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CPW unanimously approves plan to restore wolves on Western Slope

301-page management plan took hundreds of hours to draft
A gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Colorado voters narrowly approved Proposition 114 in November. It requires the reintroduction of the gray wolf, which was hunted, trapped and poisoned into extermination in the state in the 1940s. (Associated Press file)

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife board of commissioners Wednesday approved a final plan to restore wolves in Colorado.

Concluding two years of work – and hundreds of hours of meetings across the state – the commissioners unanimously approved a 301-page plan to begin restoring wolves, as mandated by voters in November 2020.

Commissioner Dallas May said it was “morally imperative” for the commissioners to approve the plan and hand it off to CPW wildlife managers on schedule. The agency is on track to begin introducing wolves on the Western Slope by year’s end – per the voter mandate in November 2020 – even though there are many challenges ahead that threaten to derail that schedule.

“We now have the opportunity to place this in the hands of people who are absolutely the best team that can be assembled to enact it,” May said. “Is it a perfect plan? Probably not. It is an assemblage of give-and-take, of trying to find the middle of the road. There will be many things that we did not anticipate.

“This is where the CPW team of dedicated professionals will begin their difficult and arduous task to fulfill their mission,” May said. “It is not our job to micromanage their work. Our job is to give them this plan and let them do what they do best.”

Gov. Jared Polis called the commission Wednesday to thank the agency’s staff and volunteer commissioners for what he called “a big lift.”

Outgoing commissioner Carrie Besnette Hauser, the commission chair, said the final approval “was a bit emotional” after months of healthy debate.

“I’m really proud of Colorado and I’m proud of all of you,” she said.

The restoration plan was developed over two years of meetings with both a Technical Working Group and a Stakeholder Advisory Group. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also held 47 meetings that engaged with 3,400 residents. The plan calls for phased management that can be adjusted as wolf populations grow in the state.

The restoration will begin with introducing 30 to 50 gray wolves in the next three to five years. The state proposes wintertime releases of captured wolves in two areas on the Western Slope: along the Interstate 70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail, and along the U.S. 50 corridor between Monarch Pass and Montrose. The first releases are planned for state or private land around the I-70 corridor.

The Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan identifies a northern and southern zone in which wintertime wolf releases are likely to take place. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

As the state has planned restoration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing an exemption under the Endangered Species Act that would establish wolves in Colorado as an experimental population. The so-called 10(j) rule allows flexible management strategies, like allowing ranchers to kill wolves that are threatening livestock or people.

The plan will allow ranchers who lose livestock to wolves to be compensated as much as $15,000 per animal. The plan outlines many nonlethal interventions to discourage wolves from killing livestock and it does allow the killing of wolves caught in the act of attacking livestock, saying both the stakeholder and technical groups viewed lethal management “as being critically important to a successful wolf management program.”

The federal wildlife service has expedited its 10(j) review and expects to issue a final Environmental Impact Statement by December. Legislation introduced in the Colorado Senate in March – Senate Bill 256 – prohibits introduction of gray wolves in Colorado until that 10(j) analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act is complete.

Mike Samson, a four-term Garfield County commissioner, spoke during public comment before agency’s commissioners began reviewing the final plan, saying the wolf restoration was “Colorado voters attempting to be Mother Nature” and “ballot-box biology.” He urged the commissioners to allow lethal taking of wolves, pointing to Idaho, where lawmakers have approved legislation allowing for killing up to 90% of the state’s estimated 1,500 wolves. (The Colorado plan does not allow hunting, but the adaptive management strategy leaves open most management options in future years as wolf populations grow.)

“Wolves need to be legally hunted and trapped to keep their numbers in check,” Samson said.

Representatives for cattlemen groups urged the commissioners to approve compensation for ranchers who spend money on wolf mitigation, not just those who lose livestock to the predators.

Many public speakers asked the commissioners where they plan to get wolves to relocate into Colorado. The state’s plan calls for capturing wild gray wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The draft plan says Colorado has “begun to explore an agreement” with the three states. A recent report by 9News quoted officials in each state saying there were no discussions with Colorado about donating wolves. The draft plan also says Colorado “has also begun to explore an agreement” with Washington and Oregon. The 9News report also quoted officials in Oregon and Washington saying they were not working with Colorado on sourcing wolves for restoration in the state.

The CPW commissioners’ historic vote was one step toward wolf reintroduction. Now comes implementation of the plan, which is a daunting task for Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials.

“While this is the final plan this is not the last time that wolf planning will be conducted for the state,” said Eric Odell, special conservation program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has shepherded the wolf restoration process. “The wolf population will grow and conflicts will be addressed. We will learn by taking an adaptive management approach. Mistakes will be made and successes will be won. We will certainly hear what we are doing wrong and hopefully hear what we are doing right.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.