Wolf reintroduction in Colorado faces new obstacle

Debate looms over whether the Mexican subspecies of the gray wolf was ever native to the boundaries of Colorado, a primary reason the state's Parks and Wildlife Commission voted Wednesday, Jan. 13, in favor of a resolution banning the endangered animal's (re)entry.
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The wolf’s re-introduction to Colorado just encountered another barrier that conflicts with directives established at the federal level for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In line with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recent efforts, Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Commission met in Denver on Wednesday night, Jan. 13 and approved a resolution that officially opposes local recovery of the Mexican gray wolf. The motion passed by a 7-4 vote.

“We lost,” said activist Gary Wockner, “that’s the bottom line. They took it right to the wall, with the most controversial, aggressive, anti-wolf, anti-environmental stance they could possibly take.”

Wockner — a member of the Colorado Wolf Working Group of 2004 and who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at CU-Boulder on wolf management in the mid-1990s — said the policy doesn’t actually come with much in the way of teeth. However, he does not view it as a step in the right direction.

“Frankly, it’s more symbolic than anything,” he said. “This is a lot of legal maneuvering. It sets up the state to be able to sue to try to stop the recovery. This type of legal tug of war is going to go on for a while longer.”

After a number of environmental groups sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife, a judge ruled the agency must develop a new recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf — the most endangered subspecies of wolf in the world — by end of 2017. The national bureau tasked with protecting wildlife was told to improve upon its process for increasing the population of the particular variety after initially releasing 11 Mexican wolves back into the wild in Arizona in 1998 but seeing only slow growth. In addition to Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, Colorado was floated as a new landing destination for more wolves.

Shortly thereafter, Gov. Hickenlooper sent a letter, also signed by the governors of the three other aforementioned states, to the Department of the Interior opposing re-introduction to the region. The Wildlife Commission’s decision Wednesday evening doubled down on those attempts to dissuade U.S. Fish and Wildlife from ultimately doing so.

“Wolves are welcome to our state if they come naturally,” said Matt Robbins, CPW’s public information officer. “If there was a stray wolf to enter our borders, then it would be welcome. It is if they are intentionally released — if someone was to bring wolves in and drop them off, ‘You now have a pack of wolves in Colorado’ — there in lies an issue for us.”

During the era of western expansion in the United States, beginning in the early 19th century, hundreds of thousands of wolves were killed to settle properties and make way for the livestock industries. In the territory that eventually became the state of Colorado, in 1876, estimates of about 5,000 wolves eliminated are often cited. Today, wolves have been nonexistent in Colorado for more than 70 years, with the last one on record killed in 1945.

Gray wolves are native to the region, however, and one from the Northern Rockies even roamed to the town of Kremmling in Colorado last May before being mistaken for a coyote, shot and killed near Wolford Mountain Reservoir.

The root of the disagreement really rests on whether the Mexican subspecies previously existed in Colorado, with Gov. Hickenlooper and the CPW arguing they never did.

“We do not believe the Mexican wolf ever had its natural range in the boundaries of the state of Colorado,” said Robbins. “Therefore, that species in particular, that would be intentionally brought to the state and an introduction of a new species, different than the gray wolf from the north.”

The debate is a healthy one.

“The people who hate wolves have all sorts of ideas,” contended Wockner. “None of them are rooted in facts and science. Wolves were absolutely indigenous. They were here, first, by the thousands. It’s contested, but we think the governor’s wrong, we think the Wildlife Commission’s wrong.

“This is wolf country,” he continued. “Colorado has some of the wildest landscapes, wilderness areas and then the most enormous prey base of any state in the western United States. They have a right to be here. It’s the ecological, healthy thing to do.”

The CPW’s Robbins also pointed to the additional costs associated with managing and protecting wildlife in state, namely another endangered animal to the area, as to why the commission came to the decision it did. The CPW receives no money from the state’s general fund and is instead funded entirely from hunting and fishing licenses. It’s another reason why officials would prefer U.S. Fish and Wildlife consider a bi-national re-introduction with Mexico rather than the states it might affect.

With few or no natural predators coexisting with them in Summit County, thousands of elk and deer are left only to fear hunters during certain times of the year, explained Wockner.

“What you’re going to continue to have is fat, lazy elk and deer that have never been chased by a predator,” he said. “You’ll have problems where they’re overgrazing on the landscape and more of an unnatural landscape because it doesn’t contain the full sweep of predators and prey that Mother Nature put there 1,000 years ago.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to submit its updated recovery plans for the Mexican gray wolf no later than December 2017. It’s then that a legal battle with the southwestern states, including Colorado, may just be getting started.

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