PORTLAND, Oregon — Oregon should move forward with the process that could remove the gray wolf from the state's endangered species list, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission decided Friday.
The commission will look at two options: delisting the wolves statewide or partially, in eastern Oregon only. The option of not delisting also remains.
The decision came as the number of wolves and breeding pairs have increased in the state. By 2014, there were 77 wolves in 15 known packs.
The state's wolf plan calls for initiating a process to delist the wolves when the conservation objective of four breeding pairs for three consecutive years in eastern Oregon is reached. That objective was met in early 2015.
"This is a success story," wolf program coordinator Russ Morgan said in a statement. "Not very many years ago, we had no known wolves in Oregon. Now we not only have wolves, but the population is healthy and growing."
Oregon's current wolf population descends from animals introduced in Idaho in the 1990s. The state predicts the wolf population will increase at a rate of 7 percent a year, and the probability they will go extinct is low. That's because there is plenty of habitat and wolves continue to expand their range.
The Oregon Cattlemen's Association has been pressing for the commission to delist wolves. While taking wolves off the state's endangered list would not open up hunting, their rising numbers would allow ranchers to shoot more wolves when they attack livestock.
But conservation groups say wolf numbers are still too low to justify lifting their protections. Most of the three dozen people who spoke at the commission meeting were against delisting, said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy.
Delisting wolves from the state Endangered Species Act would not affect a federal endangered listing that includes the state's western two-thirds.
Commissioners will draft a proposal by June and vote on it in August. The commission's next meeting is scheduled for June 5 in Salem.