A gray wolf is seen on Feb. 15, 2013. (Eric Cole/USFWS/CC BY 2.0)
Colorado wildlife officials expressed confidence in a hearing at the Capitol on Tuesday that they’re on track to reintroduce wolves to the state by the end of the year, but lawmakers continued to sound skeptical of the plan and its impact on ranchers and rural communities.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is moving forward with a wolf reintroduction plan, finalized by commissioners in May, that would put “paws on the ground” within a large region centered on Vail, Aspen and Glenwood Springs by Dec. 31. The plan was required by Proposition 114, a ballot measure backed by wildlife conservation groups, which Colorado voters approved by a 51% to 49% margin in 2020.
State lawmakers, especially those representing parts of Colorado where reintroduced wolves could threaten livestock herds, have sparred with Gov. Jared Polis’ administration over the law’s implementation, and continued to express their doubts in a hearing of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Tuesday.
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State Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Eagle and the committee’s chair, was among the lawmakers who raised concerns about when and how nearby residents will be notified of wolf releases, and the specter of acquiring “problem wolves” from other states as part of the reintroduction effort.
“It’s important to get this right,” Roberts said. “That could include wolves coming from the right place, the right wolves, and in a deliberate timeline rather than a rushed one.”
CPW officials plan to capture up to roughly 15 wolves in Oregon and Washington this winter and transport them to Colorado. Wildlife officials in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — where ranching and hunting interests have fueled a conservative backlash to wolf reintroduction programs begun in the 1990s — have pointedly declined to assist Colorado’s efforts.
While the majority of wolves don’t routinely prey on livestock herds, ranchers have focused on so-called problem wolf packs that learn and become habituated to the behavior, though conservation advocates often dispute that label and efforts to kill or remove problem wolves.
I don’t want to leave people with the impression that if we don’t meet it by Dec. 31 — which we will — that we’re not going to reintroduce wolves this (winter).
– Reid DeWalt, Colorado assistant director for wildlife and natural resources
Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for wildlife and natural resources, said the agency has requested that none of the animals they acquire are taken from “chronically depredating packs.” CPW director Jeff Davis, who joined the agency in May after a 23-year career at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his counterparts in Washington and Oregon “understand the consequences” of ensuring Colorado’s plan is successful.
“There are enough wolves, probably, between those two states, that we will get our hands on wolves that don’t have a history,” Davis said. “None of us would give each other problem wolves, because it doesn’t set the wolves up for success.”
‘Paws on the ground’
Once again, Roberts and other lawmakers argued that the text of Proposition 114 — which directed CPW to “take the steps necessary to begin reintroductions of gray wolves by December 31, 2023” — doesn’t in fact mean “paws on the ground” by that date.
That’s an interpretation that the measure’s backers and the Polis administration have consistently rejected, though DeWalt emphasized that CPW considers its “release season” to last from mid-December to mid-March. In general, he said, it becomes easier to capture wolves in snowier late-winter conditions — a factor that Washington officials cited last week in explaining why the state is unlikely to help Colorado meet the Dec. 31 deadline.
“I don’t want to leave people with the impression that if we don’t meet it by Dec. 31 — which we will — that we’re not going to reintroduce wolves this (winter),” DeWalt said.
CPW officials also told lawmakers they’re confident that the federal government is on track to enact a so-called 10(j) rule for Colorado’s wolf population by the end of the year.
Named for the relevant section in the Endangered Species Act, a 10(j) allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate certain protected species as “experimental populations.” Under such a designation, Colorado’s new wolf populations would, under certain circumstances, be subject to lethal control, as well as “injurious nonlethal” methods and “intentional harassment,” which the Endangered Species Act would otherwise prohibit.
Bipartisan majorities in the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year requiring such a rule to be in place before any reintroductions occur, but Polis, a Democrat, vetoed the measure, saying it was “unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent” in passing Proposition 114.
DeWalt said the expedited 10(j) process is “right on schedule,” with an environmental impact statement expected by mid-October, which would enable the rule to be finalized and in effect by Dec. 15.
With anxieties about the wolves’ impact running high, CPW has continued to hire staff and devote more resources to its management plan, including outreach to livestock producers about preventive equipment and nonlethal control strategies. Proposition 114 also established a compensation program that will pay ranchers for livestock losses from wolf depredations.
“We’re really trying to do our due diligence to make sure that we’re out there with people,” Davis said. “I believe, as a Parks and Wildlife agency, with the direction we’ve been given by you and the citizens of Colorado, that we have a moral obligation to those animals and to the people, so we want to do it right, right out of the gate.”
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