SOUTHERN COLORADO — Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is starting to plan the reintroduction of gray wolves to the Western Slope by the end of 2023.
Those with CPW said they had been watching the votes pour in for Proposition 114 alongside the rest of the state. Then on Thursday afternoon, as the narrow percentages started to widen, and groups leading the opposition conceded, CPW said the governor's office decided it was time for them to release a statement. "We feel like the people have now spoken with their vote, and it's time to start making progress," said Rebecca Ferrell, the public information and website manager for CPW.
As is the case for several Rocky Mountain states, wolves were native to Colorado. They were eradicated from the state in the 1940's, but wolves have been spotted since then, with confirmed cases of wolves entering from other states.
However, those with CPW said Colorado is obviously a very different place than it was all those years ago. "Because we haven't had wolves on the ground in over 80 years, we really can't say exactly what their impact on our existing ecosystem would be," said Ferrell.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has a pack of Mexican Wolves, which are a smaller sub-species of gray wolves. One of the Animal Care Managers at the Zoo, Rebecca Zwicker, said wolves are a keystone species. "We're excited about the opportunity for gray wolves to come back to Colorado. A healthy ecosystem in Colorado's wildlands is beneficial for everybody... but we also want to make sure it's done well and all stakeholders are involved," said Zwicker.
Zwicker said carnivores, like wolves, play a vital role in the balance needed for a healthy ecosystem. "Bringing back a natural predator that's here to help with our elk and our deer herds. They hunt the weaker, and the sicker animals, the older animals, and so they help keep those populations healthy, and also keep them moving so that way they're not decimating vegetation," said Zwicker.
She also said wolves are a skittish species. "Wolves naturally don't want to be around people," said Zwicker.
Opponents of the reintroduction said wolves are already on the Western Slope, and that this will negatively impact Coloradans as a whole. Brett Axton of Safari Club International said wolves cannot be contained by a boundary like the Continental Divide. "As wolves become more prevalent in Colorado, you really need to be careful about where you're hiking and camping. Because they are non-discretionary when it comes to what they eat. You could be next on their diet," said Axton.
Axton said it will hurt those working in the agriculture industry, as well as hunters, and even tourists. "When people are going to see what it's going to cost to have wolves here, I don't think they're going to want them," said Axton.
Plus, Axton pointed out that the majority of 'yes' votes on Proposition 114 came from the Front Range. "The rural people do not want to have wolves in their backyard. They value their livestock, and they value the revenue that deer, elk, moose, sheep, bear, all bring into Colorado," said Axton.
CPW is in the very early stages of this planning process. There is no set plan at this time. Part of this process is having statewide hearings, and gathering stakeholder input. "What's been voted for is for the development of a plan. And so, it's not something that we're going to have today, it's not something we're even going to have in the short-term, the next few months. or anything like that. It's a process that's just getting underway," said Ferrell.
They do plan on keeping track of the wolves, and establishing what a successful number of wolves would look like in Colorado.
Gray wolves have been protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Colorado since 1974. Just this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a rule in the federal register to take wolves off of the ESA list. Normally, after a rule is published, it goes into effect in 30 days. However, since this is a controversial issue, it will have a 60 day resting period. Ferrell said there are several environmental and wildlife advocacy groups that have indicated they will try and challenge this rule in court.
If the rule makes it past the expected legal battles, it would give the state management control of the species, but would also remove the chance for federal funding.
"The way that the ballot initiative was written was that the legislature shall find funds for that. But, what remains to be seen is exactly what those funds look like. And certainly in a year like 2020, where our budgets were essentially blown out of the water, along with everyone else in the state, you know, that's certainly something that we'll have to keep an eye on as well," said Ferrell.
Even if gray wolves are removed from the federal ESA list, wolves will be protected in Colorado, and cannot be hunted. They will still be considered a state endangered species. However, there would be a process in the plan to move them from endangered to threatened, and eventually, threatened to stable.
CPW said they are required by law to cap the amount of monetary increase they can apply to hunting licenses, and can only raise the prices with the consumer price index for the Denver and Boulder area. So, if the price of living in Boulder or Denver goes up, CPW can adjust the prices. "People were concerned that we were going to tack an $85 dollar fee onto every license. We're not able to do that by law. And so, that's not a concern people should have," said Ferrell.
CPW needs to create a plan for the reintroduction and management of gray wolves in Colorado west of the Continental Divide by December 31, 2023.