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FILE - This March 21, 2019 file photo provided by the National Park Service shows the Junction Butte wolf pack taken from an aircraft in Yellowstone National Park. On Jan. 28, 2022, park officials said 20 Yellowstone wolves had been killed by hunters in recent months including 15 just across the park border in Montana. (National Park Service via AP, File)

Tension over plans to bring gray wolves back to Colorado has been high since a ballot initiative narrowly passed two years ago directing wildlife officials to restore a predator population that had been absent for nearly a century. And while the first public comment session on the state’s draft Wolf Restoration and Management Plan Thursday made the split in opinion a bit narrower, it also showed how much ground still must be covered before work begins to reintroduce wolves west of the Continental Divide.

The draft plan, slated to begin implementation 2024, aims to achieve the successful recovery of the gray wolf in Colorado by introducing 30 to 50 wolves over 3 to 5 years. However, the social and economic consequences of the plan have made it a controversial topic across the state. At this stage, adjustments to the plan can still be made. Four more public comment hearings will be held until Feb. 22, and then the plan will be approved at a CPW meeting in Glenwood Springs on May 3 and 4.

The CPW Commission heard first from the Stakeholder Advisory Group, a body of volunteers representing a diverse set of Coloradan perspectives, who met from June 2021 to August 2022 to develop a set of recommendations for the draft plan. SAG Member Renee Deal, a sheep rancher and public lands outfitter from Somerset, said she believes the group reached a consensus that can work for everyone affected by reintroduction.

“None of us walked away from this completely satisfied with what we came up with,” she said. “But I think that speaks to the fact that it was a true compromise.”

Few members of the public seemed to be satisfied with the state of the plan either. Equal numbers of livestock owners and wildlife advocates spoke out on the restoration plan at Thursday’s meeting.

Some were concerned that the trajectory of the draft plan provided insufficient protection for gray wolves. Once at least 200 wolves live in the state, or at least 150 for two successive years, the draft plan states they will be reclassified as non-threatened. That threshold is too low, argued Lindsey Larris, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. 

“I heard earlier today that 150 wolves would be sufficient to prevent extinction,” Larris said. “I’m questioning why that should be the bar that we’re going with.”

Wolves in Colorado are currently protected by state law and killing one can lead to large fines and even jail time. Advocates like Larris said they should remain under protection until their numbers become much more robust than 200 —a figure which dates back to research from over 20 years ago, Larris said. More current scientific evidence suggests that a population of 750 wolves is an appropriate threshold for delisting, she said.

Others petitioned for more support in the plan for people whose livelihoods may be affected negatively by wolf reintroduction. Ranchers called attention to not only the financial losses of livestock killed by wolves, but the harder-to-quantify reductions in stock fertility, general health, and weight that can result from the stress of exposure to a newly introduced predator.

CPW’s draft plan has a detailed compensation scheme to reimburse ranchers for both livestock lost to predators and declines in herd well-being. But some, like rancher Curtis Russell, a board member of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, think the plan doesn’t do enough. The presence of wolves could have dire consequences for livestock owners, he said, many of whom are already in an economically precarious position.

“Unfortunately, the likelihood of many Western Slope livestock producers being driven out of business by improperly managed wolf introduction is quite high,” Russell said. 

Don Gittleson, on Dec. 26, 2021, discusses how the wolves entered his ranch outside Walden from the steep hillside and where he found the carcass of a calf inside a corral during the week before. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Don Gittleson, who ranches in North Park, near the Wyoming border, has already had difficult experiences dealing with wolves. Packs that crossed into Colorado from Wyoming attacked animals on his property repeatedly last year.

The emotional toll is significant, both for him and the CPW officials who have to respond to the gruesome results of wolf attacks. Hazing techniques and deterrents have had limited long-term effectiveness, and it’s daunting to consider how his business can remain sustainable.

“I hate that,” he said. “I hate that question, because it’s a very real question. I can’t answer it for sure.”

The plan allows for livestock owners in Colorado to engage in a variety of “impact-based management” activities to prevent wolves threatening their stock. This includes physical deterrents, nonlethal force, and lethal force, which is permitted when livestock are attacked.

Some wildlife advocates spoke out against allowing lethal force in the draft plan. Many also objected to the final stage of the draft plan, Phase 4, which allows for wolves to be hunted for sport if reintroduction is successful. Commissioner Marie Haskett said that CPW’s draft plan is backed by sound science and years of experience in conservation and wildlife management. When the plan reaches that final stage, wolves can be considered “recovered,” she said—and in that case, they’d require no special treatment.

“Wolves are not the only species that live on this landscape, and the only way to make it equitable for all species is to make them a game species, and be managed,” said Haskett, who is an outfitter in Meeker.

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Phase 4, which was not included in the SAG recommendations, contradicts the original intention of Proposition 114, according to Kelly Murphy, a caretaker at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. She said that adding a provision for reclassifying wolves as game animals does nothing for the restoration effort but make it more controversial.

“These wolves are not being reintroduced so they can one day become somebody’s trophy,” Murphy said. “How does proposing that foster tolerance?”

The draft plan, and public acceptance of it, has a long way to go, members of the stakeholder group and CPW commissioners admitted. Still, many CPW representatives expressed gratitude for those who have worked so hard to hammer out compromises on this issue.

CPW Commission Chair Carrie Hauser said she’s confident that the plan will work. So many Coloradans, especially those with the most at stake, have participated in discussions and reached across boundaries to work towards consensus, and Hauser said she’s hopeful that they will continue to do so.

“In a lot of ways, this isn’t about wolves, it’s about people,” she said. “And it’s about how we work together to move this forward and to ensure a successful plan. And that will mean compromise, it will mean learning.”