Colorado wildlife commissioners have heard from ranchers and wildlife advocates hoping to influence a draft plan to return wolves to the West Slope.
Tension has mounted over plans to return gray wolves to Colorado since a ballot initiative narrowly passed two years ago directing wildlife officials to restore numbers of the predators that have been absent for nearly a century. And while Thursday’s first public comment session on the state’s draft wolf recovery and management plan narrowed the divide in opinion, it also showed how much ground still needs to be covered before work can begin on reintroducing wolves west of the Continental Divide.
The draft plan, due to begin in 2024, aims to achieve a successful recovery of the gray wolf in Colorado by introducing 30 to 50 wolves over 3 to 5 years. However, the social and economic consequences of the plan made it a controversial topic across the state. At this point, modifications to the plan can still be made. Four more public comment hearings will be held through February 22, after which the plan will be approved at the Global Plant Grains Partners meeting in Glenwood Springs on May 3-4.
The CPW Committee heard first from the Stakeholder Advisory Group, a group of volunteers representing a variety of Coloradan perspectives, who met from June 2021 to August 2022 to develop a set of recommendations for a draft plan. SAG member Renee Dale, a sheep farmer and public lands groomer from Somerset, said she believed the group had reached a consensus that could work in the interest of everyone affected by the reintroduction.
“None of us has come away from being so completely satisfied,” she said. “But I think that speaks to the fact that it was a real compromise.”
Few of the public seemed satisfied with the state of the plan, either. An equal number of livestock owners and wildlife advocates spoke about the restoration plan at a meeting Thursday.
Some were concerned that the plan’s draft route provided inadequate protection for the gray wolves. Once at least 200 wolves live in the state, or at least 150 for two consecutive years, the draft plan says they will be reclassified as non-threatened. That threshold is very low, said Lindsey Laris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians.
“I heard earlier today that 150 wolves would be enough to prevent extinction,” Laris said. “I wonder why this should be our standard.”
Coyotes in Colorado are currently protected by state law and killing one can result in heavy fines and even jail time. Advocates like Laris have said they should remain under protection until their numbers are much stronger than 200 — a figure dating back more than 20 years, Laris said. She said more current scientific evidence suggests a population of 750 wolves is an appropriate minimum for delisting.
Others have sought more support in the plan for people whose livelihoods might be negatively affected by the reintroduction of wolves. Ranchers have drawn attention not only to the financial losses of livestock killed by wolves, but the difficult to quantify reductions in stock fertility, general health and weight that can result from stress from exposure to a newly introduced predator.
The CPW draft plan contains a detailed compensation scheme to compensate ranchers for both livestock lost to predators and a decrease in herd welfare. But some, like rancher Curtis Russell, a board member of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, think the plan isn’t enough. He said the presence of wolves could have dire consequences for livestock owners, many of whom are already in an economically precarious position.
“Unfortunately, the potential for many Western Slope livestock producers to be put out of business due to an improperly managed wolf introduction is very high,” said Russell.
Don Gittleson, who lives on a farm in North Park, near the Wyoming border, has already had difficult experiences dealing with wolves. Packs that crossed into Colorado from Wyoming repeatedly attacked animals on his property last year.
The emotional toll is great, both for him and for the CPW officials who must respond to the horrific consequences of the wolf attacks. Dumping techniques and deterrence have been of limited effectiveness in the long term, and it is difficult to think how his business can remain sustainable.
He said, “I hate it.” “I hate that question, because it’s a very real question. I can’t answer it for sure.”
The plan allows Colorado ranchers to participate in a variety of “impact-based management” activities to prevent wolves from threatening their livestock. This includes physical deterrence, non-lethal force, and lethal force, which are permitted when attacking livestock.
Some wildlife advocates have spoken out against allowing lethal force in the draft plan. Many also objected to the final phase of the draft plan, Phase 4, which allows wolves to be hunted for sport if reintroduction is successful. Commissioner Mary Haskett said the CPW plan project is backed by sound science and years of experience in wildlife conservation and wildlife management. When the plan reaches that final stage, she said, the wolves could be considered “recovered” — in which case, they wouldn’t need special treatment.
“Wolves are not the only species that live in this landscape, and the only way to make it fair for all species is to make them game creatures, and to manage them,” said Haskett, a dressmaker at Maker.
Phase IV, which is not included in the SAG recommendations, contradicts the original intent of Proposition 114, according to Kellie Murphy, acting associate of the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. She said adding a provision to reclassify wolves as game animals does nothing for restoration efforts but makes it more controversial.
“These wolves haven’t been reintroduced, so one day they could be someone’s trophy,” Murphy said. “How does suggesting this promote tolerance?”
The members of the stakeholder group and the CPW Commissioners acknowledged and generally accepted the draft plan. However, many representatives of CPW expressed their gratitude to those who worked hard to reach compromises on this issue.
CPW Committee Chair Carrie Hauser said she was confident the plan would work. Many Coloradins, especially those most at risk, have engaged in discussions and pushed boundaries to work toward consensus, and Hauser said she hopes they will continue to do so.
“In many ways, it’s not about wolves, it’s about people,” she said. And it’s about how we work together to move this forward and ensure the plan works. It means compromise, and it will mean learning.”
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