The same day Colorado’s Secretary of State certified that proponents of wolf reintroduction had gathered enough signatures to place the matter on the November ballot, the animals themselves put an exclamation point on the whole controversy.

As you learned in Thursday’s Daily Sentinel, (perhaps earlier in the week if, like me, you’re the sort of news junkie that scours other print and broadcast sources on a daily basis) Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed Monday that a pack of perhaps six wolves was likely responsible for downing a bull elk in northwest Moffat County. Two wolves were captured on video by hunters in the same area in mid-October, part of a larger group that may be the same pack responsible for the December kill in Irish Canyon.

The latest confirmation sparked a renewed howling of the human kind after months of contentious back and forth between those for and against reintroduction of the predator once abundant in the state. That’ll continue until, given overwhelmingly favorable polling, likely voter approval 10 months from now.

Proponents of reintroduction welcomed the first signs of pack activity after multiple individual sightings in recent years, though some may have worried that news of the inevitable migration southward by members of established packs in Wyoming and other states might take some wind from the sails of their campaign. Opponents warned of “ballot box biology,” painting pictures of livestock attacks, decimation of deer and elk herds, even alleged potential human dangers.

The issue is not whether we’ll once again have wolves in Colorado. It’s obvious they’re already here. More will come via continuing natural migration. At issue is whether or not to supercharge what’s already happening by giving Mother Nature an artificial assist as done previously with moose, lynx, turkeys and other species, ironically including ancestors of the troublesome elk around Estes Park.

The statutory initiative would require that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, with public input, create a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves on designated lands west of the Continental Divide before January of 2024. That plan would include compensation for loss of livestock and prohibit any wolf-related restrictions on land, water, or resource use by private landowners. Because the change would be statutory, wolf management details could evolve over time once reintroduction is done.

There’s much to consider between now and the day of reckoning in November.

Those of us who hunt and oppose reintroduction might consider that some could think it hypocritical to be worried about saving deer and elk from wolves in order to kill them ourselves. Why just the wide open spaces west of the Continental Divide, some might wonder, when the poster child for elk overpopulation is Rocky Mountain National Park? Arguments abound over whether ecological improvements in Yellowstone National Park are wolf-related or the result of multiple environmental changes.

While statistics may show livestock predation to be minimal and any damages must be reimbursed, it’s also true that by-the-pound payments for auction barn replacements don’t account for years, sometimes decades, of work improving herd genetics. But agricultural organizations quick to lend their names to ballot box budgeting regarding so-called “takings” via oil and gas reregulation now look a bit disingenuous railing against “ballot box biology.”

I have friends on both sides of this issue. When asked, I’ve told them I worry about forced reintroduction, not because of any aversion to wolves or worries about supposed widespread impacts on wildlife or livestock. Whether imposed naturally or artificially, I’m quite certain federal and state professionals can manage the species, ranchers will continue to ranch, hunters will successfully hunt and, as has happened elsewhere, humans and critters will adapt.

This should not be a hill to die on, for wolves or their proponents and opponents.

What concerns me, given that wolves are already here in northwest Colorado and more are on the way, is unnecessarily ginning up controversy that may compromise other more important conservation and environmental efforts in the future. That’s already occurred following bear hunting and trapping restrictions previously approved by voters.

I’ll continue to hope that doesn’t happen again while waiting anxiously to see or hear a wolf while hunting, camping and traveling in Colorado’s backcountry.

Jim Spehar comes from a ranching family, is a lifelong big game hunter and served on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. His wife is convinced it was a black wolf that crossed the road in front of her on Slumgullion Pass several years ago. Comments welcome to speharjim@gmail.com.

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