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As bill clears Colorado Senate, concern lingers over wolf reintroduction delays

Advocates say the state legislation could incidentally interfere with timeline
Gray wolves are slated to be reintroduced to Colorado’s Western Slope by the end of 2023, but advocates are continuing to raise concerns that legislation under consideration might delay the reintroduction. (Dawn Villella/Associated Press file)

Wolf advocates are continuing to sound the alarm as SB23-256 heads to the Colorado House floor for consideration. Despite a Senate amendment that gutted the most contentious provision, advocates are still concerned that the bill could delay the reintroduction of wolves, slated to take place by the end of the year.

The bill, sponsored by Western Slope lawmakers including 59th House District Rep. Barbara McLachlan and State District 6 Sen. Cleave Simpson, would mandate that a federal rule establishing Colorado’s wolves as an experimental population be in place before wolf reintroduction takes place.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is already in the process of drafting the 10(j) rule, which has been roundly endorsed on all sides of the wolf debate as a necessary part of the reintroduction. The rule would enable the state to set regulations around when ranchers may kill predating wolves. Without it, there could be no lethal management of the wolf population.

Although a spokesman for the agency has confirmed that the 10(j) rule will be in effect no later than Dec. 15, the bill working its way through the statehouse is an insurance policy of sorts. If enacted, SB23-256 would bar Colorado Parks and Wildlife from releasing wolves until the 10(j) rule is in place.

But some fear that by changing the legal landscape in which the 10(j) is being introduced, the bill could force the Fish and Wildlife Service to restart the environmental assessment process. A restart would delay the release of wolves beyond Dec. 31, the “paws-on-the-ground” date mandated by Proposition 114, which voters narrowly approved in 2020.

A previous version of the bill contained a provision that would delay reintroduction until a legal review period of the 10(j) had passed. But some advocates worried that period could last six years. The language has been struck from the text, but the bill’s very nature now has those same advocates worried.

“It's not something in the bill text itself that speaks to a particular delay, but rather the likely practical implications of what the bill could do,” said Tom Delehanty, an attorney with the environmental law organization Earthjustice.

In a previous interview, McLachlan said it is not the intention of the bill’s sponsors to delay wolf reintroduction. She could not be reached for comment for this story.

Gary Skiba, the wildlife program manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance, is concerned that opponents of the reintroduction may be using the legislation as a backdoor to delay or halt wolf reintroduction.

He points to a provision added in the Senate that would compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to analyze the impacts of wolf reintroduction by individual units of land – an unnecessary requirement, he said, given that the environmental assessment accounts for the entire state already.

“It's kind of hard to think that it's not something nefarious in some way,” Skiba said of the provision.

Delehanty said he does not share Skiba’s suspicions, but said the bill is a misguided attempt to ensure that the 10(j) rule is in place before wolf reintroduction occurs.

He points out that the bill could open the door to lengthy delays of the reintroduction. Conversely, the impact of a delayed 10(j) would be minimal, Delehanty said, given that CPW’s wolf reintroduction plan plots the release of only 10-15 wolves annually.

Joe Szuszwalak, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency understands that the state wants the 10(j) in place before the end of the year and is on track to accomplish that goal. His response did not address whether the agency would interpret the bill as a mandate to restart the rule-making process.

Delehanty said given the broad support for the 10(j), the bill is an unnecessary and misguided attempt to show support for ranchers.

“It’s like a little kid who wants to help do the dishes – it's great that the kid wants to help, but there's little chance that the dishes will actually get cleaner and a much greater chance of ending up with glass on the floor,” he said.

The bill has passed the Senate and was referred to the House chamber floor by the House Committee on Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources on Monday.


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