Wildlife advocates have raised concerns that a bill under consideration in the Colorado statehouse would delay the reintroduction of gray wolves by six years, in conflict with the will of the voters who approved the reintroduction in 2020.
The rule is critical in striking the tricky balance between wildlife advocates and ranchers, who are concerned about their ability to adequately protect livestock from wolf depredation.
But wolf advocates are raising red flags over a provision in the bill that says that the reintroduction could not proceed until a potentially lengthy review period for rule 10(j) has elapsed.
Gray wolves are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The designation prevents any take of wolves, which includes harassment and lethal action. The 10(j) rule would designate Colorado’s wolves as an experimental population and allow the state and federal government to treat the animals as a “threatened” species, relaxing some of the regulations.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission’s draft wolf reintroduction plan, which is expected to be approved early next month, calls the rule a “critical component to the success of this Plan.”
The language in SB-256 demanding that the 10(j) be in place before reintroduction occurs is not the problem – the rule has broad support and is recognized across the spectrum of interested parties as necessary for balancing the competing interests of ranchers and wildlife advocates.
In accordance with ballot measure 114, CPW must have a plan in place to reintroduce wolves by Dec. 31, 2023. A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed this week that the agency’s intention is to have the 10(j) in place no later than Dec. 15.
But language in the final paragraphs of the bill dictates that the reintroduction shall not proceed until the Fish and Wildlife Service (on behalf of the secretary of the Interior) has made a “final determination” on the 10(j) rule.
Wolf advocates say a final determination can be made only after the Fish and Wildlife Service allows “time for an appeal or review” – language included in the bill – which, in the absence of an applicable provision, takes six years to complete, according to said Michael Saul, Colorado director of the Western Watersheds Project.
The sponsors of the bill, including state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, are not so sure the end result would be a six-year waiting period.
Wildlife Program Manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance Gary Skiba, who also sits on CPW’s stakeholder advisory group for wolf reintroduction, said he is hesitant to conclude any nefarious delay tactic.
“Giving them (the sponsors) the benefit of the doubt, I think their intent was to make sure the rule is in place before wolves got released – their intent wasn’t necessarily to cause a six-year delay,” Skiba said. “ … But the way that it’s written, until that (review) period is over, whether there’s a challenge or not to this 10(j) rule, you still can’t reintroduce wolves. So it’s basically a six-year moratorium on reintroduction of wolves.”
McLachlan said that is not how she and her colleagues interpret the bill.
“ have never heard of that six-year appeal of any federal statute,” she said. “That’s very interesting to me, that’s all new to me. Not one person has described that to me in connection with the 10(j) rule.”
She said if the law were to be interpreted that way, she would not support it, adding that such a reading “sounds like a crime to me.”
Wolf advocates cite a section of Title 28 of the federal code that says “every civil action commenced against the United States shall be barred unless the complaint is filed within six years.”
In a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity against the Environmental Protection Agency, the appellate judge concluded that the “six-year statute of limitations applies to claims alleging an agency failed to comply with (Endangered Species Act’s) procedural requirements.”
“I’ve seen absolutely no counter argument from the other side on this point, they just keep trying to deflect,” Saul wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “They know what they’re doing, they just don’t want the public to know.”
Sen. Dylan Roberts, one of the bill’s prime sponsors, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Roberts told The Coloradoan that “I respectfully disagree with the characterization of the proposed bill that it is intended to delay reintroduction.”
A CPW spokesman said the agency was referring to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources for comment on how the bill might be interpreted. A DNR spokesman was not immediately able to provide comment Friday.
On March 30, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources voted 5-2 to refer the bill to the appropriations committee. Skiba said advocates are pushing to have the bill killed before it leaves that committee.