Colorado lawmakers could delay gray wolf reintroduction to Western Slope until management agreement reached with feds

A bill from Western Slope lawmakers could push gray wolf reintroduction into next year despite the state’s long-standing plan to begin releasing them into Colorado’s wilderness by December.

Colorado’s House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 23-256, on an 11-to-2 vote, passing the measure to the entire chamber.

In short, that bill would require state officials to wait until the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service grants state officials the authority to manage (in this case meaning capture, relocate or even kill) the wolves before they’re reintroduced into the wild.

Because wolves are a federally protected species, state officials aren’t allowed to interact with a wolf “in any way, even if they’re attacking livestock or pets,” according to state Sen. Dylan Roberts, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Authority from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – formally called a 10(j) rule – would grant Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials the authority to manage those predators, Roberts said.

But Dan Gibbs, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, told the committee that ruling from Fish & Wildlife, while preferred, is not required for the reintroduction to begin. And the bill constitutes a last-minute change to the state’s plan to release wolves to the Western Slope by the end of the year.

“You’re pulling the rug underneath us while the federal process is ongoing,” Gibbs said to lawmakers supporting the bill.

Colorado’s wildlife officials are already seeking management authority from Fish & Wildlife and expect to have it by the end of the year, Gibbs said. But passing a law requiring the state to have that rule in hand before reintroduction could start might cause federal officials to halt or even restart parts of that process, meaning wolves might not be released by Dec. 31, 2023, as he said voters intended.

The delay appears to be the point of the legislation, Lindsay Larris, an attorney with the environmental nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, said. She noted that the bill, as written, contains no language to limit the potential delay.

More than a dozen others testified before the committee to that effect as well.

Lawmakers supporting the bill questioned whether Proposition 114, which voters passed in November 2020, requires “paws on the ground” by Dec. 31, 2023. Rather, Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican from the Eastern Plains, suggested that the measure only requires the state to have started the process by then.

Holtorf acknowledged that the latest proposal could delay physical reintroduction.

“What does it matter?” Holtorf said. “I don’t think it does.”

Disagreement over the timing took the same tone as the main controversy surrounding the wolves. Support for the reintroduction came largely from urban centers along the Front Range. But the measure mandates that the wolves be released throughout the Western Slope, a region that largely opposed the maneuver.

Already wolves that migrated into Colorado naturally have begun to prey on livestock – and even pets – and ranchers say they expect the killings to become more common once more of the predators are brought to their region.

The state will reimburse ranchers and farmers for their losses, though. And ecologists note that the wolves are important for the environmental health of the state. The predators were native to the area until humans hunted them out generations ago. Bringing them back should restore a balance among wild animals, particularly with massive herds of ungulates like deer and elk, those ecologists say.

Farmers and ranchers want their livestock and pets to be protected against the predators while environmentalists want a successful reintroduction of the wolves to Colorado’s Western Slope, state Rep. Meghan Lukens, another of the measure’s sponsors, said. This bill would accomplish both.

Lukens also noted that the measure is not a tactic to delay reintroduction.

Gibbs said the 10(j) process is on track to be finished by the time wolves are scheduled to be reintroduced. But mandating that the process is finished before the reintroduction begins could cause delays.

At the very least lawyers representing state and federal governments would have to take a fresh look at the new law to determine whether there are any additional implications for the reintroduction process, Larris, of WildEarth Guardians, said. That would take more time. In addition, the process itself could take longer than expected, also delaying the reintroduction.

While Proposition 114 clearly set a deadline for the reintroduction, the bill would effectively remove that time element, Larris said.

“There has to be a timeframe,” she said. “It’s problematic to just not have some sort of endpoint.”

Roberts, a Democrat of Avon, said reintroduction might be delayed but not by much. One to two months at the most, he said.

That’s an acceptable wait, Roberts said, because without the 10(j) agreement, state wildlife officials or ranchers who engage the wolves would be committing a felony.

Ensuring that agreement is in place “is the very least we can do for the individuals and communities that will have to live with the impacts on a daily basis (aka my district) while still honoring the intent of the voters to reintroduce the wolves responsibly,” Roberts said in a text message.

If federal officials decide not to grant the state the 10(j) ruling, then Colorado would cede all control of the wolves to federal officials, Garspar Perricone, a natural resource consultant for Freestone Strategies who also lives on the Western Slope, told the committee.

Others supporting the bill told the committee that the requirement was to serve as a backstop to help farmers and ranchers because without the 10(j) they have little protection against the wolves.

“It’s a trust issue,” Philip Anderson, president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, told the committee. “We have to have that assurance.”

The state’s current plan aims to release between 30 and 50 wolves across the Western Slope over the next three to five years.

Colorado’s Senate approved the measure earlier this month and if it’s approved by the House it would then go to Gov. Jared Polis. Representatives for the governor did not say whether he supports the bill.

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