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Wildlife advocates say voter intent being ‘lost or undermined’ in wolf reintroduction process

Conservation groups offer alternate plan that limits killing after livestock losses
A gray wolf (OR-93), seen near Yosemite, Calif., in this February 2021, photo released by California Department of Fish and Wildlife. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, file)

A group of wildlife advocates is blasting Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s wolf reintroduction process, saying the intent of the voter-approved proposition has been “lost or undermined.”

Since voters in November 2020 approved Proposition 114 directing the state to craft a plan and reintroduce wolves on the Western Slope by the end of 2023, CPW has hosted a series of statewide meetings and organized two groups to create a management plan.

“We feel that formal processes since the passage of Proposition 114 have minimized meaningful public input and uplifted the voices of ranchers, outfitters, trappers, and hunters over others en route to a plan that is likely to limit the possibilities of wolves on the Colorado landscape,” reads a letter submitted to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Monday by 14 wildlife advocacy groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the Colorado Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the U.S.

“We in the conservation community have felt cut out of the process,” said Lindsay Larris with conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

The wildlife group says CPW’s two groups that are crafting a reintroduction plan – a 17-member Technical Working Group made of wildlife management professionals that meets privately, and a 19-member Stakeholder Advisory Group, or SAG, that meets publicly – have “tilted what should be an aspirational conversation towards a cynical one that has focused on livestock owner compensation, artificially limiting populations and when, where and how to kill wolves.”

The wildlife advocates’ 26-page plan “accentuates certain issues that we feel have been missing or minimized in formal processes to date.” The group plans to present its plan to wildlife commissioners later this week at the board’s meeting in Edwards.

“It was concerning that at the last SAG meeting, there was discussion about how to allow wolf hunting,” Larris said. “We want to voice our concerns now before any draft plan comes out so we can hopefully see some of our ideas in the plan and not have to wait to only provide comments on the plan.”

CPW has said that once wolves are established in the state, “population management options, including hunting, will be evaluated.” Hunting of wolves is allowed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The group proposal divides Colorado into 12 zones with suitable wolf habitat, using a model built in 2015 by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a map of potential wolf range.

The group proposes releasing a breeding pair of wolves into each of the zones, with a first-phase plan of having 48 to 120 wolves roaming the state in the first two years of reintroduction.

A consortium of wildlife conservation groups has identified 17.2 million acres of suitable wolf habitat in Colorado, seen in blue in this map. (Courtesy of WildEarth Guardians, via The Colorado Sun)

The 12 interconnected zones are:

  • Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Dinosaur National Monument.
  • Flat Tops Wilderness.
  • BLM land north of Grand Junction and south of Dinosaur.
  • Holy Cross and Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness.
  • Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
  • West Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest.
  • West Elk Wilderness.
  • Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.
  • La Garita Wilderness.
  • Hermosa Creek Wilderness.
  • Weminuche Wilderness.

The group suggests that after three phases of introduction and management, Colorado could host 150 packs or about 750 wolves, with a population ranging from 600 to 1,500.

“That shall be the ongoing goal for the minimum presence of wolves in Colorado,” reads the group’s report.

That population estimate is based on the density of deer and elk, which could support 4,138 wolves, the report concludes. (The report’s formula estimates 294,000 deer and elk in Colorado at 500 pounds each and does appear to include the impact of other predators, such as mountain lions.) Landownership and road density also factor into the population numbers, as does the abundance of wilderness areas.

The group also identified suitable wolf habitat east of the Continental Divide and urged the commission to allow wolves to roam into the Front Range, noting that “Proposition 114 does not explicitly impose any limits on where wolves may be allowed to live in Colorado after they are reintroduced.” The proposal also suggests Mexican wolves should be introduced in southern Colorado.

For management, the wildlife group proposes reclassifying wolves as a Tier 1 Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Colorado’s State Wildlife Action Plan. The predators are listed as endangered in Colorado, but are classified as Tier 2 on the conservation priority list.

The group says killing wolves should not be permitted “except in extremely limited circumstances,” pointing to a 2020 study that concluded “legal killing of wolves begets illegal killing of wolves.”

The group outlines rules for killing wolves in the three phases of wolf reintroduction. In all phases, wolves can be killed in defense of human life. In the first phase of reintroduction, ranchers cannot kill wolves that are preying on livestock. In the second phase, CPW officers on private land can kill a wolf if ranchers have lost four or more animals in seven days. In the third phase, if a rancher has lost five animals in three months, a CPW officer can kill a wolf on private land and a landowner can kill a wolf that is caught biting, wounding or killing livestock or working dogs.

“Killing wolves in response to livestock conflict has the highest variability of success when compared to nonlethal practices like fencing, deterrents, and shepherds,” reads the group’s report.

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