A study released this week by Colorado State University researchers suggests a majority of Coloradans intended to vote for wolf reintroduction on November’s ballot.
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The online survey of 734 state residents in August estimated 84% of Coloradans supported the reintroduction of wolves on the state’s Western Slope. The CSU survey — conducted by Utah online survey company Qualtrics — was meant to update a 1994 mail survey by CSU researchers and examined the level of public support for wolf reintroduction; how residents see wolves in Colorado impacting their daily lives; and profiles of wolf supporters and opponents.
The survey divided respondents among the Eastern Plains, the Front Range and the Western Slope. Not surprisingly, the state’s urban residents showed the most support for wolves at 84.9%.
That’s a common theme among opponents of the wolf reintroduction ballot measure: this is driven by city folk who don’t understand the ramifications of wolves in agricultural and recreation-based rural economies. But the study released this week shows 79.8% of residents surveyed on the West Slope indicated that would support a ballot measure, followed by 79.3% of residents on the plains east of the Front Range.
“Overall, our findings suggest a high degree of social tolerance for wolf reintroduction in Colorado across the state,” reads the study led by CSU Assistant Professor Rebecca Niemec.
But the study, which offered incentives to participants, also found rural residents who believed wolves would endanger their safety, their pets and livestock, and their hunting opportunities. The study’s authors urged that any implementation plan include widespread public outreach based on science with “a balanced portrayal of the potential positive and negative impacts of reintroduction.”
Rick Ridder, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, said the survey supports his group’s assertion that Coloradans across the state support wolf reintroduction.
“Those who seek to try to make this a rural versus urban conflict are only trying to find a way to divide us instead acknowledging that we have come together in support of wolf reintroduction,” Ridder said. “I think this really shows voters across Colorado want to restore the ecological balance in the state.”
Initiative 107, if approved by voters in November, would direct the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to introduce about 10 gray wolves a year starting in 2023. It would need about $467,000 a year to implement the plan.
Rick Enstrom, who owns a ranch in southeast Colorado and served eight years on the Colorado Wildlife Commission, has questions about the study as a potential indication of how Colorado will vote. First, he said, the survey divided respondents evenly among three age groups and Colorado voting trends show older residents are more active voters.
Enstrom is not part of the Stop the Wolf Coalition that is campaigning against the wolf ballot measure. But he was on the wildlife commission when it appointed a 14-member board to study wolf management in Colorado in the early 2000s. The group’s report in 2004 outlined management strategies for wolves that migrate into Colorado but did not detail a strategy for relocating wolves into the state. (Wildlife officials this month released a video and other evidence of a wolf pack roaming northwest Colorado’s Moffat County.)
“That was a very contentious deal back then,” he said.
It remains so today, as 29 counties across the state have passed resolutions opposing wolf reintroduction.
“And this poll says 80% of Western Slope residents want wolf reintroduction? And 78% want them in farming and rural areas? I’m not buying it,” Enstrom said. “If 80% of Western Slope residents want wolves reintroduced, I will eat the governor’s hat.”
The study updates a 1994 study and reveals growing acceptance of wolves in Colorado. After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan in 1987, a 1994 mail survey to 1,452 Colorado residents analyzed beliefs and attitudes surrounding possible wolf reintroduction in the state. With surveys split between the Western Slope and Front Range, the results showed 70.8% of Coloradans would vote in favor of wolf reintroduction. The results of the mail survey led by CSU researchers showed residents on the east side of the state were slightly more supportive of wolf reintroduction, with 73.8% of Front Range residents saying they would vote for wolves versus 65.1% of Western Slope residents.
Enstrom, who served on the Colorado Wildlife Commission until 2008, worries about the impacts of wolves on an already stressed budget at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The ballot initiative calls for funding for the implementation of a wolf program and reimbursement of lost livestock to come from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife budget.
“I have concerns about using sportsmen dollars to take care of livestock issues and it’s really not a sporting community issue. It becomes an agricultural issue,” Enstrom said. “Why would people who buy hunting and fishing licenses be on the hook for something that has not been vetted biologically?”
In Montana, where the state began reimbursing ranchers for livestock lost to wolves in 2008 and added grizzly bears in 2013 and mountain lions in 2017, the state Livestock Board paid $247,000 in claims on more than 360 animals killed in 2019, the third consecutive year of record payments.
In 2008 the Montana board paid $87,000 in claims for 238 animals killed by wolves. Last year, it paid $76,000 for wolves killing 53 cows, 20 sheep and two horses. Grizzly bears accounted for $138,000 of the annual payments in 2019.
Claims have fallen for wolves since the state began allowing hunting and trapping of Montana’s roughly 900 wolves, said George Edwards, the executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board.
Edwards’ board took over payments to ranchers from a wildlife conservation group in 2008. He said only a small portion of the livestock lost to predators are actually found and verified.
“You got to look at my numbers as a bare minimum,” he said.