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Tough choices loom for wildlife planners in process of restoring wolves to Colorado

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December 3, 2021, 11:19 am
Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo.

When Colorado voted in 2020 to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope, the victory was by no means a landslide for wolf advocates.

Just 50.9% of voters supported Proposition 114, a citizen-backed initiative that required the state to develop and implement a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 31, 2023. In the part of the state that will be home to the wolves, just five out of 22 counties supported wolf restoration. The measure was much more popular with voters east of the Rocky Mountains.

Only the Western Slope ski and tourism counties of La Plata, Pitkin, San Juan, San Miguel and Summit approved Prop 114, and in Eagle County it lost by a decisive margin of 46.5% to 53.4%.

Against that polarized backdrop, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is in the midst of navigating intense disagreements among ranchers, sportspeople, wolf advocates and outdoor enthusiasts on just about every aspect of the plan, which is still in the early development stages.

Should people be allowed to kill wolves after their population reaches a certain size? Where should the wolves be released, and how many at a time? None of those questions have yet been answered, according to CPW spokesperson Travis Duncan.

“They’re drawing that (restoration plan) up now, and that will be presented to the Parks and Wildlife Commission later in 2022, probably fall or winter,” Duncan said.

As a starting point, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and independent facilitator Keystone Policy Center spent the summer of 2021 gathering public feedback, mostly from various communities on the Western Slope.

CPW and Keystone Policy Center “engaged more than 3,400 participants through 47 meetings and an online comment form,” according to a November report. “Meetings included 16 in-person public open houses throughout the state; 17 in-person Western Colorado geographic focus groups; 10 virtual interest-based focus groups; 2 in-person Tribal consultations; and 2 virtual town halls.”

Two advisory bodies — the Stakeholder Advisory Group and Technical Working Group — are informing the wolf reintroduction process in Colorado. They have a joint meeting scheduled for Dec. 14 and 15 in Denver.

The report from Keystone Policy Center lays out the major points of contention with wolf reintroduction and management. The advisory bodies and ultimately the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission have a little less than two years to find ways to bridge those disagreements before the deadline for reintroducing wolves.

“The diversity of public perspectives toward wolf restoration and management make it a
socially complex undertaking,” the report states. “Many areas of divergence reflect what is often described as a ‘rural-urban’ divide but is more specifically a difference of value sets concerning management of public lands and wildlife, predators, and the relationship between people and nature.”

While one group of Coloradans “considers wolf management from the lens of human interests, livelihoods, controlling against negative impacts, and the need for active wildlife management to support ecosystems,” the opposing group “emphasizes the intrinsic value of wildlife, the positive ecological role of predators, and a desire to restrict human activities to restore natural balance and benefits to ecosystems,” the report found.

An unsuccessful bill considered this year by the Colorado General Assembly would have effectively banned the reintroduction of gray wolves. House Bill 21-1037, which was rejected by the House Energy and Environment Committee, would have prohibited gray wolf reintroduction from taking place 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.

The bill — which drew Western Slope leaders to travel long distances in order to testify in support at the Capitol — exemplifies the tensions in Colorado over gray wolves. It was sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, along with Republican Sens. Bob Rankin of Carbondale and Ray Scott of Grand Junction.

“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 at the bill hearing in February. 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 had invested in protecting.

Some wolf advocates are trying to dissolve tensions around reintroduction. Defenders of Wildlife, the group that backed Proposition 114 in Colorado, partnered this year with The Working Circle on a series of workshops teaching livestock producers about how to live with wolves. While the ballot measure requires the state to provide compensation in the event of livestock losses, both opponents and proponents hope that won’t be necessary.

“We don’t want wolves to die because of livestock, and we don’t want livestock to die because of wolves, and there’s a way to do that,” said John Murtaugh, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife. The workshops brought livestock producers in other states where wolves were present to share their experiences about protecting their animals from being hunted by wolves.

Though the workshops have concluded for now, Murtaugh encouraged Colorado livestock producers interested in learning about techniques to contact Defenders of Wildlife or The Working Circle directly.

Currently, it’s illegal in Colorado to kill a wolf, even if the wolf is hunting livestock, unless the wolf poses a danger to human life, Murtaugh said. Murtaugh’s group wants to keep it that way, with some caveats.

“We want to make sure people can’t kill wolves, but we recognize there are times when it is appropriate for a government agency to execute a lethal removal,” Murtaugh clarified in a Friday email. “We think lethal control is an appropriate tool in the tool box, but one that should only be used when non-lethal methods have failed or are determined to not be effective in the situation.”

However, the federal delisting of wolves as an endangered species under the Trump administration allowed large hunts of the animals in states such as Wisconsin, despite humans having eradicated wolves in Colorado by the 1940s. Defenders of Wildlife is challenging the delisting in court, Murtaugh said — though it won’t impact hunting in the neighboring states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Comments at public feedback sessions that supported hunting “were most often rooted in the desire to have flexibility of management tools, including lethal methods, available to control wolf populations and any negative impacts on wildlife, livestock and rural livelihoods,” the report said. “Comments opposed to hunting argued that wolves regulate their own populations, making hunting unnecessary and unethical, that wolves are a nongame species, and that hunting disrupts wolf social structures and their ecological niche.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau wants the restoration plan to dictate a “hard number” for wolf population above which hunting would be allowed. This would help “ensure wolf numbers don’t get out of control like they have in other states,” the organization states on its website.

Erika Moore is the animal caretaker supervisor at the Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide. The center has been an active proponent of wolf restoration, Moore said, and is looking into ways to someday take people on tours to see wolves in the wild.

“We have an overpopulation of ungulate species,” she explained, referring to deer, elk and pronghorn. “You start to see a lot of overgrazing, degradation of river banks, which causes river banks to fall apart, and … you can lose things like beavers, songbirds, various pollinators.”

Wolves can provide ecological benefits by controlling the population of deer and elk, Moore and other proponents believe. Moore said she is educating herself on management tools and strategies to help protect livestock from wolves and hopes to learn more from Colorado ranchers.

“We are very excited to have this unique opportunity in Colorado to be able to bring back a keystone species,” Moore said.

Murtaugh said the ecological benefits of gray wolves will take more than a few years to show up, since the population will be spread out over a large area of Colorado.

“Wolves evolved in a complex system over hundreds of thousands of years,” he explained. “They play a role that is often difficult for us to put down on paper, and unfortunately despite our best efforts, humans have not been an effective replacement for the wolf.”

“If we want healthy, intact ecological systems,” he added, “we must restore all ecological aspects of that system.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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