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Lawmakers howl, conservation groups cheer after Polis vetoes wolf bill

Legislation could have delayed reintroduction and allowed ranchers to kill wolves threatening livestock
GPS collars were placed on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2. Colorado Parks and Wildlife's team was doing wolf capture and collaring work in conjunction with elk and moose capture efforts for ongoing research studies in the area. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, via The Colorado Sun)

The final plan for wolf reintroduction on the Western Slope approved earlier this month by Colorado Parks and Wildlife commissioners called the federal government’s approval of an experimental population of wolves in the state “a critical component to the success” of the plan. The plan is required by the passage of Proposition 114, approved by voters in November 2020, which directs CPW to restore wolves in Colorado.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will have a final decision on the so-called 10(j) rule by mid-December, which would establish reintroduced wolves in Colorado as an experimental population that allows for management strategies like killing wolves that are threatening livestock. Killing wolves that are killing livestock — which is allowed in the CPW plan — would violate the Endangered Species Act without the 10(j) rule.

Senate Bill 256 approved by Colorado lawmakers this month would have required the federal government to complete its 10(j) rule decision before wolves landed in Colorado. The bill was vetoed Tuesday by Gov. Jared Polis, who said the legislation was “unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent and the hard work” over the past nearly three years of study and meetings by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials and stakeholders.

The legislation was “a security policy,” said Colorado Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon, who sponsored Senate Bill 256. The bill would not have mattered if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finished its 10(j) rule decision by mid-December.

Roberts removed language in an early version of the bill that would have required not just the finished 10(j) rule but also the conclusion of any litigation around the federal government’s permission of an experimental population of wolves in Colorado. The Endangered Species Act is a lightning rod for litigation from all sides — including ranchers and conservation groups — and just about any action around the act, from new listings to delistings to 10(j) rules, faces legal challenges that can last years.

“We removed that from the bill,” Roberts said. “I thought that was showing good faith for the governor’s office, but I guess it wasn’t good enough to get the governor’s signature. Which is disappointing.”

Wildlife advocacy group WildEarth Guardians was opposed to Senate Bill 256. The group was happy to see the legislation vetoed, arguing that even with the amendment removing the wait for litigation to wrap, the bill would have delayed the reintroduction of wolves.

“Proposition 114 mandated wolf reintroduction by the end of 2023. It did not mandate a 10(j) rule or the ability to kill wolves,” WildEarth Guardians Southwest Wildlife Advocate Chris Smith said.

Smith said WildEarth Guardians is not opposed to 10(j) rules. But it has been involved in litigation surrounding the Endangered Species Act and 10(j) rule decisions. He’s quick to point out that litigation challenging 10(j) rules does not stop the rule.

“The rule remains in place while litigation occurs,” he said, pointing out that conservation groups and industry groups often challenge 10(j) rules in federal court. “I would not be at all surprised if there was a lawsuit coming from anti-wolf entities over the 10(j) rule.”

Smith said his group does not interpret Proposition 114 to mean just a plan for reintroducing wolves by the end of 2023. WildEarth Guardians, like many groups, see the vote as a call to have wolves roaming the state by the end of 2023.

Roberts takes issue with that interpretation, as well as the idea that Senate Bill 256 was undermining the will of voters.

“Nothing in Proposition 114 says paws on the ground by Dec. 31. The rush to do this by Dec. 31 is manufactured and not actually reflective of the voters’ intent,” Roberts said. “This legislation was a way to ensure that a security policy was in place and livestock owners would have the protection they needed for whenever wolves were reintroduced into the landscape. I think managing the reintroduction of wolves correctly is more important than doing it quickly because we will be living with wolves forever.”

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