Colorado begins planning to reintroduce gray wolves
First round of public meetings expected February through May as Gov. Polis challenges state to beat a voter-imposed deadline
Planning efforts to bring the controversial gray wolf back to parts of Colorado’s Western Slope are officially getting underway.
The state’s 11-member Parks and Wildlife Commission approved a process that aims to engage the public and scientists to develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves and adaptively manage the species, with state officials saying they see a “complicated but achievable” path forward.
The commission’s Jan. 14 action follows voters’ slim passage of a ballot initiative last November that directs the state to reintroduce the gray wolf by the end of 2023. The gray wolf once inhabited every part of Colorado but was shot, trapped and poisoned until it was eradicated from the state by the 1940s.
“We have direction from the voters of Colorado to develop a reintroduction and management plan for gray wolves as transparently and expeditiously as possible,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This authorizes us to move forward in a phased approach that will allow us to be both efficient and flexible as we enact the plan. We will introduce wolves in Colorado no later than Dec. 31, 2023.”
The planning process proposed by CPW and approved by the commission will look to engage biologists and wolf experts as well as the public and stakeholder groups to balance widely varying public perspectives about reintroducing and managing the gray wolf in yet-to-be designated areas on Colorado’s Western Slope.
The ballot initiative saw strong support along the Front Range, while voters in a majority of Western Slope counties opposed it, with some people arguing that reintroduction is unnecessary with a handful of gray wolves already dispersing into northwest Colorado, most likely from Wyoming.
People and dozens of groups opposed to the initiative raised numerous concerns about the gray wolf’s reintroduction. Those included wolves’ impacts on ranchers and livestock, on elk, deer and moose populations and the hunting opportunities they support, wolves’ spread to other areas, and conflicts with people in an increasingly populated state.
The planning process will now seek a collaborative effort to address numerous controversial questions, including where gray wolves are reintroduced, how many wolves are released, and how populations are managed, both to ensure the gray wolf’s recovery in Colorado and to minimize conflicts.
Uncertain regulatory landscape
The planning effort is also expected to have to contend with the uncertain legal status surrounding the gray wolf.
Pointing to the recovery of wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently delisted gray wolves nationwide, ending their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The delisting turned management authority over gray wolves back to Colorado and other states, effective Jan. 4. But the action is widely expected to be challenged in court. That could result in years of legal uncertainty — or even in gray wolf management authority being turned back over to the federal government, an outcome that would require Colorado to get federal approvals to reintroduce wolves or undertake numerous management actions involving them. The gray wolf remains protected under Colorado state law.
“There is a huge concern about putting wolves on the ground and then they are relisted,” said commissioner Charles Garcia. “This commission needs to look forward to that possibility, which is very likely, and be ready for it.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis challenged the commission to approve a management plan and reintroduce gray wolves to designated areas on the Western Slope well before the Dec. 31, 2023 deadline imposed by the ballot initiative.
“You don’t want to be up against a deadline in three years. You also don’t want to rush it through and try to get wolves on the ground this year,” Polis said. He suggested that a reintroduction and management plan could be drafted and approved by the commission as soon as early next year.
“This is not about relitigating what voters have decided. That’s the law of Colorado, we will carry that out. It’s really about doing it in a way that ensures a broad coalition feels part of it, and that people’s voices are heard,” Polis said. “Even if they didn’t vote the prevailing way and that’s not their personal desire, that doesn’t mean they don’t have knowledge or expertise that might contribute to the success of the enterprise, or perhaps address even some of their own concerns.”
The process the Parks and Wildlife Commission approved calls for extensive public outreach, with a first round of virtual meetings to share information and listen to public input about wolf conservation and management starting this February and continuing through May.
The process also calls for the creation of technical and stakeholder working groups to advise the commission on the wolf reintroduction and management plan, as well as contracting an external facilitator to help lead and mediate the process.
The technical working group, anticipated to include state and federal agencies and tribal representatives, will work on conservation objectives and management strategies and the development of programs to minimize conflicts and fairly compensate ranchers for livestock losses to wolves.
Stakeholder advisory group members are anticipated to include wolf advocacy groups, livestock producers, local and county governments, general citizens, and sportspersons. It will support the development of draft strategies by representing a range of viewpoints and geographic areas in the state, officials said.
Reid DeWalt, assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources at CPW, who will oversee the wolf planning process, noted that both groups will advise the Parks and Wildlife Commission, which will have the final say on approving a reintroduction and management plan.
While the approved process for developing a management plan and reintroducing gray wolves envisions taking three years, the process can be shortened as progress allows or as the commission sees fit.
“We want to start to engage the advisory and technical groups very quickly,” DeWalt told the commission. “Depending on the speed of this group, processes could be completed next year, or we could use time to continue conversations and look at the extended timeline, depending on the will of the commission.”
The process is anticipated to be challenging. Commission members reported receiving hundreds of emails leading up to their Jan. 13-14 meeting, and heard nearly an hour of public comment before voting to adopt the planning process.
Yet as the first voter-driven gray wolf reintroduction in America, the process also represents a major conservation initiative underway in the country, and an opportunity for the often-embattled sides of the wolf debate to try to work together, find common ground and shape a plan that can work for both wolves and people in Colorado.
The biggest challenges of that process are expected to be social and political, rather than biological, said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for CPW. He noted that debate over the gray wolf “encapsulates the full spectrum of human emotion.”
“Because the attention people pay to wolves is not balanced with the relatively minor impact wolves have on the lives of most people, wolf management will probably remain complicated, expensive, political and controversial,” Odell said.
And while there are numerous wolf reintroduction and management plans in other states to learn and draw experiences from, Colorado’s experience will undoubtedly be unique, Odell predicted. “There is no cookbook method to wolf management,” he said.
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