Sierra Club conservation chairman updates community on gray wolf reintroduction initiative
FRISCO — A presentation Tuesday in Frisco updated residents on the status of an effort to reintroduce gray wolves to Colorado.
Brian Duchinsky, a Frisco resident and Colorado Sierra Club Headwaters Group conservation chairman, outlined developments of Initiative 107, officially dubbed the Colorado Restore Gray Wolf Population Initiative, which aims to obtain 124,632 signatures by the mid-December deadline to put the question on the November 2020 ballot.
Duchinsky said that as of Aug. 19, the initiative had collected almost 80,000 signatures from those in favor of reintroducing the apex predator to Colorado’s wilderness.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is leading the campaign in support of the initiative.
On Tuesday at HighSide Brewing, Duchinsky said using the initiative process to reintroduce a species to a state is unprecedented across the country.
“No on has ever tried this before,” he said.
Duchinsky said the proposed initiative would essentially direct the state to restore gray wolves to public lands west of the Continental Divide. A Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission would be tasked with carrying out the reintroduction process.
If the question makes it onto the ballot and is approved by voters, Duchinsky said it would require public input and a timetable for reintroduction. The proposed initiative also would prohibit the Parks and Wildlife commission from imposing any land, water or resource use restrictions on private landowners as well as require it to fairly compensate owners for losses of livestock caused by gray wolves.
Supporters say wolves, which were historically an essential part of the wild habitat of Colorado, serve as a vital link in the area’s natural ecosystem. Before they became extinct in the state about 75 years ago, wolves were a native keystone species, according to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, meaning their absence drastically changed the ecosystem.
The action fund also has stressed the geographical importance of Colorado to the greater region’s ecosystem, saying reintroduction in Colorado would close “the missing link” between existing wolf populations in the northern Rockies, southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, and restore the gray wolf to its historical range from the Arctic down to Mexico.
For those in favor of reintroducing the species, there is one quandary: Parks and Wildlife is not supportive of an initiative to reintroduce wolves to the state. Rather, the agency is in favor of natural dispersion, or wolves from neighboring states relocating to Colorado.
“They are the people on the record right now not wanting to do this,” Duchinsky said. “However, it is no question they are the best people to do this.”
Over the past decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has restored gray wolves into neighboring states, including Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. There have been several wolf sightings in Colorado in recent years, including a collared Wyoming wolf that was spotted in Jackson County, about 70 miles north of Summit County’s boundary.
Duchinsky also spoke to the concerns ranchers and other landowners have about the reintroduction of the apex predator
“I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a burden for ranchers,” he said. “It is more resources they have to deploy, but it’s not like nothing can be done and ranchers are completely helpless, that they can’t manage a situation where there might be wolves in the area.”
Duchinsky pointed to data that shows wolves have killed 78 cattle and 336 sheep in states where they have been reintroduced. In comparison, Duchinsky said, 20,000 cattle have been lost to other causes during the same time frame.
Joining a majority of ranchers in opposition to the initiative is Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition. Other groups, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, also are against reintroduction.
“A forced introduction of wolves to Colorado would cost untold amounts of taxpayer dollars, redirect already limited wildlife management resources and would have a significant negative economic impact to the state,” Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said in an April statement. “In Colorado, you are dealing with about a third of the land mass of the Northern Rockies’ states but almost double the human population. A forced reintroduction would trigger the potential for real issues in the state.”
While the initiative seeks to reintroduce the species west of the Continental Divide, Duchinsky said Rocky Mountain National Park is likely not a viable option for reintroduction — despite its overabundance of elk — because it is “already too urbanized.”
Duchinsky then presented a map of Colorado showcasing potential reintroduction sites for the species, namely wilderness near the Durango and Telluride areas in Colorado’s southwest corner and near Steamboat Springs in its northwest corner.
“There are tens of thousands of acres of wilderness in those areas that are on public lands,” he said.
Specific to Summit County, Duchinsky said gray wolves would “definitely not” be reintroduced here. Aside from that detail, he said specific reintroduction locations are preliminary.
“It’s not that specific,” he said. “The idea would be, it has to be west of the divide, it has to be on public lands. (Parks and Wildlife), go figure it out.”
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