Proposition Makes Conservation History

A government trapper killed Colorado’s last native gray wolf almost 80 years ago in a misguided attempt to help the livestock industry tame the West. We are all poorer for the loss. Thanks to voter approval, Proposition 114 directs state wildlife managers to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope. According to supporters, this marks the first time that voters — in any state — have decided whether to bring back an endangered species. Hopefully, similar initiatives will follow across the nation.

Proposition 114 now requires the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves on designated lands west of the continental divide by the end of 2023. Under the measure, the commission will:

  • Develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves using the best scientific data available;
  • Hold hearings across the state to gather information to be used in developing the plan;
  • Update the plan after obtaining public input periodically; and
  • Reintroduce wolves on designated lands by December 31, 2023.

The commission will determine the exact location of wolf reintroductions. The Flat Tops Wilderness area and the Weminuche Wilderness area both demand consideration.

The measure directs the state legislature to fund the reintroduction program. The commission will compensate owners of livestock for any losses caused by wolves. The commission cannot impose any new restrictions on private landowners regarding land, water, or resource use to support the plan. The commission must prepare a report with data on the potential economic and ecological impacts of reintroduction, projected survival rates of the animals being reintroduced, and the potential impacts of not reintroducing the animal.

Budget analysts estimate the wolf recovery could cost $800,000 for planning over the first two years. It will require the same amount each year to implement the plan. A more precise estimate won’t be possible until the commission finalizes a reintroduction plan. It also depends on the amount of livestock killed by the reintroduced wolves. (Studies have shown that depredation by healthy wolf packs is minimal. Depredation rises when ranchers, hunters and trappers kill members of healthy wolf packs. Instead of hunting, the remaining pack then preys on livestock—easier targets for younger, unskilled wolves.) According to the fiscal impact statement prepared for the initiative by the Colorado Legislative Council staff, implementation of the measure for the first two years would require state expenditures of about $344,400 in the fiscal year 2021-22 and about $467,400 in FY 2022-23. Expenditures would increase after 2023, when the wolves are reintroduced.

Gray wolves perform important ecological functions that impact entire ecosystems. For example, without wolves, deer and elk can overgraze watersheds, and disease can spread much easier among wildlife.

In addition to the proven benefits that wolves bring to ecosystems, they can help contain chronic wasting disease among deer, elk and moose.

Wolves can take down sick animals faster than when left alone to die of the disease. Since the bodily fluids and tissue of sick animals are infectious, the sooner that sick animals are taken down the better. This can help minimize prion contamination in the environment (it appears that wolves are resistant, if not immune, to prion disease). Most mammals, including humans, are not immune to prion disease. Infected wildlife can infect each other, livestock and humans. It’s a vicious circle that is being mismanaged in many ways. Wolves can help minimize prion pathways.

Wolves can help support a healthy environment upon which Coloradans depend. Reintroduction is necessary to ensure that a permanent gray wolf population is restored to western Colorado. Through eradication efforts such as bounty programs, gray wolves were eliminated in Colorado by the 1940s. While there have been sightings in Colorado, it is uncertain gray wolves will establish a permanent population on their own. The measure aligns with other states’ successful recovery efforts while considering Colorado’s interests.

Gray wolves once inhabited most of the U.S., including Colorado. By the 1930s, gray wolves were eradicated from most of the western U.S, due to predator control programs and habitat destruction. As mentioned earlier, a trapper killed the last gray wolves in Colorado around 1940.

The gray wolf was classified as a federally endangered species in 1978 (except in Minnesota, where the species was classified as threatened). Gray wolves were reintroduced in Idaho and Montana in 1995. They were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1996. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the wolf as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

“Bringing back wolves is hopefully going to have the same effect it did in Yellowstone where it actually revived the ecosystem,” said Erika Moore of the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. “We believe that wolves are necessary for the ecosystem. The ecosystems cannot support how many elk and deer we have, and over time we’re going to start to see a degradation of ecosystems due to this ongoing imbalance.”

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF), associated with the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, led the campaign for the initiative. The campaign raised $2.39 million. RMWAF said that the reintroduction of wolves would restore natural balance to ecosystems. RMWAF President Rob Edward said, “Gray wolves are the ecological engines of the northern hemisphere.” Edward said, “Since the 1940s, when Colorado’s last wolf was killed, our ecosystem has suffered, knocked out of balance. Without wolves keeping them alert and moving around, elk and deer strip away vital streamside vegetation, leading to erosion and the disruption of habitat, threatening beavers, songbirds, and even native trout.”

Coloradans Protecting Wildlife and Stop the Wolf PAC led the campaign against the initiative. Together, the campaigns had raised $1.05 million. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Colorado Farm Bureau were the top two donors–two industries associated with exterminating wolves.

Meanwhile, the federal government is moving to lift Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states.

U.S. Management of gray wolves will move from the federal government to the states, which has already occurred in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Each of those states now allows some hunting of the apex predators.

So what does that mean for Colorado’s upcoming reintroduction plan? Not much. Proposition 114 requires the state to conduct its own reintroduction program without federal help. If voters sign-off on the measure, stripping endangered species protections could make the process more straightforward since Colorado wildlife managers won’t need permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement its own reintroduction program.

“It doesn’t make a bit of difference, except that it makes restoration under a Colorado program even more important,” said Mike Phillips, a wolf expert from Montana.

Phillips said the decision does put more weight on Colorado’s state-level protections for gray wolves. Under Colorado’s version of the Endangered Species Act, killing a wolf could result in a fine of up to $100,000 and a penalty of up to a year in prison.

In Wyoming, it’s a different story. Wolves lost their endangered species protections after a 2017 court decision. The state used its new authority to create predator animal management areas, where wolves can be killed on sight. The zone covers the vast majority of the state, including the entirety of the border with Colorado. John Murtaugh, the Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said removing federal protections could make it harder for wolves to reach Colorado through Utah and Wyoming. Under a law passed by the Utah legislature, wildlife managers must prevent any wolves from establishing themselves in the area.

“Along with Wyoming’s current shoot-on-sight policy, wolves won’t have a chance to get here on their own,” Murtaugh said.

Despite the challenges, Colorado is historic wolf habitat. Sporadic sightings have been raising eyebrows for the past decade. Colorado biologists confirmed six wolves were living in Moffat County last February. In June, a state biologist watched an adult gray wolf and a pup in northwest Colorado. Meanwhile, ranchers and hunters continue killing lone wolves and fledgling packs in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Colorado represents a chance to defend biodiversity with renewed vigor.

Kevin Crooks, an ecologist at the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University, hopes Colorado Parks and Wildlife continues to share accurate information about wolves in the state.

“Just having a small number of animals — six or seven — would not have a high probability of persistence over the long term. Such a small population is at risk,” he said, adding other wolves that have made it to the state later died. “If wolves were reintroduced, that would increase the probability that wolves will fully recover to form a self-sustaining population over a large area,” he said.

Any second generation of wolves must find potential mates of their own. Joanna Lambert, a conservation biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the wolves now living in Northwest Colorado likely migrated from the ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park, where grey wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s.

“The chances a particular pup or a handful of pups encounters another set of pups that made that 500- to 1,500-mile journey are extremely, extremely low,” Lambert said.

That’s part of the reason she argues science backs up efforts to reintroduce wolves in Colorado.

“Colorado voters are fully capable of parsing complicated information to determine if wolves would be a net benefit or a net cost to the state, and whether ranchers would be so adversely impacted that state and federal restitution efforts cannot make them whole. … After mulling the healthier ecosystems in states with wolf populations against the fairly limited (although not insignificant) livestock kills in those states, The Denver Post editorial board, lands on the side of supporting the gradual reintroduction of wolves called for by Proposition 114 beginning by Dec. 31, 2023.”

According to the ballot language, a plan for reintroduction must now be determined by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, which oversees Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Rebecca Ferrel, a spokesperson with the agency, said it’s important the agency has the time to come up with a plan based on science and public input, as directed by the ballot language.

“We want people to have a clear understanding that we won’t have a plan immediately,” she said.

Ironically, the wildlife commission has shot down four previous proposals to reintroduce gray wolves, most recently in 2016. While the ballot initiative directs the panel to restore wolves, it can largely determine the shape of a reintroduction program, including the source of Colorado’s future wolves, locations of releases on the Western Slope, and the ultimate number.

It’s time for industry and government to do the right thing. Whether you believe in religion, science or both—wolves belong in Colorado and throughout the American West.

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