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Voters late Tuesday were narrowly approving a measure to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. (Photo provided by Grizzly Creek Films)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

After 40 years of battling to restore wolf populations in the Southwest, Northern Rockies and Great Lakes states, the legal, political and biological war for wolves is coming to Colorado.

But this time it could be voters — not federal and state wildlife managers — pushing the only state in the Rocky Mountains without wolves to welcome the roaming predators.

With the federal government ready to remove the gray wolf from endangered species protection, a ballot proposal submitted to the Secretary of State last week hopes to enlist Colorado residents in finalizing the long effort to restore wolf populations in North America.

“A wolf population in Western Colorado would serve as the archstone, the final piece that would connect wolves from the high Arctic all the way to the Mexican border,” said Montana state Sen. Mike Phillips, a longtime wolf advocate and wildlife biologist who is advising Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the two partner groups behind the push for wolf reintroduction in Colorado. “Colorado is maybe the last piece of the puzzle and it is a critically important piece.”

This 1924 photo from Routt County shows one of the last wolves shot and killed in Routt County. (Provided by Jay Fetcher)

Range war reconstituted

Few issues raise hackles like wolves. Ranchers lose livestock to the predators. Sportsmen lose elk and deer. The animosity that fueled a decades-long range war against wolves at the turn of the century — eradicating Canis lupus from the American West — lingers today. A more recent, but also decades-long, political and legal war has helped rebuild the country’s gray wolf population. Now the political war for wolves is coming to Colorado.

But instead of working with federal and state wildlife officials to craft restoration plans, advocates are pushing the issue into the public arena with an educational campaign and ballot initiative.

The ballot measure proposal submitted to the state title board last week — slotted as Initiative 79 — asks voters to approve a law requiring the Colorado Wildlife Commission to craft a plan “using the best scientific data available” to reintroduce gray wolves on public lands west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023. The proposal aims to put the question to voters in the November 2020 election.

If the state approves the ballot language, petitioners could be on the ground this summer with a goal to collect about 200,000 signatures needed to put the measure before voters, said Rick Ridder, a political consultant advising the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, a partner group to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which is funded by the progressive Tides Center.

“We have a robust initiative process which allows us to let voters decide how their land should be managed and what wildlife should exist on our public lands,” said Ridder, who is quick to point out that initial introduction efforts will likely involve “30, maybe three dozen wolves.”

Ridder, a veteran Democratic political operative, said his group has enlisted ranchers who are worried about the impacts of elk overpopulation. Some sportsmen support the effort, with many anglers keen to limit the damage ungulates can do to riparian habitat, Ridder said.

“I think by going to the voters directly we have circumnavigated the legislative process for now. And we think Coloradans will support this,” Ridder said. “It’s part of our state heritage that was eviscerated in the early 1900s. Now it’s time to bring wolves back and restore the natural ecological balance.”

Taking recovery to the people is a new tactic

By 1978, five years after the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the gray wolf was protected as an endangered species in all lower 48 states except Minnesota, where it was listed as threatened. A recovery plan to reestablish wolf populations in the western U.S. was completed in 1987. From 1995 to 1997, federal wildlife officials released 41 gray wolves — mostly from Canada — into Yellowstone National Park. Federal protection has fostered wolf populations in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and surrounding states.

Every wolf restoration effort in the U.S. has been done under the Endangered Species Act, with state wildlife managers following federal laws requiring plans to reintroduce and protect wolves. With wolf advocates going directly to Colorado voters, new battle strategies are taking shape. Opposition groups must adjust their traditional approach to fighting wolf reintroduction, said Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has long opposed wolf reintroduction.

“This is a new technique and new way of trying to do it and I guess the groups that are promoting this, they apparently think they can skip the normal process for wildlife management that we have used in this country for more than 100 years,” Henning said. “This will have to be more of a grassroots campaign. We are going to have to get the word out more broadly and more regularly and with good basis to cause people to really think about what they are signing or voting for. This is a new game.”

Grand Junction’s Colorado Stop The Wolf Coalition is organizing sportsmen, businesses, farmers and ranchers against the ballot initiative.  

“Stopping 79 will be a historic fight that is won through a broad-based coalition of grassroots citizens who will mobilize to stop forced wolf introduction in Colorado before it’s too late,” said Denny Behrens, the co-chairman of the nonprofit coalition. “When voters see through the deception from these misguided proponents, they will know the facts and agree this is a bad idea that will end in tragedy if we don’t stop it.”

(Provided by Grizzly Creek Films)

Wolves sometimes wander into Colorado

The last native wolves in Colorado were shot in the early 1940s. A wolf was hit by a car along Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in 2004. A wolf was found dead — killed by poison — in Rio Blanco County in 2009. In 2015, a hunter mistakenly shot a gray wolf, thinking it was a coyote near Wolford Mountain Reservoir north of Kremmling.

There are occasional unconfirmed sightings of wolves up north, in Routt and Jackson counties. As gray wolf populations grow in the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho and reintroduction efforts seed populations of the Mexican wolf in New Mexico and Arizona, it’s expected that the roaming predators will eventually wander into Colorado’s mountains.    

Natural migration is one thing. Forced reintroduction is another, especially in a state grappling with wildlife issues caused by a growing population of recreation-seekers exploring public lands. Agricultural and big-game industries last year started prepping for a political battle as wolf advocates eyed their endgame in Colorado.

Jay Fetcher, whose father was a pioneering rancher in the Yampa Valley, runs about 300 cattle on his family’s ranch on the Elk River near Steamboat Springs. While he’s unsure about reintroduction of wolves, he welcomes them venturing south from Wyoming.

“I have too many elk. I need something besides humans to harass them. So I’m open-minded to wolves,” Fetcher said. “There are just so many people up here, hiking in the wilderness and biking up Rabbit Ears. So the elk feel safer in my hay meadows.”

Fetcher would prefer that wolves just wander into his backyard. Colorado’s blocks of federal land are not as vast as those in Wyoming and Montana. And there are more people in Colorado. Any conflicts related to reintroduction will not be good for wolves, he said.

“I think they would suffer with reintroduction,” Fetcher said, noting some ranchers opposed to wolves would follow the “shoot, shovel and shut-up approach” to protecting livestock if a wolf came hunting. “I don’t think it’s fair to the wolves. But I’d like to see them. I really would. I know we would have predation of the cattle herd, but I’m willing to tolerate some of that predation as long as there is quick and easy compensation.”

While funds to quickly reimburse ranchers who lose cattle to wolves are common in the Northern Rockies, not many ranchers in the West share Fetcher’s readiness for wolves. And in Colorado, they have the support of the state wildlife commission and, perhaps soon, the support of the federal government, which seems ready to get out of the wolf restoration business and shift wolf issues to statehouses.

Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the gray wolf from federal endangered species protection, a move that has been challenged by wildlife conservation groups in the past. The gray wolf was delisted after legal fights in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

David Bernhardt (Provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior)

“The facts are clear and indisputable—the gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species. Today, the wolf is thriving on its vast range and it is reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so in the future,” Rifle native David Bernhardt, the new Secretary of the Interior, said in a statement announcing the delisting proposal. “Today’s action puts us one step closer to transitioning the extraordinary effort that we have invested in gray wolf recovery to other species who actually need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, leaving the states to carry on the legacy of wolf conservation.”

Opposition to delisting is galvanizing, with conservation groups urging wolf supporters to comment on the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal before the May 14 deadline.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission in 2016 rejected a proposal to reestablish wolves in Colorado, affirming the conclusions of the 2005 14-member Wolf Management Working Group, that cited millions of dollars invested in big game populations, and conflict with the livestock industry and big game management.

A herd of elk peers down on visitors to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Golden on Sept. 9, 2018. (EPA Region 8, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A threat to big-game hunting

Colorado wildlife managers already are struggling with a declining mule deer population. Colorado Parks and Wildlife in 2016 launched controversial predator control studies that involved trapping and killing mountain lions and black bears in the Piceance Basin near Rifle and in the Upper Arkansas River region to help boost dwindling mule deer herds. (Elk and mule deer anchor Colorado’s potent hunting economy, which delivers a $919 million economic impact to the state, especially in rural communities that rely on the seasonal surge of big-game hunters. The health of the hunting economy relies on healthy elk and deer herds.)

Conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop funding the plan until the agency conducted a deeper analysis of the environmental and ecological impacts of the studies.

In May last year the Mesa County commissioners voted to oppose any relocation of wolves to the county, citing threats to livestock and moose on the Grand Mesa, which, it should be noted, were transplanted to Colorado in a 1978 reintroduction effort that has grown the state’s moose count from about zero in the late 1970s to more than 3,000 today. The commissioners’ resolution urged the federal government to follow the Colorado Wildlife Commission’s opposition to wolf reintroduction in the state. In La Plata County, the volunteer Living with Wildlife Advisory Board plans to give county commissioners a recommendation on wolf reintroduction by this summer.

The Montana-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation last week sent out a warning to its members that a ballot initiative was looming in Colorado.  

“To be clear, RMEF strongly opposes the forced introduction of gray wolves to Colorado,” Kyle Weaver, the foundation’s president, said in a statement. “We have witnessed 20-plus years of lies and litigation in the Northern Rockies concerning wolves. This Colorado effort is driven by the same groups using the same tactics to accomplish their agenda.”

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project is on a mission to change these perspectives on wolves with a campaign showing the animals are not a threat to humans, the livestock industry or the big-game hunting industry. And reintroducing wolves is easy, said Montana’s Phillips, “requiring only a modicum of adjustments.”

“The thing that gets in the way of wolf recovery, wolf restoration is the mythical wolf. A lot of people will have you believe the gray wolf has this almost supernatural ability to exercise its predatory will and whim, and everywhere they go they leave waste and desolation as these wanton killing machines. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Phillips said, noting the decades of research on gray wolves that will be on display in the coming educational campaign. “We know a lot about gray wolves. And once Coloradans are ready to embrace an honest portrayal of the wolf, they will conclude that coexisting with it is a rather straightforward affair.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...