Gray wolf reintroduction wasn’t popular with Western Slope voters. Some lawmakers want guardrails.

Bill would require money for Proposition 114 to come from state’s general fund, not hunting and fishing fees

A gray wolf. (Getty Images)

Proposition 114 requires the state to reintroduce gray wolves on the Western Slope, but most of the Coloradans who contributed to the measure’s narrow victory in November voted from counties east of the Rocky Mountains. In contrast, just five of 22 counties west of the Continental Divide supported the ballot initiative.

The voter-backed initiative directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop and implement a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 31, 2023. Supporters, who collected thousands of petition signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, said it would restore the natural balance in Colorado’s wild ecosystems and bring an iconic species back to the state.

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Opponents of gray wolf reintroduction say the law could jeopardize the Western Slope’s hunting and fishing industry and take state wildlife funds away from other important preservation projects on public lands.

Lawmakers on the House Energy and Environment Committee heard testimony Feb. 25 on two bills introduced in response to Proposition 114. The first, backed by Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, would have effectively banned the reintroduction of gray wolves. It was rejected on an 8-4 vote.

Meanwhile, the committee delayed voting on a bipartisan bill that takes a more compromising tone. It would require wolf reintroduction planning costs to be paid out of the state’s general fund and certain cash funds — instead of with revenue from hunting and fishing licenses and permits — and is supported by wolf advocates as well as sportspeople.

Bill would have required local support for wolves

Soper’s House Bill 21-1037 was postponed indefinitely by the House Energy and Environment Committee. Had the bill passed, it would have banned gray wolf reintroduction in any Western Slope counties that had not approved the ballot measure, unless they held a separate local election where voters supported the same actions.

Most Western Slope counties — with the exception of Summit, Pitkin, San Miguel, San Juan and La Plata counties — rejected Proposition 114. Voters in Denver, Arapahoe and El Paso counties, the state’s three most populated Front Range counties, supported the measure. It edged to victory with less than 51% of the statewide vote.

State Rep. Matt Soper
State Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta, represents Colorado House District 54. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

HB-1037 would have also banned reintroduction in any counties where the state had funded the restoration of species considered prey for the wolf. In their analysis, nonpartisan legislative staff said that provision of the bill would appear to rule out any reintroduction.

“Gray wolves are carnivores with many prey animals, including large and small game, birds, and fish,” the analysis noted. “CPW has spent money to reintroduce or restore prey of the gray wolf in all counties in the state, including moose beginning in 2005.”

Before it was rejected by the committee members, local leaders from the Western Slope testified in favor of HB-1037 — some having made the journey to Denver in person.

“It’s important that we realize we don’t know a lot about your urban life here, and the folks in the urban areas likewise don’t know a lot about our lifestyle,” Rio Blanco County Commissioner Gary Moyer said. He asked lawmakers to respect “local expertise” by supporting the bill, adding that wolf reintroduction could negatively impact the greater sage grouse, an endangered bird the state has spent millions of dollars working to protect in the region.

Advocates for wolf reintroduction said reintroducing the species, which was native to Colorado but eradicated by the 1940s, would help control deer and elk populations that have been impacted by chronic wasting disease. And as several people pointed out, wolves couldn’t be kept out of certain areas once introduced to the state.

“Thankfully, wolves do not acknowledge county boundaries and will disperse to suitable habitats — and when they do, will bring their ecological benefits,” ecologist Delia Malone testified on behalf of the Colorado Sierra Club.

This map from the Colorado secretary of state’s website shows in green the counties, largely along the Front Range, that voted in favor of Proposition 114 and those in red that voted against the measure. (screenshot)

While several Democratic lawmakers said they empathized with the rural Coloradans who were angered by Proposition 114, they said the Soper bill as written would go against the will of the voters who approved reintroduction. The bill ultimately failed along party lines, with the committee’s eight Democrats outvoting the four Republicans.

Soper said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

“The one thing that still frustrates me is just the growing divide between rural Colorado and urban Colorado,” Soper told Newsline after the vote. “I see wolves as kind of playing into the larger narrative. … We’re going to have more coal mines closing, and the oil and gas industry is leaving. Now having wolves come in — that will diminish the hunt for the hunting industry, it will diminish the cattle industry, and those are the key industries that are left, so certainly … it’s challenging for rural Colorado.”

Debate over how to pay for wolf reintroduction

House Bill 21-1040, which the committee laid over for voting on a future date, would require that gray wolf reintroduction planning efforts be paid for out of the state’s general fund, which is comprised mostly of income and sales tax revenue. An amendment, which the committee approved, would allow reintroduction efforts to also be paid for with money from the Species Conservation Trust Fund or the Colorado Nongame Conservation and Wildlife Restoration Cash Fund.

Without this bill, the costs would come out of CPW’s Wildlife Cash Fund, which draws most of its dollars from from hunting and fishing licenses and permits. HB-1040’s sponsors said that wouldn’t be fair to sportspeople who are often paying to hunt the game species that gray wolves prey on.

The bill is sponsored by Reps. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, and Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat. It drew both wildlife advocates and sportspeople to testify in support.

State Rep. Perry Will
State Rep. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, represents House District 57. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

“We believe the bill provides two key benefits to the citizens of Colorado: the first being fiscal transparency to the Colorado electorate … (and) the second being fiscal sustainability of Colorado Parks and Wildlife for future generations,” said Wes Mendez, representing the Colorado Bowhunters Association.

Wolf advocates said the bill would provide a stable funding source for Proposition 114.

Colorado legislative staff estimate planning for gray wolf reintroduction will cost $344,300 for budget year 2021-2022, which begins July 1. The following fiscal year, costs will amount to around $467,000. This money would be used to facilitate public meetings, pay consultants developing the plan, survey members of the public, and cover other planning costs.

After Soper’s own bill was rejected, he said he supported HB-1040.

“It’s better that (money for wolf reintroduction) comes from the general fund so that all of Colorado is supporting the wolf reintroduction, not just the sportsmen,” he told Newsline.

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