In the meantime, the wolves may have made a comeback on their own. In the summer of 2021, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that the state’s first wolf litter since the 1940s had been found in North Park, perhaps the offspring of wolves coming down from Wyoming. And in December 2021, Parks and Wildlife confirmed that a dead calf in Jackson County had injuries consistent with wolf depredation.
At a two-day Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission meeting last week, CPW staffers discussed an investigation into another possible wolf depredation case in Meeker, where many calves had died mysteriously. The CPW had deemed the evidence inconclusive, they said.
They were far more definitive about the date when they will finally present the state’s draft wolf-reintroduction plan to the commission: December 9.
Over the past two years, circumstances have necessitated some changes to the plan. In February, for example, wolves were put back on the national endangered species list. Although wolves have been protected as an endangered species in Colorado since 1974, this brought U.S. Fish and Wildlife standards into the mix.
In July, fourteen conservation organizations, including WildEarth Guardians, announced their own plan for wolf restoration in the state, saying that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife process had focused too much on the negative impacts of wolves and stakeholders who oppose their reintroduction, and not enough on scientific evidence about the best way forward for the state’s future wolf population.
To ensure that many voices are represented in the final wolf reintroduction plan, Parks and Wildlife assembled a Technical Working Group of reintroduction and management experts as well as a Stakeholder Advisory Group of people from various geographic areas that might be impacted by wolf reintroduction. But according to the conservation organizations that signed off on the alternative plan, those two CPW groups have “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.”
Ranchers, outfitters and hunters feel differently: During the November 17 public comment period, many of them shared their concerns about wolf introduction, advocating for more trust-building between CPW and their communities.
“The relationship between the agency and the landowners is crucial to the success of this introduction,” said Janie VanWinkle, past president and current boardmember of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “This is not the first endangered species that the agency and producers have worked together to make a successful introduction in Colorado.”
VanWinkle described how the CCA and the CPW worked in tandem to help bring back the black-footed ferret. During that process, she said, the agency gained the trust of agricultural Colorado — but she warned that trust could erode with the reintroduction of wolves. “I’m asking the commission to ensure that the folks in the field have the tools and the information to act quickly and decisively,” she said.
Those tools should include the ability to kill wolves bothering their livestock and access to tracking information on at least one wolf in each pack, she suggested.
Both of the CPW’s working groups have submitted official final recommendations for the plan, including direction on how wolves should be hazed in order to teach them to stay away from cattle, how the CPW should compensate ranchers for the loss of livestock, whether wolves should be hunted, and how to manage the impact that wolves could have on other animals that humans are allowed to hunt in the state.
While wolf advocates have suggested that the animals can be hazed in a non-lethal manner, even the conservation groups’ plan would allow for wolves to be killed if they are actively attacking livestock. Not at first, though. That plan calls for a protected period at the beginning of reintroduction, which ranchers oppose.
That’s why ranchers want the state to secure a 10(j) plan under the Endangered Species Act with Fish and Wildlife before placing any wolves on the ground. The CPW has already requested that Fish and Wildlife designate wolves as an experimental population under section 10(j), which allows for weaker protections of endangered species during the process of reintroduction.
“All wolf introductions in the United States have been done under 10(j)s,” said Reid DeWalt, the CPW’s assistant director of aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources, “It’s critical for us to have that.”
The CPW has been meeting regularly with Fish and Wildlife; a draft environmental impact statement is currently under review and a draft of the 10(j) plan is in process. That draft will be up for public comment and hearings in January or February, with a target of completion by fall 2023 — giving the CPW time to adapt and implement its final reintroduction plan before the end of the year.
Jeff Comstock, a staffer for the Moffat County Commissioners, told the commission that he’s worried the state is assuming a 10(j) will definitely happen before wolves are deployed, when it could get held up by court challenges.
“If that’s the case, please do not release wolves,” he urged. “That will be your decision, as a wildlife commission, not to release wolves if we don’t have the protections already established that the 10(j) offers. You will have that ability to show that the landowners can trust you.”
CPW staffers assured commenters that their questions will be answered by the draft plan when it is released next month. And the public will still have a chance to comment; the CPW plans to present a final draft version to the commission on April 6, with a goal of completing the plan by May and instituting it by the end of 2023.
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