Colorado Releases Draft of Wolf Reintroduction Plan

Colorado Releases Draft of Wolf Reintroduction Plan

Wolves may be the most contentious wild animals in North America. Where they are or aren’t dominates the minds of hunters, conservationists, animal rights activists, politicians, and bureaucrats year-round.

Today, when the debate isn’t over whether or not wolves should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, it’s about reintroduction. And Colorado is on the front lines.

MeatEater's own Maggie Hudlow and Brody Henderson have previously reported on the natural incursion of gray wolves into Colorado, and the conflicts that they’re already causing in that state, and wolves are a frequent topic on the MeatEater podcast. But there has been a development in the issue. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department (CPW) released its first draft proposal for bringing these large carnivores back to the state.

Now, we have an opportunity to help guide the agency as they make this policy a reality.

How Did We Get Here?

In the 2020 election, Colorado voters passed ballot initiative Proposition 114. This requires the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to craft and implement a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves by the end of this year. The language of this ballot initiative also requires the state to provide "fair compensation to owners of livestock for any losses of livestock caused by gray wolves."

Many organizations weighed in on this proposal when it was on the ballot. Now the focus shifts to addressing the specifics of the proposed plan.

“While the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation strongly opposed the ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves in Colorado and were excluded from the Stakeholder Advisory Group, we have stayed engaged in offering comments and testimony to guide the wolf management plan that Colorado Parks and Wildlife are developing as well as the Endangered Species permit that the US Fish and Wildlife Service are working on”, said Ryan Bronson, Director of Government Affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Our members and staff want to make sure elk and deer are not ignored in the process, and that if wolves are restored in the state that managed hunting is the primary tool managers use to keep populations within objectives.”

Ballot box biology is problematic for a variety of reasons, but now that reintroduction is enshrined in Colorado law, we must decide where, when, and how, rather than whether or not, wolves will return to the landscape.

What The Plan Says & What You Can Do

The goal of the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan is “to recover and maintain a viable, self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado, while concurrently working to minimize wolf-related conflicts with domestic animals, other wildlife, and people.”

Over the next three to five years, CPW will work to reintroduce between 30 and 50 wolves (10 to 15 wolves per year) to the western part of the state. They’ll procure these individuals from populations in the Northern Rockies in coordination with the relevant state or provincial fish and wildlife agencies. According to the plan, these wolves will be reintroduced onto state and cooperating private lands in select areas west of the Continental Divide with at least a 60-mile buffer from neighboring states.

The plan’s ultimate goal is to have 150 wolves in the state for two successive years or 200 wolves for any length of time. At that point, the state will delist wolves from its endangered species list and consider reclassifying them as a game species.

The plan also includes plenty of details about how CPW plans to address human-wolf conflicts. The plan states, “When conflicts occur, they should be addressed on a case-by-case basis using a combination of appropriate management tools, including education, non-lethal conflict minimization techniques, lethal take of wolves, and damage payments.”While the plan allows for lethal take, “non-lethal conflict minimization techniques” will be encouraged and explored “as a first line of defense.”

Philip Anderson, President Colorado Cattlemen's Association, said the organization "remains committed to engaging in the state management wolf processes and ensuring that livestock producers’ concerns are represented."

CPW is launching a round of public engagement regarding the plan and will host five in-person sessions to hear from constituents on the topic. The agency has also opened an online comment portal for folks who can’t attend these hearings.

Remember, agency officials must act within the bounds of the law, so comments should be made with the recognition that wolves will be coming back to Colorado. However, there are plenty of questions left to answer, and state officials are looking for our help to come up with the right solutions. Policy is made by the folks who show up, so it’s up to the conservation community to ensure our interests are represented.

The Alternative

Lastly, while many in the outdoor community will understandably object to the CPW’s plan, the alternatives could have been worse. Folks from environmental groups supporting the ballot initiative took the liberty of writing their own proposed restoration plan for the state, which offers a window into how the process could have gone.

"Wolves can only fulfill their ecological role if their family groups are intact and not disrupted by human persecution," Delia G. Malone, wildlife chair for Colorado Sierra Club, said in the release. "Where wolves are protected from recreational killing and lethal control, their benefits reach to enhancing biodiversity, improving climate resilience and even enriching our own lives."

The Humane Society also weighed in, arguing that the draft plan “falls short” of the statutory mandate to restore a self-sustaining wolf population. They contend that instead of 150 wolves for two years, the minimum population in Colorado should be 750 individuals.

The Colorado Cattlemen's Association responded to WildEarth Guardians' plan by saying, in part, "the association does not believe individual groups should be allowed to circumvent the process to advocate for their individual ideas or promote a one-sided process over one developed by the state game management agency and professionals who gather all stakeholder input, including producers whose daily lives are directly affected by wolves already depredating livestock in the state.''

While not every detail of this plan will become policy in Colorado, it’s helpful to read it, think about it, and consider what wildlife management could be in the future if we don’t make our voices heard.

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