrats stuck with the task. Since it was the end of the session, when deals are cut, HB 4040 was allowed out of committee for a vote, passed, went to the Senate where it also passed, then was signed by Governor Kate Brown in March. (As an aside Brown, was initially leaning towards vetoing HB 4040, then discovered, previously unknown to her, that her staff had been working with the legislature on the bill, and decided to sign it after all.)

 Even though Oregon has among the most progressive state legislatures in the country, that isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to wildlife. According to Splitt, it’s because of the social dynamics among state legislators that gives rural legislators and their issues an advantage at the statehouse. Despite political differences, state legislators of both parties tend to develop friendships over time. Splitt observes that natural resource issues are often the top priority for rural legislators who specifically blame urbanites for declining rural economies due to environmental regulations, which they are constantly trying to roll back. As a result, there is a lot of urban-rural guilt among urban legislators who are always looking for ways to “do something” for their rural colleagues that will cause the least heartburn with their urban constituents. That often turns out to be wolf and cougar management, which is a top issue in rural areas but generally not on the radar of most urban residents. For example, over the past several years, wildlife advocates have been able to beat back a number of legislative attempts to reinstate hound hunting for cougars but HB 4040 turned out to be one they couldn’t stop.

HB 4040 notwithstanding, the wolf advocates’ lawsuit challenging state delisting has since been allowed to go forward because the court ruled that HB 4040 may be attempting to interfere with the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government. 

There is another wolf forum scheduled for August 24 in Portland with Representative Earl Blumenauer as the scheduled speaker. You'll find out more about it on the Oregon Wild website.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Oregon coast coho struggle, a proposed Copper River salmon reserve and good legal news for wild salmon and steelhead

For the past 15 years, I have produced The Osprey for the International Federation of Fly Fishers’ Steelhead Committee. Published in January, May and September, it’s a 20-page journal advocating for wild Pacific salmon and steelhead conservation through science, policy and opinion.

Wild coho salmon spawn in a small Oregon coast stream.
Photo Copyright 2016 by Jim Yuskavitch
The current issue of The Osprey, a copy of which you can download, features stories on how the federal government is lagging in its efforts to restore Oregon coast coho salmon, a proposal by conservationists to establish a wild salmon reserve within Alaskas Copper River basin, updates on a series of legal decisions that will benefit fish and rivers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and more. Please check it out I think youll find it of interest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Clearcuts for Kids

Clearcut in the Oregon Coast Range. Photo Copyright 2016 by Jim Yuskavitch
When new states entered the union, the federal government granted them several sections of each township and instructed the states to use those lands to benefit public schools. In Oregon and Washington, those school trust properties, 750,000 acres and 2.1 million acres, respectively, are mostly timberlands. To maximize income for schools, Oregon and Washington have aggressively logged those lands while minimizing environmental protections that results in damage to wildlife and fish habitat, destruction of the last remnants of old-growth forests and loss of outdoor recreational opportunities. Conservation groups have been pushing forestry officials in Oregon and Washington to increase environmental protections on these trust lands, manage them for more values than just timber revenue and to eventually find a way to decouple logging from school funding.

I’ve written a story examining this subject in more detail, published in the current issue of Sierra Magazine online, called “Pulp Friction.” Check it out if you’d like to learn more about this important forest conservation issue.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Has Oregon Wolf Management “Jumped the Shark?”

Cascadia Wildlands announced today that it has filed an ethics complaint against three Oregon State Representatives — Greg Barreto (R-Cove), Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) and Sal Esquivel (R-Medford) claiming that they misrepresented House Bill 4040 in order to secure its passage. Governor Kate Brown signed HB 4040 into law on March 15, 2016.

HB 4040 was brought forward by the Oregon livestock industry and initially billed as an ‘affirmation’ of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s November 2015 decision to remove wolves in Oregon from the state endangered species list, despite broad public opposition. But its real purpose was to codify the decision into law and render moot a lawsuit that wolf advocates had filed against the state challenging the delisting. Before the bill’s true purpose became obvious, some lawmakers noted that ‘affirming’ a state administrative decision by legislation was unusual.

This situation is a good example of what is sometimes called the “Diamond Triangle” in state level wildlife management, where state wildlife agencies, hunting and livestock groups, and state legislatures often work in concert to minimize how much influence other groups have in wildlife management decisions, and is especially prevalent when it involves large carnivores like wolves and cougars.

In this particular case, the Fish and Wildlife Commission sided with hunting and ranching groups in its delisting decision, and when pro-wolf groups sued, the livestock industry used its political clout to pass a law preventing the decision from being challenged in court.

This is worrisome, since lawsuits are an important way for citizens to challenge government decisions and hold government accountable to the people. Oregon probably has the best wolf management plan of all the ‘wolf states’ to date so this turn of events is a concern. There have been numerous legislative attempts to minimize wolf protections since the first wolves entered the state, but HB 4040 is the first that has passed and been signed into law. Passing laws making it easier to kill wolves or more difficult to protect them is commonplace in the Northern Rockies and upper Midwest. If that becomes astandard wolf ‘management’ practice here, Oregon wolves and wolf advocates are in for some dark days ahead.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bison to Become US National Mammal – Once Roamed Oregon

An initiative to make the bison the United State’s national animal has met success, with the US House and Senate having just approved the legislation and sent it on to President Obama to sign into law.

The National Bison Legacy Act was initiated by a number of organizations including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Inter Tribal Buffalo Council and National Bison Association who argued that the bison occupies an important place in American history and culture.

Since all the wild bison now roaming the US are in the Rockies and Great Plains states, these animals may not seem especially relevant those of us living in the Pacific Northwest. However, there is tantalizing evidence that there were small populations of bison in some parts of eastern Oregon that became extirpated sometime in the very early 1800s.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park. A future scene in Oregon? 
Photo Copyright 2016 by Jim Yuskavitch
In the summer 1985 issue of The Murrelet, Dirk Van Vuren and Martin P. Bray wrote that verified bison remains were found in eastern Oregon between 1915 and 1930, including near Cow Creek Lakes in Malheur County; Malheur Cave in Harney County, near Joseph in Wallowa County and; near Izee in Grant County. These remains included skulls, horns and teeth fragments. In 1930, a drought dried up Malheur Lake exposing a large number of bison skulls. At the time the paper was written, 30 of those skulls were located at the Denver Museum in Colorado.

With the historical evidence that bison probably once roamed Oregon, it is intriguing to consider the possibility of re-establishing a few small herds in the southeastern part of the state. Unfortunately, free-ranging wild bison are controversial in the northern Rockies where they are aggressively opposed by the livestock industry, fearful that the animals might transmit brucellosis to their cattle, although there are no documented cases of that ever happening. A proposal to reintroduce bison to Oregon would surely meet similar opposition. But it’s an idea worth exploring.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Taking in the View at Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

While attending the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife commission meeting in Bandon last week, I drove out 11th Street to the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge at Coquille Point during the lunch break. Although a cold wind was blowing off the ocean, the sky was clear and blue making for great views.

Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge at Coquille Point, Bandon.
Photo Copyright 2016 by Jim Yuskavitch
The refuge actually consists of 1,853 offshore islands along 320 miles of the Oregon Coast, but the mainland section is at Coquille Point where you can also see, but not physically visit, a number of large islands just offshore. There is a nice beach for walking, though. The islands are highly valuable for wildlife habitat. Thirteen species of seabirds nest on the islands including black oystercatchers, tufted puffins and common murres. Steller sea lions and harbor seals haul up on the islands to rest and give birth to their pups, which they should be doing now. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a bald eagle or peregrine falcon, which also frequent the islands. I didn’t have my spotting scope when I visited, but there were lots of birds roosting on the rocky islands that looked to be mostly cormorants and a variety of gull species.

Friday, April 15, 2016

West Coast Fisher Population Denied ESA Protection by US Fish and Wildlife Service

The big wildlife news this week on the West Coast, announced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday, April 14, is that the agency has decided not to protect the West Coast Distinct Population Segment of fishers under the federal Endangered Species Act.

This decision came as somewhat of a surprise because on October 6, 2014 the USFWS announced that it was proposing to list the West Coast fisher population as threatened and was in the process of taking public comments on the listing. The primary threat driving the proposal to list fishers was the recent discovery of rodenticides in the environment in the Klamath Mountains and southern Sierra Nevada Mountains that were resulting in the deaths of some animals, along with logging that is affecting fisher habitat.

There is some legal history behind the proposed listing. The Center for Biological Diversity, along with Sierra Forest Legacy and other conservation groups, petitioned the USFWS to list West Coast fishers under the ESA in 1994 and again in 2000. In 2004, the USFWS added Pacific fishers to their list of “warranted but precluded” species meaning that the agency felt fishers should be listed but it had other financial priorities at the time. In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the USFWS for delaying the listing, forcing the agency to make a decision this year.

In explaining its decision, the agency said that the threats to the fishers were not serious enough to warrant listing and now plans to work collaboratively with timber companies and various government agencies to protect fisher habitat — a strategy which many wildlife advocates remain skeptical and prefer legal protection as more effective.

Sedated Pacific fisher, Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, California.
Photo Copyright 2016 by Jim Yuskavitch
Currently, the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains region in northern California and southwestern Oregon has what is considered to be a fairly stable population of Pacific fishers although the population size isn’t accurately known. But in the southern Sierras, fishers are struggling. I spent some time working on a magazine story in 2007 on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation about fisher research being conducted by the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Wildlife Conservation Society.

Right now there are several fisher studies ongoing or planned in southwestern Oregon, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had remote cameras out for a couple of years, also in southwestern Oregon, where they detected fishers from the Klamath-Siskiyou population.

Washington has been the most proactive of the West Coast states for fisher conservation, releasing 78 into Olympic National Park over a three-year period beginning in 2008, and another reintroduction of more than 20fishers in Washington’s southern Cascade Mountains during the winter of 2015-16. 

As far as the USFWS decision to forego listing West Coast fishers goes, conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, are considering the possibility of a court challenge.