Gray wolves have been missing from Colorado for almost 80 years. At one point in time, more than 2 million wolves roamed throughout our country. However, by the 1940s, wolves had been aggressively killed off by humans in most of the western United States. Now, with the passage of Proposition 114, we have the opportunity to welcome back wolves to our state.
Colorado has missed the benefits that wolves provide. Despite widely-held beliefs that wolves decimate the populations of species like elk and deer, wolves in fact play an essential role in improving their habitat and the ecosystem. The gray wolf is a keystone species, meaning that its existence positively affects many other species in their ecosystem.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has been charged with drafting and implementing a gray wolf reintroduction plan. But so far, the process led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been dominated by the livestock industry, hunters, and outfitters, while the voices of Coloradans who support wolf restoration have largely been turned down. The result is a conversation focused mostly on the rare negative impacts of reintroduction while ignoring the many economic and ecological benefits that reintroduction will provide our state.
Fortunately, an alternative plan just released by WildEarth Guardians and other conservation organizations, the Colorado Wolf Restoration Plan, fulfills the intent of Proposition 114. The plan fairly considers and balances what’s best for wolves — just as I, and everyone else who voted for Proposition 114, expected.
The WildEarth Guardians plan focuses on some of the most important parts of the reintroduction: where wolves should be reintroduced, population goals, and management plans. It includes the components necessary to produce a successful reintroduction and a self-sustaining population for years to come.
In contrast, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has, so far, failed to meet the spirit of the initiative, focusing on a token wolf population instead of ensuring a robust restoration of wolves throughout the Western Slope.
Relying on peer-reviewed science and data-driven modeling, the WildEarth Guardians plan considers both the wolves’ needs and Coloradans’ needs to determine where wolves should be reintroduced. It identifies 12 reintroduction areas by using information about the best suitable habitat for wolves, and criteria from other states that have already reintroduced wolves. The plan balances habitat, prey availability, human presence, public land ownership, and even road density to ensure that wolves are given the best chance of survival in a suitable habitat and that conflict with humans and livestock is minimized.
The plan’s recommendations for population levels are also backed by science. I, for one, did not initially know that Colorado can support more than 1,000 wolves! But the evidence that WildEarthGuardians uses to explain its phased population goals makes it clear that Colorado is more than capable of supporting that many wolves in a way that considers the needs of a healthy wolf population, other species’ populations, and the needs of Colorado residents.
This, of course, won’t happen overnight. And even when Colorado is at capacity, wolves will hardly be highly visible, spread out over millions of acres, mostly public lands.
We voted for Proposition 114 to restore Colorado’s wolves. The plan highlights the use of non-lethal conflict prevention methods and makes it clear that proactive measures are required before lethal action can be taken or compensation is granted. The WildEarth Guardians approach to wolf-livestock conflict fairly considers the impact that reintroduction will have on producers while giving wolves the best chance for long-term recovery and restoration.
The Colorado Wolf Restoration Plan is consistent with Proposition 114’s intent, defining gray wolves as a non-game species and prohibiting the possibility of a future recreational wolf hunt. These protections close dangerous loopholes and ensure that Colorado won’t follow in the disastrous footsteps of other states like Wisconsin, where more than 200 wolves, about 20% of the state’s total wolf population, were killed in less than three days, even though state officials had limited the legal kill to 119 wolves.
Reintroduction represents two of Colorado’s most valued principles: respecting our state’s natural wonders and strengthening people’s unique relationship with nature. We cannot afford to waste this opportunity to restore an essential part of Colorado’s environment and ecosystem. We must put forth a plan that will work for wolves, not against them.
I urge the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and my fellow Coloradans to support the WidlEarth Guardians plan as the way forward to restore gray wolves in our state.
Adam Estacio, of Denver, is studying environmental law at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
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