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West Slope lawmaker tries to pump the brakes on Colorado wolf reintroduction

Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan’s bill would delay wolf management to study and fund compensation for lost livestock. It would also cancel a plan to bring back the predators if a “self-sustaining population” is confirmed.

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State Sen. Kerry Donovan wants to slow the roll on wolf reintroduction. 

The Vail Democrat, who represents seven Western Slope counties, has crafted legislation she hopes to submit on Friday that allows Colorado Parks and Wildlife to manage wolves, but would postpone any reintroduction efforts until money is found to reimburse ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. The bill would cancel reintroduction outright if wildlife officials determine that the state already has a “self-sustaining population” of gray wolves. 

The bill is a detour around a question on November’s ballot that asks voters to direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce about 10 wolves a year into Western Slope wildlands starting in 2023. Donovan’s legislation delays possible reintroduction until the last day of 2025, after state agriculture and wildlife officials work together to measure potential damage caused by wolves and determine how to pay for lost livestock. 

It also comes as wildlife officials have confirmed a pack of six wolves roaming Moffat County in northwest Colorado. 

Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, speaks on Feb. 1, 2019, at a town hall meeting in Frisco. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

“This initiative allows for a certain amount of conversation,” Donovan said Friday. “But with an issue as complex as this, which seems to be in flux with a pack moving into the northwest, I think it’s appropriate to take the deliberative process the general assembly allows and apply it to wildlife management in Colorado.” 

“This bill should give us a forum for a discussion,” she added, “and I don’t know if we are having that level of dialogue around what is a very complex issue for the Western Slope. I don’t think that happens with two opposing campaigns, which does not always provide the right forum for the discussions and compromises that these kinds of complicated issues require.”

Donovan’s bill calls for a study group convened by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the state’s department of agriculture to develop a report on the impacts and costs of wolves by Jan. 1, 2022. 

Under Donovan’s plan, a “sustainable reintroduction, recovery and management plan” would include a wide variety of methods — including the issuance of hunting permits — to promote a sustainable population of wolves, and minimize damage to livestock and provide compensation to ranchers who lose livestock to the predators. 

“Whatever the method is, we want to make sure the department has full capability to manage the population with the tools they think are best suited,” she said. 

The compensation issue is tricky for Donovan. It’s an issue that concerns her constituents on the Western Slope, she said.

MORE: Survey shows overwhelming support for reintroducing wolves in Colorado

Her bill, she said, allows cattlemen and wool growers to work with wildlife officials to craft a system that not only identifies a funding source for compensating ranchers who lose livestock to wolves but outlines how ranchers can be reimbursed. 

“I could easily see a concept where you take a picture of your cow that has been killed and send it to us and we’ll send you a check for a couple hundred dollars. That sounds incredibly reasonable to people who haven’t run animals in the mountains. But it’s not that easy,” she said. “I want to make sure we get very realistic scenarios from people who work in these landscapes, the cattlemen and wool growers.”

A gray wolf. (Photo provided by Grizzly Creek Films)

George Edwards, the executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, has spent 11 years paying ranchers in Montana for livestock they’ve lost to wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions.

In 2008, when Montana estimated there were 497 wolves in the state, his board paid $87,317 to ranchers who lost 238 animals to wolves, including 74 cattle, 149 sheep and four llamas. In 2019, with wildlife officials estimating Montana’s wolf population around 900, he paid $76,108 to ranchers for 53 cattle, 20 sheep and two horses. For the last three years, his office has paid record amounts to ranchers as losses from grizzly bears grow.

Last year the Montana legislature increased his budget to $300,000 from $200,000

Edwards has visited several states across the West to explain his state’s compensation program, which pays ranchers market value for each animal his team confirms was killed by predators. 

“It’s interesting to hear ranchers’ perspectives in places like Northern California. I hear the same thing regardless of where you go. Once wolves move in, ranchers feel limited in what they can do to prevent loss,” Edwards said. “Once you have wolves, ranchers know their losses will grow.”

MORE: Could Colorado see the return of grizzlies, wolves and wild bison? Here’s how Montanans coexist with them.

Donovan’s bill comes the same week that Colorado State University researchers released the results of an online survey of 734 state residents spread across the Western Slope, the Front Range and Eastern Plains that shows overwhelming support for wolf reintroduction. Supporters of the wolf ballot measure say the survey, which compensated people for participating, shows that wolves unite both urban and rural residents. 

But that’s not what Donovan is hearing from the Western Slope. Opponents of the measure have collected resolutions from 29 rural counties across the state opposing the reintroduction of wolves. 

“One of the concerns I keep hearing about is that a bunch of city folks are going to vote to approve wolves and we are going to have to deal with them,” she said. 

Donovan’s bill says reintroduction efforts would be cancelled if wildlife officials determine there is a “sustainable population” in the state. So how many is that? 

“I’m not going to define that because there are people who are better versed for that,” Donovan said. “They are going to do the work to find out what a sustainable population is. We will let science determine what a sustainable population is.” 

Rick Enstrom, a former wildlife commissioner who worked with a wolf study group that crafted a management strategy for the Colorado Wildlife Commission in 2004 that did not support reintroduction, applauded Donovan’s legislative strategy for wolf management. 

“It seems pretty sensible to me. These issues are too complex to solve with a simple ballot measure,” he said. “Hopefully this will calm everybody down.”

Passage of legislation and a ballot measure could set up a conflict. Legislation does not automatically override voter-approved initiatives. 

“I think we can say history has shown that when a compromise is reached inside the (Capitol) building that often results in initiatives being pulled off the ballot,” Donovan said. 

Organizers behind the ballot initiative applauded Donovan’s effort to balance wolf reintroduction with the needs of Colorado’s ranchers, but they will not support the bill. Rob Edwards with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund said they are happy to discuss compensation plans and proactive measures ranchers can take to prevent predation of livestock. 

“What is not acceptable is delaying reintroduction until everything is worked out,” Edwards said. “We already have this scoped out to the end of 2023. There is plenty of time for everybody to figure out how to do this. We don’t need a delay beyond that.”

Not surprisingly, his group doesn’t like the notion that reintroduction could end if biologists conclude the state has a “self-sustaining population” of wolves. So how many does he think qualifies as a sustainable number of wolves? 

“North of 500 animals across the western portion of the state,” he said, suggesting that could be achieved with reintroducing 30 wolves over three years. “We have a very clear vision for what reintroduction looks like and how it can be done and what it would result in. Accepting ambiguity is not our idea of a good way forward.”


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