Log In

Reset Password
Regional News

Colorado ranchers launch last-ditch effort to block wolves. Here’s how.

Cattlemen and Stockgrowers associations file a lawsuit to try to force federal analysis
Cows on Don Gittleson's ranch in the morning of Jan. 23, 2022, in Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Two ranching groups in Colorado are suing Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court to block the release of wolves in western Colorado.

“There is just a point where you get down to ‘this is not right,’” said Ken Spann with the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association, which joined the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association in the complaint filed late Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver. “This is not an objection to the voter mandate. This is about how CPW is proceeding vis-à-vis the livestock industry in the Western Slope.”

The complaint by the ranchers focuses on an agreement between the federal and state wildlife agencies as allowed under the Endangered Species Act. The ranchers argue the reintroduction of wolves should be reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act and they are asking the federal court to block wolf releases until the complaint is reviewed. CPW is planning to begin releasing wolves from Oregon in the next couple weeks.

Representatives with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also declined to comment.

Supporters of wolves expressed disappointment with the legal action. Defenders of Wildlife called the lawsuit a “transparent, eleventh-hour attempt to delay efforts to bring wolves and their ecological benefits to Colorado.”

“This flimsy lawsuit is a last-ditch effort to stop a democratic process because some business owners didn’t like the outcome,” Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, wrote in an emailed statement.

Conflicts between wolves and livestock are “exceedingly rare,” Ryan Sedgeley, southern Rockies representative for the Endangered Species Coalition, wrote in an emailed statement. “There is expertise and resources on the ground ready to minimize conflict. And the Colorado General Assembly has put money aside for compensation.”

How the release plan was developed

Proposition 114 on the 2020 ballot asked voters to direct CPW to return wolves to western Colorado by the end of 2023. Out of 3.12 million votes cast, the measure passed by 57,000 votes, with voters in five of 22 Western Slope counties approving the plan. Voters in seven Front Range counties – including the six most populated in Colorado – approved the measure.

In May, CPW approved a final plan for wolf reintroduction that was developed after hosting 47 meetings with 3,400 residents across the state, including two meetings in Gunnison. The 261-page plan called for releasing 30 to 50 gray wolves in the first three to five years. CPW said it would reimburse ranchers up to $15,000 for every animal killed by wolves.

The most recent specifics called for an initial release of 10 wolves from Oregon beginning this month on state or private land in Eagle, Grand or Summit counties. Subsequent releases are possible between Monarch Pass and Montrose.

CPW did not study releasing wolves on federal land, which would require lengthy analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

In November the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated an experimental population of wolves in Colorado under the Endangered Species Act’s so-called 10(j) rule. That designation supported the CPW management plan and allowed for capturing and transporting wolves to Colorado. It also allows killing wolves that are threatening livestock, which is not permitted under the federal Endangered Species Act

That 10(j) designation and the agreement between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Service is at the center of the ranchers’ lawsuit. The federal agency conducted an environmental review of its 10(j) decision, but the ranchers argue that review was not a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the agreement with the state or the reintroduction plan.

The lawsuit notes that the Fish and Wildlife Service did prepare environmental impact statements for gray wolf reintroduction efforts in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho as well as Mexican wolf reintroductions in Arizona and New Mexico.

“The presence of wolves negatively impacts the livestock and other industries by increasing costs and decreasing local spending, impacting many businesses and communities. Release of wolves in Colorado is likely to have other negative effects on the plaintiffs and their members,” the lawsuit reads.

Fights over wolf reintroduction have happened in the courts before

Lawsuits challenging previous state wolf reintroduction efforts in the West have scrutinized the federal role in the process.

The American Farm Bureau in December 1994 sued the Interior Department in Wyoming federal court to block the Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. The bureau requested an injunction to halt releases but the federal judge denied the request and allowed the releases to continue as planned in the May 1994 federal reintroduction study.

Several lawsuits from diverse groups challenging the reintroduction were consolidated and the case was heard in federal court in late 1997. Judge William Downes of the U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, Wyoming, ruled in December 1997 that the reintroduction was illegal and ordered the Canadian wolves removed.

Downes ruled that the reintroduction lessened protections for existing wolves in the region. Downes’ interpretation of the Endangered Species Act concluded that since there were a few naturally occurring wolves on the ground before reintroduction, the animals would not qualify for protection under the 10(j) rule that classified the released wolves as an experimental population. That meant the reintroduction had been illegal.

In January 2000, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Downes’ ruling and set a precedent that has enabled other wildlife recovery efforts.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association is the oldest cattle industry group in the country and counts 6,000 ranchers and businesses as members. The association says its members own or lease about 70% of the state’s private, state and federal grazing lands, totaling more than 25 million acres.

The Gunnison Stockgrowers’ Association also was established in the late 1800s and has become a national model for high-altitude ranchers working with wildlife and communities. Spann, a member of the association whose family started raising livestock around Gunnison in the late 1800s, said his group has worked closely with Colorado Parks and Wildlife for “a long, long time.”

In February, 51 ranchers around Gunnison signed a letter expressing concerns with CPW’s reintroduction plan. The group’s issues involved wolf impacts to the threatened Gunnison sage grouse, the lack of National Environmental Policy Act review of the reintroduction plan and the money ranchers would have to spend to protect livestock.

“I think everyone who commented from western Colorado got a pretty short shrift,” Spann said. “There was no response to serious resource concerns. Look, there is a lack of engagement here. You decide on high that you are going to bring the wolves into the Gunnison Basin but you don’t contact the stakeholders that are on the ground and assess what the challenges might be. If you are going to be a partner, be a partner.”

Reader Comments