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A gray wolf is seen on Feb. 15, 2013 (Eric Cole/USFWS/CC BY 2.0).
A federal judge Friday night denied a last-minute request by Colorado livestock producers to halt the reintroduction of gray wolves on the Western Slope by Dec. 31, clearing the way for state wildlife officials to put “paws on the ground” as soon as Monday.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Colorado on Dec. 11 and asked for a temporary restraining order against Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s plans for an initial release in the coming days of five wolves captured and relocated from Oregon.
But Judge Regina Rodriguez wrote that while the plaintiffs are “understandably concerned about possible impacts of this reintroduction,” blocking CPW’s restoration efforts isn’t supported by scientific evidence and would run contrary to the will of Colorado voters, who in 2020 narrowly passed a ballot measure mandating wolf reintroduction.
“The record before the Court does not substantiate a likelihood of imminent livestock losses, particularly in the context of a request for emergency relief,” Rodriguez wrote in her order denying the request. “Data submitted to the Court by the Conservation Groups, and not rebutted by Petitioners, demonstrate that in other states with hundreds or thousands of wolves, predation affects mere fractions of a percent of total livestock populations.”
The cattle industry’s lawsuit against CPW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleged that the two agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct extensive reviews of the potential impacts of wolf reintroduction. But Rodriguez ruled that the agencies’ moves were “non-discretionary” and not subject to full NEPA reviews.
In a court hearing on Thursday, CPW officials told Rodriguez that wolves could be released within a large region centered on Vail, Aspen and Glenwood Springs as soon as Dec. 18.
“With this decision, Colorado Parks and Wildlife teams will move forward with implementing the approved Gray Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, in accordance with the will of Colorado voters,” the agency said in a statement late on Friday. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife will not comment further on ongoing litigation.”
Gray wolves are native to Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states but were hunted to near-extinction by the mid-20th century. With the support of conservation groups, reintroduction efforts like one in Yellowstone National Park beginning in 1995 have allowed populations to recover in the northern Rockies. Studies have linked wolf reintroduction to a variety of positive effects on impacted ecosystems, like healthier elk herds and the recovery of riparian habitats previously damaged by over-grazing.
Colorado reached an agreement with Oregon to source wolves this winter after officials in states including Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — where ranching and hunting interests have fueled a conservative backlash to wolf reintroduction programs begun in the 1990s — pointedly declined to assist Colorado’s efforts.
Conservation advocates cheered the court’s decision, decrying the ranchers’ request as an attempt to “thwart the will of the voters.”
“I’m relieved that the court saw right through the livestock industry’s self-serving and meritless arguments,” Allison Henderson, southern Rockies director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “Both science and Colorado voters have very clearly told us that wolves belong here. Once wolves are reintroduced, they’ll help restore balance to our state’s ecosystems.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.