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Colorado Parks and Wildlife on July 10, 2019, confirmed that a gray wolf photographed in Jackson County, Colorado, is a dispersing male gray wolf from Wyoming. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

When Colorado voters in November narrowly passed a ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves in western Colorado, detractors said it was a prime example of the state’s deepening rural-urban divide.

It was urban voters on the Front Range who pushed the measure to passage, over the objections of rural and ranching Colorado. Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to make sure the cost of the project is carried by everyone.

They are pushing House Bill 1243, legislation that would change and broaden the source of funds to pay for gray wolf reintroduction. 

“The cost of implementing Proposition 114 should be equitable and shared amongst all of Colorado,” said state Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican and former state wildlife officer. 

Currently, the costs of implementing gray wolf reintroduction would come from the Wildlife Cash Fund, which is primarily funded by license fees paid by hunters and anglers. 

“The cost should not be shouldered by sportsmen alone. I think this bill … can go a long way in rebuilding trust, and narrowing that rural and urban divide,” Will said. “I think there’s just a plain and simple fairness issue.”

Proposition 114 was approved by a slim 1.82 percentage point margin — and directed the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop and implement a plan to oversee the restoration and management of a self-sustaining gray wolf population by 2023. As part of the initiative, the state must help livestock owners prevent conflict with wolves and compensate owners for livestock losses. 

Farmers, ranchers and hunters argued that introducing the predators could hurt rural economies that rely on livestock and hunting. Other opponents argued the issue should be left to wildlife managers, not voters

Advocates, however, said that reintroducing the animals to Colorado would complete a regional connection for existing gray wolf populations in the Northern Rockies to packs in New Mexico and Arizona. Wolves that naturally migrated have been confirmed several times in northern Colorado in the last year. Though wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list last year, the animals still are considered endangered in Colorado.

The initial costs of preparing for reintroduction will be at least $344,323 in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which begins in July, and $467,387 for the 2022-23 fiscal year. The money will be spent on new staff and public meetings associated with developing the reintroduction plan, according to a fiscal analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff and initial financial estimates that accompanied the ballot measure. 

After that, ongoing annual costs are estimated at about $800,000 a year, although that could change based on the plans adopted by the commission and other factors, like the actual growth of gray wolf populations and the cost of compensating owners for any livestock losses. There could be more expenses if lawmakers decide to spend more on a broad public outreach campaign approved by the Parks and Wildlife Commission in January, which calls for convening two working groups, holding additional public meetings and hiring a professional facilitator. That could cost another $868,168 this coming fiscal year and more than $1 million the next, according to the fiscal analysis. 

“If the people of Colorado make a decision to pass an initiative, they should pay for it,” said former state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat who was a prime sponsor of the bill until she resigned after being elected mayor of Fort Collins. “Those fees go to protect our natural and public lands. And so to pull money from them based on a citizen initiative just didn’t seem like the right funding mechanism.”

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, and state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, are also prime sponsors. 

Instead of drawing primarily from the Wildlife Cash Fund, a large operating fund that pays for a variety of wildlife management and conservation costs, House Bill 1243 would require one or more of the following funds to pay for wolf reintroduction: general fund, Species Conservation Trust fund, Nongame Conservation and Wildlife Restoration Cash Fund. 

The legislation also allows Colorado Parks and Wildlife to accept donations and grant money for the effort. 

A number of advocacy groups, including the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management and Colorado Sierra Club, support the bill. 

“Without a dedicated source of funding…[Colorado Parks and Wildlife] will have to cannibalize funds from other wildlife management programs, or raise fees on sportsmen to pay for a program mandated by voters,” Zandon Bray, who represents District 9 on the Colorado Farm Bureau, testified in support of an earlier version of the bill. “Moreover, without this bill, the availability of funds to compensate for livestock losses will be in doubt.”

Hunters and anglers supported raising license fees to support the state’s wildlife management goals to the benefit of the whole state, said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. 

“So relegating the funding for this bill to the Wildlife Cash Fund would create a significant area of divisiveness that can be totally avoided,” O’Neill said to the House Energy and Environment Committee earlier this year.

Lawmakers in the state House have separately requested $5 million in funding toward gray wolf reintroduction in next fiscal year’s budget. 

The Joint Budget Committee, the legislative panel that writes the annual budget, probably won’t grant that full request, but Will and Arndt think there’s a good chance the committee will set aside some funding for the program. 

“We’ll see what the JBC does — if they knock it down, which might be to about $2 million,” Arndt said. 

House Bill 1243 was unanimously approved by the House Energy and Environment Committee earlier this month. It’s now headed to the House Appropriations Committee.

Thy Vo

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo