By Bruce Finley The Denver Post
Gray wolves gained a hardfought path to “paws on the ground” in Colorado with the approval Thursday of a controversial reintroduction measure, the first time a state’s voters have forced their government to re-introduce an imperiled species.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials declined to discuss voters’ passage of Proposition 114 but issued a statement saying “the planning process for reintroduction will begin.”
The predominantly rural opposition led by elk hunters, farmers and cattle ranchers conceded defeat, lamenting “bad policy” driven by well-funded urban majorities along Colorado’s Front Range.
Meanwhile, wolf supporters celebrated what they saw as the start of a wildlife management shift away from prioritizing hunting and agricultural interests toward a holistic rebalancing of ecosystems by restoring a predator.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was never going to reintroduce the gray wolf to its habitat in the southern Rockies, and this grew out of frustration with the federal government for not fulfilling provisions of the Endangered Species Act,” said wolf campaigner Jim Pribyl, a Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund board member who previously served as the atlarge public representative on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission that in 2016 rejected the idea of reintroducing wolves. Wildlife management in Colorado still is controlled by hunting and agricultural interests, Pribyl said, but he and other wolf proponents expressed confidence that CPW “will do a world-class job” seizing “a golden opportunity for Colorado to reintroduce in the
state, without federal resources, a carnivore and to do it in a way that is thoughtful, humane and respectful.”
Cost estimates for the reintroduction effort ranged from $5 million to $6 million over six years.
“CPW is committed to developing a comprehensive plan and in order to do that, we will need input from Coloradans across our state,” agency director Dan Prenzlow said in a statement. “We are evaluating the best path forward to ensure that all statewide interests are well represented.”
Proposition 114 directs CPW to develop a plan and reintroduce an undetermined number of gray wolves, enough to ensure wolf survival, by the end of 2023 on former habitat in the state west of the Continental Divide.
Proponents emphasized this means “paws on the ground” within three years.
Opponents of wolf reintroduction conceded that, with 91% of the votes counted and Proposition 114 ahead with 50.4% in favor and 49.6% against, wolf reintroduction was moving ahead against their wishes. Uncounted votes remained in pro-wolf Denver and Boulder. “Coloradans Protecting Wildlife stands firm in our belief that the forced introduction of wolves into Colorado is bad policy and should not have been decided by the voters,” opposition campaign spokesman Patrick Pratt said. “While the election did not turn out as we had hoped, we are moving forward to continue to educate Coloradans about the importance of this issue. The election results demonstrate that nearly half of Coloradans agree with us. We hope these election results show proponents, lawmakers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that next steps must be taken in a measured, responsible way.”
Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, said forcing wolf reintroduction in western Colorado strains collaboration in a common statewide challenge of conserving open landscapes in the face of a human population growth and development boom.
“Ranchers in Colorado have been more conservation-minded than anywhere in the country, and when they have challenges of a species like the wolf. … It is going to be difficult for us to encourage them to take these proactive conservation efforts in the future,” Fankhauser said.
The new law requires compensating livestock ranchers for any losses caused by wolves.
Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund president Rob Edward said that “the hard work, the critical work, of rekindling a wolf population in Colorado begins now” and called for setting aside “the mythical wolf” presented in campaign debates as planning begins.
“The mythical wolf has no place in the work ahead. So we urge Colorado’s leaders to let science shine a light on the real wolf, as we plot a course for a future with wolves,” Edward said. “Colorado’s vote will one day be seen as a monumental conservation victory. The voters of Colorado should be proud.”
This marks the first time voters in a state have directed state officials to reintroduce a wildlife species on former habitat.
Nobody has officially proposed numbers. The law requires reliance on the best science and enough wolves to ensure a sustainable population. Wolves are to be released on designated public land west of the Continental Divide.
They’ve already made a comeback in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and other states and wolves number about 6,000 nationwide. CPW officials this year confirmed the presence of a small pack in northwestern Colorado.
Federal officials last week lifted endangered species protection, declaring the gray wolf recovered, an Endangered Species Act success story along with the bald eagle. This leaves wolves’ fate increasingly up to state wildlife managers whose plans typically allow hunting of wolves where sustainable and “removal” if wolves threaten livestock.