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Southwest Coloradans raise questions, concerns about wolf restoration

Diverse crowd attends open house to discuss reintroduction
About 60 people attended an open house Monday at Fort Lewis College about the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado’s Western Slope. The event, hosted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Keystone Policy Center, is one of many around the state designed to collect public comments to help with the creation of a research-based reintroduction plan. (Associated Press file)

Southwest Coloradans are keeping a close eye on the state’s plans to reintroduce gray wolves into the Western Slope – waiting to see how their concerns will be addressed.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has embarked on a two-year process to create a research-based plan to bring gray wolves back to Colorado. The state is inviting members of the public to weigh in on the process. During an open house Monday, about 60 Southwest Coloradans took the state up on its offer.

“We (county commissioners) really want the plan to be balanced across all our interests,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, a La Plata County commissioner, referring to the diverse perspectives represented at the event.

Ranchers, conservationists, hunting outfitters, students, political officials and more community members roamed between information booths spread around the Student Union Ballroom at Fort Lewis College.

The booths covered four topics: wolf restoration, wolf management, livestock interactions, and public engagement, education and outreach. If people wanted to offer feedback about the plan, they could fill out questionnaires or submit survey responses online.

The open house was one of more than 40 public meetings hosted by CPW and the Keystone Policy Center, a Colorado-based public engagement and policy nonprofit.

The partners are about two weeks into a monthslong public input gathering process intended to help shape the restoration plan.

“We’re watching to make sure the process is inclusive, that it’s a good process and that we get to a good management plan,” Porter-Norton said. “There are economic interests and there are ecological interests. How do we balance those two things? I think we can, and I think it’s going to be very important that we have community engagement to make this work.”

Colorado is part of the gray wolf’s native range, but wolves were eradicated from the state by the 1940s, according to CPW.

Colorado voters decided to reintroduce gray wolves in the state in 2020, when they narrowly passed Proposition 114.

The proposition directed the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to introduce gray wolves on the Western Slope of Colorado by the end of 2023. The proposition required the restoration plan be research-based and involve public input.

During the Durango open house, people wanted to know how many wolves would be released and in which parts of the Western Slope, said Ernest House Jr., Keystone’s senior policy director.

They raised questions about the wolf program’s funding, release techniques and possible impacts on elk herds, livestock and public lands in Southwest Colorado, House said.

“Those are all very good questions and very good concerns, from all perspectives,” he said.

Steve McClung, an assistant area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, answers questions from community members about wolf reintroduction at an open house event Monday. The event was held at Fort Lewis College and hosted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Keystone Policy Center. (Shannon Mullane/Durango Herald)

The next step is to take that feedback to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and its advisory groups for consideration as they develop a draft of the restoration plan.

Tom Compton, a retired rancher in La Plata County, has been involved in the wolf restoration debate for 25 years.

He wanted to know how the state plans to support ranchers if a wolf kills their livestock.

The law requires compensating livestock ranchers for any losses caused by wolves. But Compton said some costs are hard to quantify, like years of honing the genetics of livestock to fit an operation or the stressors of losing livestock.

Not everyone will be impacted, but the half-dozen ranching families who are directly impacted will go through a really difficult time, he said.

“I would say ranchers in our area are very concerned about where we are going to introduce these critters,” Compton said. “It’s going to take a lot of extra time, energy and money to be able to do all this.”

Phyllis Snyder, a rancher from Montezuma County, was concerned about how many wolves will be released and where.

“Listening to other producers from other states, (I’ve heard) proving wolf kill and getting compensated is very difficult,” she said. “So I want to make sure they have a process that’s quick and responsive here.”

University of California Davis students Shaelyn Steere and Sarah Finkel wanted to see how the government and its partners are going to be proactive and work together to address the concerns of rural and urban stakeholders.

“I think we’re just interested in finding out how Colorado is going to work to not follow the same pattern as Montana and Idaho,” said Steere, a fourth-year environmental policy student, particularly concerning wildlife-human conflicts.

Jenny Burbey, Colorado Outfitters Association president, was concerned for hunting outfitters. Inflexible hunting permits in other states conflicted with new wolf reintroduction areas and put outfitters out of business, she said.

Frank Smith, a La Plata County hunter and fisherman, wasn’t sure it was a good idea to reintroduce wolves in the first place. Now, careful management is key, he said.

Judith Elliot, a La Plata County resident, has wanted to “hear the howling of wolves” in Colorado for 40 years.

“I think it’s going to be a difficult process because, just like with our bears, people are uninformed about how to deal with wildlife, especially apex predators,” Elliot said. “I wish for more public involvement for people to know how to interact.”

For Keystone and CPW, every concern and opinion expressed during the public input process is helpful.

In addition to the open houses, CPW and Keystone will hold dozens of invitational geographic-based focus groups in Western Colorado, interest-based focus groups and tribal consultation meetings this summer.

“People are really engaged. They’re trying to learn what they can about what is and isn’t planned at this point. And nothing is, really,” said Gary Skiba, a member of the state’s Stakeholder Advisory Board for wolf restoration. “I want to just get the range of people’s concerns. … Knowing what they’re concerned about will help focus our discussions.”

The information at each open house is also available online. For those interested in submitting their comments, filling out surveys and getting more information, visit wolfengagementco.org.

smullane@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect university affiliation for students Shaelyn Steere and Sarah Finkel.

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