Wolf fans will be howling outside Front Range grocery stores soon, hoping to seed a new predator in Colorado’s Western Slope.
The Colorado Secretary of State on Friday approved a petition seeking signatures to land a wolf reintroduction proposal on the November 2020 ballot. Wolf supporters will need 124,632 signatures by Dec. 13 to put the restoration of gray wolves before voters.
The group will aim to submit 200,000 signatures, gathered by a team of about 200 volunteers who will be hitting the streets as soon as this week, said Rick Ridder, a political consultant advising the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the group pushing the restoration measure.
Colorado is emerging as the last battleground for restoring wolf populations. Over the last four decades, federal and state wildlife managers have introduced wolves in the Southwest, Northern Rockies and Great Lakes states.
If wolf restoration reaches the ballot next year, Colorado could be the first state where voters — not those wildlife scientists — order a plan to welcome the predators back to Western Colorado.
The proposed ballot measure — Initiative 107 — directs the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado “using the best scientific data available” and “designed to resolve conflicts with persons engaged in ranching and farming.”
The proposed law requires hearings across the state to collect public input and says reintroduction will begin by the end of 2023. It also proposes paying ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves.
Initiative 107 replaces an earlier proposal — Initiative 79 — to reintroduce wolves on public lands west of the Continental Divide with a plan that gives the commission greater leeway in determining where the animals can be introduced.
“We are not talking about a great number of wolves. We are going to start with 30, to a maximum of 50 over the course of two, three years,” Ridder said, noting that similar numbers of wolves were reintroduced in states like Wyoming and Montana. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, we expect the population to grow to no more than 250. The key is to establish a viable population.”
Wolf reintroduction in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona, as well as around the Great Lakes, was directed by wildlife managers following guidelines established in the Endangered Species Act, which has protected gray wolves since 1983.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are more than 5,500 gray wolves across nine states, part of a North American range where more than 2 million wolves once roamed.
Citing the recovery, the Department of the Interior in March proposed removing the gray wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wolf advocates are critical because removing wolves from protection would allow states to permit hunting and trapping of wolves in some areas.
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A coalition of national groups supporting wolves has buried the Fish and Wildlife Service in more than 1 million comments opposing the removal of federal protection.
Wolves last roamed Colorado in the 1940s, although some wolves have wandered into Colorado from neighboring states in the last 15 years. Opponents of reintroduction don’t have a problem with the natural migration of the predators.
But the proposal to force wolves to settle in Colorado — where a growing population of recreational users is stressing wildlife populations and habitats — is galvanizing opposition among the state’s agricultural and big-game industries.
Agricultural and big-game hunting groups opposing forced introduction of wolves traditionally have voiced their concerns in wildlife commission meetings. The push to voters in Colorado is forcing wolf opponents to change their strategies.
Scot Oliver, the co-chairman of Grand Junction-based Stop the Wolf Coalition — a group of farmers, ranchers and big-game hunters — said his group would be deploying volunteers, “targeted advertising” and social media to “to mobilize the public around the proven and harmful consequence of forced, non-native wolf introduction.”
“In every state that this terrible idea has been tried, it’s been a tragic disaster for wildlife and people who love the outdoors,” Oliver said in a statement. “We won’t let these extremists get away with deceiving voters and ruining our safe and peaceful Colorado way of life.”