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Colorado wolf reintroduction plan evolves as challenges threaten early 2024 deadline to have predators roaming Western Slope

Colorado Parks and Wildlife commissioners hosted the fifth and final public meeting on wolf reintroduction plan Wednesday, with possible plans to allow the killing of wolves the most controversial topic.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed GPS collars on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2, 2023. Male wolf 2101 has a gray coat and is in the foreground on the right. Male wolf 2301, believed to be the offspring of the gray colored wolf, has a black coat and is in the background on the left. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is navigating a minefield as the agency works to move wolves into northwestern Colorado by next winter.

As the final pieces of a complicated puzzle fall into place and CPW’s commissioners make final adjustments to the voter-mandated plan to reintroduce gray wolves to western Colorado by the end of 2023, the challenges are mounting. Litigation is simmering that could delay reintroduction for years.

Calls are increasing for federal land managers to launch lengthy studies of how wolves might impact public lands. And pressure is growing from both wildlife advocates and ranchers who don’t like specifics of the draft reintroduction plan, which is supposed to be finalized in May, with a goal of relocating 10 to 15 wolves west of the Continental Divide by next winter.

Ranchers think they should be reimbursed more for livestock that are harassed or killed by wolves. Wildlife advocates don’t want to allow recreational hunting of wolves and want to eliminate a final phase of the draft plan that allows ranchers to kill wolves that are threatening horses, dogs, cattle and sheep.

The lethal management of wolves was the hottest topic Wednesday at the Adams County Fairgrounds where the last of five public wolf meetings was held. Killing wolves was also the most contentious issue at CPW’s previous public meetings on the wolf plan in Colorado Springs, Gunnison, Rifle and online, where hundreds of residents voiced their concerns and opinions.

“Do not turn your back on the law. We voted for wolves. We can all coexist together if we really want to,” Lindsey Craig told CPW commissioners Wednesday.

North Park rancher Dave Gittleson has already lost several cows to wolves that migrated south from Wyoming to his ranch near Walden. He has deployed every possible technique to turn away the animals.

“We would not make it a year with all the non-lethal methods,” he said. “We need lethal control before wolves hit the ground.”

Don Gittleson makes a phone call to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to report a 1,200 pound cow carcass, killed by the wolves overnight, on his ranch early Wednesday morning, Jan. 19, 2022, outside Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Janie VanWinkle is a fourth-generation cattle rancher on the Western Slope and the former president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

“Some ranch families are on the brink and this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” she told CPW leaders, imploring them to follow the draft plan recommendations that allow ranchers to kill wolves that are threatening or attacking livestock. “I need to know there’s a way to deal with the problem wolves.”

A call for federal review

Many ranchers are asking the Forest Service to more closely study the plan, which could launch a yearslong analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering an exemption to the Endangered Species Act to accommodate Colorado wolves. That federal exemption in the past has faced legal challenges. And everyone is wondering how much CPW plans to spend on wolf reintroduction and management.

“The draft plan is fatally flawed and should be withdrawn, redeveloped, and re-released for public comment once funding is secured and detailed funding information is publicly available,” read a written comment signed by 51 ranch owners making up the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association delivered last week to CPW leaders.

Erin Karney with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association noted that many CPW programs depend on ranchers who offer public access and help manage wildlife and critical habitat.

“With the wrong plan, or components of the plan, it could jeopardize this historic partnership and the many wildlife species and CPW programs that depend on landowner cooperation,” Karney told the commissioners Wednesday.

The Gunnison County ranchers sent CPW more than comments. Earlier this month the stockgrowers association sent CPW a public records request asking the agency to provide agendas, letters, emails, notes, memos and any other exchanges between CPW staff and state leaders and federal land managers discussing the wolf reintroduction plan and the need for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

The stockholder’s group filed the public records request because Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials have told ranchers in the Gunnison Basin that they have not contributed to the reintroduction plan.

CPW’s 293-page draft plan — developed by a 20-member Stakeholder Advisory Group and 17-member Technical Working Group through 47 public meetings involving 3,400 residents — suggests releasing 10, maybe 15, gray wolves a year for the next five years on state and private land. The draft plan does not recommend releasing the relocated wolves on federal land due to the “time and financial constraints” of analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s draft wolf reintroduction plan calls for the wintertime release of 10-to-15 gray wolves a year on private and state land in Western Slope zones at least 60 miles from the borders of tribal lands, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. (Provided by CPW)

Gayle Funka, the Gunnison district ranger of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, said in an emailed statement that the Forest Service will collaborate with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the wolf plan.

“We will address issues as they relate to wolf management, such as recreation and grazing,” Funka wrote. “Together, we will work to minimize wolf-related conflicts with domestic animals, wildlife and people.”

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule that would allow an experimental population of gray wolves in Colorado, which is allowed under the federal Endangered Species Act. A federal judge last year restored protection for gray wolves in the U.S., ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not sustain wolf populations in the Great Lakes region and Western states without Endangered Species Act protection.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule — it’s called a 10(j) Designation — is a sort of partnership that gives the feds and the state “increased management flexibility” under the Endangered Species Act. So where it’s illegal to kill an animal that is officially endangered, the proposed 10(j) for Colorado would allow ranchers to kill wolves that attack livestock. (The service’s proposed rule notes that ranchers killing wolves to protect livestock herds “has had little effect on wolf distribution and abundance” in Minnesota and the Northern Rockies.)

The service’s proposed rule — released last week as a Draft Environmental Impact Statement study under NEPA — also could allow killing wolves that have an “unacceptable impact” on populations of ungulates like deer, elk and moose.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take public comment on the proposed rule through April 18 with public meetings scheduled in March in Grand Junction, Craig, Walden and online.

Lisa Reynolds, Colorado’s First Assistant Attorney General, told the parks and wildlife commission Wednesday that even though the agency “fully expects” wolves to roam onto federal land in Colorado, the agency’s release of wolves on state or private land “does not require a federal permit and is not considered a federal action so it does not trigger NEPA.”

Reynolds said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 10(j) rule is a federal action, indicating some form of federal approval of the state’s reintroduction effort.

The commissioners discussed how they might comment on the service’s suggested 10(j) rule but declined to make public statements during Wednesday’s meeting.

Environmental and wildlife groups are not fans of 10(j) rules, especially when those rules allow killing of endangered species. Wildlife and environmental groups often file lawsuits challenging Fish and Wildlife 10(j) rules. Last year a consortium of environmental groups sued the service in Arizona federal court arguing the federal government is failing to properly manage Mexican gray wolves. The same group successfully sued the service in 2015 over a previous 10(j) rule for the wolves. There have been 10(j) lawsuits filed in Montana and Wyoming as well.

Kelly Nokes, a wildlife attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is working on the Arizona 10(j) lawsuit, said “it seems likely” that litigation will follow the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed 10(j) rule for wolves in Colorado.

“In this case, some may argue that the rule provides too many exceptions allowing for the removal and lethal take of wolves in the state, including those that would otherwise naturally migrate into the state,” Nokes said.

The lawsuits over wolves in Colorado have already begun. This week the Center for Biological Diversity notified the Forest Service of its intent to sue, arguing the agency should do more to protect wolves and ban wolf hunting and trapping in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Routt National Forest, where Colorado wolves may roam. (Wolves in Wyoming are not protected by the Endangered Species Act except inside Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming hunters in October last year killed three young female wolves just across the Colorado border near the Medicine Bow – Routt National Forest and scientists suspect those wolves were born in Colorado to a pack spotted in Jackson County earlier in the year.)

Louis Wertz with the Western Landowners Alliance on Wednesday urged the commission to stay on track with its reintroduction plan.

“There is not much disagreement about how to manage wolves among a vast majority of stakeholders whose views don’t fall on the loud fringes of our social media discourse,” Wertz said. “They are interested in practical, efficient, effective, no-drama solutions to the challenge of wolf management.”

Even with hurdles that likely will keep CPW from meeting the introduction deadline, CPW commissioners are determined to hammer out a plan by year’s end.

GPS collars were placed on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2, 2023. 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. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo)

Following more than two hours of public comments Wednesday, CPW commissioners began discussing their changes to the draft wolf reintroduction plan. They raised green, yellow or red popsicle sticks to swiftly express support, concern or opposition as they negotiated with a goal of voting on a final plan by May.

The commissioners approved raising the cap to $15,000 for reimbursement to ranchers who lost livestock to wolves, up from $8,000 in the draft plan. The commissioners moved quickly through most of the draft plan, largely agreeing with other details in a flurry of flashing green and yellow sticks. They made minor modifications here and there until they reached the part of the plan that details when wolves could be hunted.

The commissioners removed language that would have allowed wolf hunting when the population of predators in the state reached a certain level in the final phase of the reintroduction plan.

The commissioners cut that fourth and final phase from the reintroduction and management plan.

The commissioners agreed to a plan that notes, “at some point in the future,” the long-term management of wolves in Colorado may include hunting only if the animals are no longer legally classified as threatened and endangered.

“Future management will be guided by the best available biological and social science data provided by CPW. This plan takes no position as to whether the parks and wildlife commission has the statutory authority to reclassify wolves as a game species or take other appropriate management actions,” the revised plan said.

The commissioners had robust discussion over this shift. Some commissioners vehemently oppose the idea of hunting wolves. Others were reluctant to use language that could prevent ranchers from killing wolves that were threatening livestock. Many did not want to impose too much on a future commission many years down the line without knowing how wolves have adapted in Colorado.

Commissioner Carrie Hauser, the chairwoman of the board, said eliminating the hunting phase is “a significant compromise and reflects the public comments we have heard.”

“I think it is our responsibility to make some of these hard decisions and to try to at least present a plan that a future commission can interpret and can bring back for whatever changes they may or may not need to make,” she said.

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