That’s how Delia Malone, an ecologist, Pitkin County resident and wildlife chair for the Sierra Club Colorado chapter, sums up her reaction to state voters’ approval — barely — of an initiative requiring the reintroduction of gray wolves on the Western Slope no later than the end of 2023.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that this happened,” said Malone, who argues that for more than a century “the cattlemen’s association has pretty much dominated what’s happened on western landscapes, and I think (the vote) signals that people are ready for a change.”
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is now required to carry out the reintroduction, despite its existing policy opposing reintroduction.
Denny Behrens, a Mesa County resident who is the registered agent for the Stop the Wolf PAC issues committee, which opposed the measure, sees the vote as an indication that major metropolitan areas “are ruling Colorado.”
“I don’t know if the Front Range voters really know the harm that they’re causing to the Western Slope,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people on the Front Range that understood that, but it’s obvious that the liberal, anti-hunting environmental people don’t care. Going forward I think (wolf reintroduction) is going to end up in court in a legal battle.”
Unofficial results as of Friday show the measure being approved by 50.64% of voters with 49.36% against.
Said Behrens, “I just think there’s a lot of ignorant people out there concerning wildlife issues. And you took it away from the hands of the professionals … that said no reintroduction of wolves, and I don’t think the Front Range voters understand that at all.”
The possibility that Front Range voters might ultimately dictate whether the Western Slope should have wolves on the landscape was a sticking point for opponents during the campaign. But Malone notes that there was some Western Slope support for the measure. Her home county, Pitkin, approved it, as did La Plata, San Miguel and San Juan counties in southwest Colorado, where Malone said a lot of sheep grazing on public lands occurs. And not all urban Front Range areas supported it, as it narrowly lost in Pueblo County, so she doesn’t see things as black and white in terms of Front Range versus West Slope views on the issue.
“It’s mixed, basically. It says to me that we need to do a lot of outreach and more education in a very ongoing way, probably for the next 20 years at least,” she said.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, is a rancher who early this year had introduced a bill that she says sought “to put a little more detail into what it means to have wolves return to the state.” She said she offered it in response both to the ballot measure effort and the fact that a wolf pack had shown up in northwest Colorado.
“It was an effort to bring proponents and opponents together to try to give more direction than what ballot language could allow for because of limited word capacity,” she said.
But she said the bill was sidelined by COVID-19. She said she’s heard “a lot of thoughtful and valid concerns from the hunting and ranching communities” about wolf reintroduction.
“I also heard a lot of things that seemed I think far more based in fear than reality, but I do think there are valid concerns from ranching communities and hunting communities of what it means to reintroduce an apex predator back into an environment.”
She said CPW has some of the best wildlife management experts in the country so she knows the agency has the expertise to implement wolf reintroduction in a way guided by science.
CPW said in a news release that with the initiative’s passage the planning process for reintroduction will begin. Its director, Dan Prenzlow, shares Donovan’s confidence.
“Our agency consists of some of the best and brightest in the field of wildlife management and conservation,” he said in the release. “I know our wildlife experts encompass the professionalism, expertise, and scientific focus that is essential in developing a strategic species management plan.”
Behrens said he doesn’t trust the administration of Gov. Jared Polis “to say, ‘c’mon everybody, let’s sit down and talk about this.’ ”
He said he thinks “they’ll handpick the people they want (involved) and that’s it,” versus having a truly public process in drawing up the plan.
Prenzlow said in the release, “CPW is committed to developing a comprehensive plan and in order to do that, we will need input from Coloradans across our state. We are evaluating the best path forward to ensure that all statewide interests are well represented.”
One issue related to reintroduction that Donovan has concerns about is compensation for livestock losses from wolf predation. The ballot measure requires fair compensation for such losses. But Donovan said what might seem like commonsense assumptions about how such compensation should be handled sometimes “don’t play out on the ground.”
For example, she said, it might make sense for non-ranchers that evidence of a livestock kill can be shown in order to get compensation, “when the reality is, you just have an animal that disappears.”
A non-rancher might also think a kill could be reported within a week, she said.
“But we know that during calving season you don’t have an extra minute in your day to fill out paperwork or submit photos,” she said.
Malone said some compensation concerns can be addressed the way some other states do, where if one dead animal killed by wolves is found, a multiplier kicks in to pay for assumed multiple kills. But she thinks strategies employed in the northern Rockies also have proven effective in avoiding livestock predation to begin with. These can include things such as corralling calves a little longer before releasing them out on the range, and using range riders to help protect livestock.
She acknowledged the cost associated with range riders, but thinks ranchers get a pretty good deal when it comes to what they’re charged to graze cattle and sheep on lands owned by the public. And she said range riders can keep cattle together and moving, which improves range recovery so that it can support more cattle.
Donovan said one big piece of wolf reintroduction that will have to be resolved is funding. Wolves are a nongame species, and a lot of the funding CPW gets can’t be used for wolf reintroduction because it must be used for managing of species that are hunted, she said.
Also, the Trump administration has decided to remove the gray wolf from federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. That action may well be subject to legal challenge, but Donovan said if it stands the state won’t be able to count on federal funding to support wolf reintroduction.
Malone said removing the federal protections also would remove the bureaucracy the state would otherwise face in having to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when it comes to reintroduction. She thinks some federal funding still could be available to help, and that state sources such as the Great Outdoors Colorado program also could provide money for what she said wouldn’t be a hugely expensive undertaking. She estimated that the reintroduction of the Canada lynx in Colorado cost about $500,000 a year for some 10 years.
Malone also sees benefits from the wolf-reintroduction investment that could include reducing chronic wasting disease among deer and elk in the state as wolves prey on diseased and weak animals.
Behrens said wolves themselves spread disease, something “that nobody wants to talk about.”
He said Colorado law also prohibits introduction of a species listed by the state as endangered when that species already exists in the state. With wolves already documented in Colorado, reintroduction opponents will be looking at the conflict between existing law and the newly approved measure, he said. But Malone doesn’t believe what few wolves are in Colorado constitute a viable population.
As Behrens considers, as a wolf reintroduction opponent, what the future holds now that reintroduction has been approved by voters, he says, “I don’t know what the outcome’s going to be but I’ll guarantee we’re not going to roll over.”
Malone says that with the approval of reintroduction, “we can look forward to having a restorative relationship with the natural world in Colorado. We can look forward to hearing wolves howling through our mountains. Yes! Howl yes!”