A little more than two years after Colorado voters narrowly directed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce wolves to the Western Slope, the agency has a plan.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife dropped its 293-page draft plan for wolf reintroduction on Friday morning, launching a public process to adjust details before a final plan is proposed in February next year and approved in May. The plan calls for transferring 30 to 50 gray wolves from northern Rockies states over three to five years beginning in 2024.
The comprehensive plan was honed through 47 public in-person and virtual meetings involving 3,400 state residents in the summer of 2021. A 20-member Stakeholder Advisory Group met 15 times between June 2021 and August 2022. A 17-member Technical Working Group composed of wildlife experts and local community leaders met 14 times in that span.
The essence of the plan is “impact-based management” of wolves, with CPW given “maximum flexibility.” So conflicts between wolves and domestic livestock or wild deer, elk and moose will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The agency will first use education to minimize impacts, the nonlethal strategies followed by lethal responses and compensation for ranchers who lose livestock to the predators. (The draft plan proposes ranchers get up to $8,000 for every animal killed by a wolf.)
“An impact based approach recognizes that there are both positive and negative aspects of having wolves and managing wolves,” said Eric Odell, CPW’s species conservation program manager, during a meeting with commissioners on Friday.
A top issue for wolf conservation in Colorado, per the plan, is “social tolerance for wolves and economic impacts.”
“The greatest challenges associated with wolf restoration and wolf management are primarily going to come from social and political issues rather than biological issues,” said Odell, adding that a successful wolf restoration plan “will rely on a strong foundation for responsible stakeholder engagement.”
The plan proposes CPW will capture 10 to 15 wild gray wolves every fall and winter from several different packs over the course of three to five years. The agency will release the GPS-collared wolves during winter months on private and state land on the Western Slope at least 60 miles from borders with tribal land, Wyoming to the north, Utah to the West and New Mexico to the south. The plan does not propose releasing wolves on federal land, due to the “time and financial constraints” required under National Environmental Policy Act rules for federal land, Odell said.
The capture of wolves in a northern Rockies state and the release of the animals on the Western Slope will happen in a single day.
“The animals are not going to be held for any period of time,” Odell told Dan Gibbs, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, who asked if wolves would be held for a short period in a semi-permanent pen before releasing them.
Wolves will be managed under the state’s threatened and endangered rules with cooperation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wolves are listed as endangered by both the state and federal government.
If CPW counts 50 wolves in the state for four years in a row, the animals can be shifted from endangered protection to less-strict threatened status. When wildlife biologists count 150 wolves for two successive years — or 200 wolves at any time — the animals will be removed from state endangered or threatened protection and listed as non-game wildlife. Wolves could be reclassified as a game species — meaning they could be hunted — in a final phase of the recovery effort.
A state population of 200 wolves would be about 25 packs spread across 2.8 million acres in western Colorado. CPW will monitor the packs using the GPS collars as well as aerial surveys, hair and scat sampling, trail cameras and winter track counts. The agency also will monitor wolf prey populations. Effects of the predators on prey populations — including livestock, elk, deer and moose — “were one of the greatest concerns” expressed by state residents during restoration efforts in the northern Rockies, reads the report.
“Recent community engagement in Colorado suggests that those same concerns occur across much of the state, particularly on the Western Slope,” the report reads.
CPW commission chairwoman Carrie Hauser called the plan “a testament to tenacity” as she thanked the technical and stakeholder groups.
“Our goal is to put together a plan that really reflects compromise and really reflects a plan the state could be proud of … and the public could really support,” she said.
Several members of the Stakeholder Advisory Group issued a statement noting hard-won consensus among the coalition of conservationists, ranchers, hunters, wildlife advocates and rural and urban residents.
“In a time of often polarized opinions, the SAG fostered civil discussion and understanding across differences, often resulting in strong convergence even on the most contentious issues,” the statement from nine of the group’s members reads. “Colorado has enough issues that could divide people and communities. We collectively believe that if we take a pragmatic approach and seek common ground with our neighbors, wolves don’t need to be another divisive issue.”
Education will be a main focus to help ranchers mitigate the impacts of wolves. The plan calls for hazing of wolves using non-lethal methods — like using rubber bullets, flagging on electrified fences and noisy, flashing scare devices — but the plan allows for killing wolves as “a short-term response to an immediate issue,” Odell said.
“The Technical Working Group has unequivocally stated that lethal control is a critically important tool for wolf management,” Odell said, calling for adjustments to state wildlife rules to allow for lethal intervention by ranchers protecting livestock and working ranch animals like dogs and horses.
The plan allows for lethal management of wolves when there are “substantial measurable impacts” to big game herds. Killing wolves who threaten elk, deer and moose will require the agency to meet “a very high bar,” Odell said.
Odell said Montana allowed the killing of 52 wolves in 2020, about 4% of the state’s population. Oregon killed only one wolf.
“We don’t anticipate this is something that is regularly occurring or will have a tremendous impact on the population as a whole,” Odell said of lethal interventions with wolves.
Hauser asked about interactions between wolves and pets. That was an issue the stakeholder group could not reach consensus on, Odell said, but the plan would not allow a pet owner to kill a wolf threatening a dog or cat while ranchers could feasibly kill a wolf threatening working dogs. (Compensation under the plan would be available for lost cattle, sheep, swine, llama and alpaca.)
Odell said the agency would be looking to the commission for direction on pet conflicts and other management details in the coming months as the agency presents the draft plan at public meetings in Colorado Springs, Gunnison, Rifle and a virtual meeting. A final meeting in Denver on Feb. 22 will incorporate public input from the previous four meetings as the commission hammers out a final plan due by May.
The plan outlines very specific rules for paying ranchers for lost and missing animals. Ranchers who deploy mitigation strategies will be eligible for higher compensation rates. The plan calls for a compensation strategy for ranchers whose livestock have gone missing after wolves killed other livestock.
Montana’s Livestock Loss Board reported a total of 413 cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, llama, horse and dogs lost to wolves, grizzlies and mountain lions in 2021, with 82 of those animals killed by wolves. The board dispersed $348,178 to ranchers to compensate for lost livestock. That’s up from $198,200 for 285 lost animals in 2020. Wyoming distributed $201,000 to ranchers who lost animals in 2019.
The Colorado plan also offers compensation for “indirect losses,” such as cattle or sheep that endure weight loss as wolves threaten herds. Luke Hoffman, CPW’s game damage manager, called the indirect losses proposal “uncharted territory” for the agency.
Commissioner Dallas May, a rancher based in Lamar, said the plan covers 95% of the issues for ranchers. But May had issues with the $8,000 maximum compensation, calling it “insufficient,” especially when it comes to working horses worth $15,000 to $50,000.
Marie Haskett, a commissioner from Meeker who represents hunters and outfitters, agreed with Dallas, saying the $8,000 maximum was too low.
“The statute says ‘fairly compensate owners’ and we need to be aware of that,” Haskett said of the language in Proposition 114, which voters approved in November 2020.
May, a renowned conservationist who has rehabilitated his southeastern Colorado ranch as a model sanctuary for endangered species, said compensation “is not a handout” for ranchers. The plan, he said, needs to make sure livestock producers and private landowners “are able to stay in business so that they can keep providing habitat that they do.”
“Speaking for myself … many ranchers like to coexist with wildlife. I try to ranch with wildlife and to create habitat,” May said. “I just want to emphasize that all of us from all sides have to come together to be able to make this a success.”
The plan notes a need for additional and sustainable funding flowing into the agency to support wolf restoration but is light on details about how much extra money will be needed as well as sources for those dollars. The plan calls for legislative support as well as financial help from non-government organizations and partners.
“We need to have money in order for this program to be successful,” said Commissioner Betsy Blecha.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has worked to restore elk, bighorn sheep, river otter, lynx, black-footed ferrets, boreal toads, cutthroat trout, wild turkey and peregrine falcon. The wolf reintroduction effort is among the most challenging, with a narrow vote that illustrated a rural-urban divide in Colorado.
In the coming public meetings as Colorado residents respond to the wolf management program, CPW will be challenged to discern between “earnest difference of opinion” on management strategies and “substantive shortcomings” in the plan, said Reid DeWalt, the agency’s assistant director of aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources.
“Wolf management in Colorado will take place within a complex biological, social, economic and political environment,” DeWalt said. “Difficult decisions will have to be made and will sometimes be called into question by various interests.”