A recently passed bill, a recently filed lawsuit and a pending agency action pertaining to federal management of the gray wolf are putting a renewed focus on what its future, if any, should be in Colorado.
The House of Representatives on Nov. 16 voted 196-180 to approve a bill that would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered or threatened species in the Lower 48 states.
That move came two days after the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to provide a comprehensive recovery plan for gray wolves in the Lower 48 states, including in the southern Rockies.
The suit comes as the agency expects in the coming months to release the results of a status review of the gray wolf in the Lower 48 states. Observers including the Center for Biological Diversity expect that agency to release a proposed rule seeking to remove federal protections for nearly all gray wolves in the contiguous United States, an action the Center for Biological Diversity hopes to prevent by getting a court to require the wolves to be recovered nationwide.
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a nationwide delisting of the gray wolf in 2013, but it continues to be listed as endangered across most of the contiguous United States, including Colorado.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., who voted for the House delisting measure, said in a news release afterward, "Without an effective method of managing the species in place, the gray wolf poses a threat to livestock as well as other native species habitats. It is long past time that the gray wolf be officially delisted, so state agencies can responsibly manage the population, better tailor management plans to meet the unique circumstances and conditions in each state, and ensure they continue to thrive in a healthy and balanced ecosystem."
Under the House measure, the Fish and Wildlife Service rule that the bill requires to delist the gray wolf would be exempt from judicial review.
Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, said in the news release from Tipton's office that the bill "halts the abuse of the Endangered Species Act, and the tactic of using the judicial system to manipulate a process that is supposed to be grounded in and guided by scientific facts. The ability of state wildlife agencies to appropriately manage wolf populations will remain severely restricted as long as healthy, recovered wolf populations are allowed to remain listed under the Endangered Species Act."
In its suit, the Center for Biological Diversity said the total gray wolf population in the Lower 48 states is likely less than 6,000. It says full recovery hasn't occurred because efforts have focused on only a few regions.
In 2010, it petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a nationwide plan. The agency this month denied that petition, noting in part that in 2005 a federal court in Vermont upheld its approach to use multiple regional plans rather than a comprehensive national plan.
Colorado isn't currently home to any permanent gray wolf population, although the occasional lone wolf strays into the state.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission opposes the animal's reintroduction to the state, but not its presence if it arrives on its own. Some wolf advocates think a reintroduction program is needed and warranted to return the animal to the state.
"Certainly western Colorado has a very large area of public lands with very abundant prey populations, perhaps better for wolf recovery than even the Yellowstone (National Park) ecosystem," said Erik Molvar with the Western Watersheds Project. "The absence of wolves from this area is an ecological dysfunction and imbalance that humans have created."
Molvar doesn't think the House measure has much chance of passage in the Senate, given that a number of Republicans in the House voted against it. But he said he's shocked that members of Congress "would basically tell the judiciary that it cannot review illegal actions under the Endangered Species Act when it comes to wolves."
"That's an amazing statement of hubris and arrogance," he said.
He said the Endangered Species Act requires that the Fish and Wildlife Service make decisions on whether to delist an animal based on science, not politics. Molvar said letting politicians and economics drive decisions results in animals going extinct.
Bill Fales, a Carbondale-area rancher, doesn't consider the House measure's passage to be all that significant.
He guesses that the House probably has passed similar bills "almost 50 times," and he also doesn't see the latest bill having much of a chance of Senate passage.
Still, he said, "I do think that wolves absolutely have to be managed. They're just incompatible with grazing cattle on large pastures, whether they're private or federal land."
As for the idea of developing a national recovery plan for wolves, he said, "I'm sure they used to exist on Manhattan, but I suspect that would run into some political impediments before (advocates) could get wolves and grizzly bears back on Manhattan."
Fales doesn't see western Colorado as being comparable to the Yellowstone region when it comes to appropriateness as wolf habitat.
He thinks it lacks enough remote terrain, has too much ranching and recreation use, and has struggling deer population levels that wolves would only worsen.
Like Molvar, he thinks it's better to leave wolf management up to scientists rather than politicians who Fales said may lack the education they need on the issue.
But he added, "The problem is you have to make sure your science is good, is what worries me, because you can often get some scientists or biologists who have some personal biases."