OF THE INTERIOR
By Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
Trump administration officials on Thursday ended endangered species protection for gray wolves nationwide, rankling conservationists who contend wolves still are vulnerable — and raising the stakes in Colorado’s citizendriven wolf reintroduction vote in next week’s election.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt declared wolves recovered after more than 45 years under federal protection, and federal wildlife officials claimed wolves as an Endangered Species Act success along with the bald eagle.
“Today’s action reflects the Trump Administration’s continued commitment to species conservation,” Bernhardt said in a statement before heading to Colorado to hunt elk. The federal officials announced their removal of wolves from the nation’s list of species facing extinction, long-fought in courts, at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The move came as Colorado voters are casting ballots on whether to direct state officials to reintroduce wolves on former habitat west of the Continental Divide. The delisting means wolves’ fate in Colorado, and in states where thousands are making a comeback, depends on state-level management plans that typically allow hunting of wolves and “removal” by livestock ranchers.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis hasn’t taken a position on the state measure, but his office termed Thursday’s announcement “yet another example of the Trump administration undermining longstanding, bedrock protections for our air, water, landscapes and wildlife.”
Defenders of Wildlife Rockies
and Plains Program Director Jon Proctor, pushing for reintroduction, said lifting federal protection is premature and makes voters’ decision on Proposition 114 crucial to guaranteeing a self-sustaining population in the state.
“National wolf delisting would leave any wolves that may make it to Colorado with even fewer protections. It would also cut off any protected path through Utah, in addition to Wyoming’s current shoot-on-sight policy for most of that state,” Proctor said.
Colorado’s ballot measure, if it passes, would set a precedent as the first time state residents have directed their government to reintroduce an imperiled species — a shift in wildlife management reflecting rising demands for restoration of ecological balance.
Opponents of wolf reintroduction in Colorado lauded Thursday’s federal announcement as a step toward giving states greater control.
“It gives us one less regulatory hurdle,” said Shawn Martini, spokesman for Coloradans for Protecting Wildlife, which has fought reintroduction with support from county commissions and chambers of commerce.
“We still don’t want wolves reintroduced because they’re already coming here,” Martini said, referring to evidence of a pack living in northwestern Colorado.
“There’s a lot up in the air now. Let’s get things sorted out,” he said. “This could be the first time in the nation that wildlife management (of an imperiled species) is decided by voters rather than by the experts. Let’s make sure all our regulatory bodies have their ducks in a row before we go trying to set a precedent.”
The stripping of federal protection applies only to gray wolves, which number more than 6,000, and not Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona numbering around 163 and seen by scientists as more vulnerable to extinction.
The delisting of wolves, which were placed on the endangered list in 1973, follows years of attempts by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who last year proposed the removal of protection across the lower 48 states. Federal protection plays a key role in the nation’s system for averting the extinction of animals, fish, insects and plants.
Wolves once roamed widely in the United States before ranchers backed by state and local governments practically eradicated the species.
The last wolf was killed in Colorado around 1945.
Wolves thrived in Colorado mountain habitat, surviving frontier days and targeting that intensified with statehood and a bounty offered as early as 1867.
Federally guided wolf recovery efforts began in 1995 with reintroductions at Yellowstone National Park, which led to a recovery of more than 1,700 wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Federal endangered species protection already had been lifted in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, where federal officials cleared state agencies to manage wolves. For example, hunters legally can kill wolves across most of Wyoming, which limits the animals’ natural migration into Colorado.
Conservation groups including the National Wildlife Federation have opposed lifting federal protection nationwide. Legal challenges are anticipated.
Defenders of Wildlife this week said “the species is not secure” across much of wolves’ range because of hunting, trapping, poaching and other threats such as vehicle traffic. They warned of “increasingly hostile anti-wolf policies” in states, where removal of protection means wolves legally can be killed without penalty. After federal protection was lifted in northern Rocky Mountain states in 2011, Defenders leaders said, more than 3,500 wolves were killed under state wolf management plans.