A turning point

Will it be wolves or wells?

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In a state known for its big game and wide open spaces there’s one thing that’s been conspicuously missing from Colorado’s landscape for more than 70 years: wolves.

The conversation around what the state should be doing about this once ubiquitous predator has become intense, with conservation groups saying the state’s long-held stance against reintroducing gray wolves (or introducing subspecies for the first time, particularly the Mexican gray wolf, as some state officials believe would be the case) is influenced more by politics than by science — a charge government officials vehemently deny.

Wolf proponents say the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Commission, a citizen board appointed by the governor and charged with setting regulations and policies for the state’s wildlife programs, is filled too heavily by people whose day jobs (or former day jobs) include ranching, big game hunting outfitters and energy extraction — industries that could stand to lose money if federally protected wolves thin out big game, kill cattle or prevent oil and gas extraction on public lands that serve as their natural habitat.

While the State has remained opposed to introduction/reintroduction of wolves, public outcry hasn’t gone totally unheard. On Jan. 13, Colorado residents will have a second chance to voice opinions on wolves in the state at a CPW Commission meeting in Denver, where a revised resolution on wolves will be discussed.

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Gray wolves (and subsequent subspecies) once roamed the entire expanse of the Centennial State feeding on big game — bison, elk, deer — keeping these large animals from overgrazing vegetation around stream banks and rivers. But a growing human presence in the state and, perhaps most importantly, a lucrative livestock industry changed all that. In 1869, the then Territory of Colorado implemented a wolf bounty just as Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio had done before. In fact, the colonies of Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey all had some form of wolf bounty in the 1600s and wolf fear and disdain was well ingrained in the American culture by 1869. In less than 100 years, the last known wild wolf in Colorado was killed in 1945 as part of an aggressive and extensive government-backed eradication program. Indeed, gray wolves across the nation were almost completely wiped out by 1950.

A hunter stands with a wolf hide in Montana in 1928. Government-backed eradication programs nearly rendered wolves extinct in the U.S. by 1950.

But conservation movements have brought the gray wolf back from the brink of extinction, most notably in the Northern Rockies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, and the Western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin through listing gray wolves as endangered on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) endangered species list.

But since gray wolf populations have increased in numbers in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes states, the USFWS has been trying to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, a move that some feel will threaten still fragile and growing populations in other parts of the country.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service, since 2003, has been seeking to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, and every single time that they have finalized a rule that either downlists with the intent of delisting, or delisted it, they were rebuffed by federal courts who pointed out it was illegal,” says Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. The most recent proposal to delist the gray wolf came in 2013, and while the proposal still stands, no final ruling has been made, now almost three years later.

So gray wolves retain their federal protection under the Fish and Wildlife Service, yet Colorado, despite its hospitable terrain and rich history with the animal, has failed to develop an established wolf population — and stories of the few wolves that have wandered into the state in the past decade have lessthan-happy endings.

In June 2004, a car fatally hit a female wolf on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs. On April 6, 2009, researchers with the USFWS received a mortality signal from a radio-collared female gray wolf from the Yellowstone area — she was found near Rio Blanco County Road 60, poisoned by a banned pesticide known as Compound 1080. Most recently a coyote hunter shot a male gray wolf on April 29, 2015 near Kremmling, Colorado.

Robinson says he’s “not sure it’s realistic” that gray wolves will be able to naturally reestablish themselves in Colorado with a mortality rate like this — but natural reestablishment is the only position the state government has ever taken on gray wolves.

“It’s going to be a function, in my view, of the growth or lack of growth of the Wyoming [wolf ] population,” Robinson says, “That’s going to have a huge influence on the number of wolves that show up in Colorado.”

Robinson adds that even a robust wolf population in Wyoming can’t make up for the high mortality rate wolves face in Colorado.

“[The death of ] 75 percent of the wolves we know of in Colorado in the last ten or 12 years or so is probably too high for a population to reestablish itself. So the best way to do it would be reintroduction,” he says.

But the State has strongly opposed the intentional reintroduction of gray wolves for decades.

The CPW Commission’s most recent proposed resolution on wolves in Colorado elicited what some might call scathing criticism from conservationists, biologists and citizens alike after a Nov. 20 meeting in Wray, Colorado.

“Now therefore let it be resolved,” the Commission wrote, “that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission affirms its support of the Wolf Working Group’s recommendations adopted by the Wildlife Commission in May 2005 and hereby opposes any introduction of Mexican or intentional reintroduction of gray wolves in the State of Colorado.”

Gary Wockner, a member of the 14-person Colorado Wolf Working Group and former wildlife ecologist who specialized in wolf management, calls the Commission’s resolution a “sneaky … 100 percent violation of the agreement of the Colorado Wolf Working Group.”

“Our year-long process that included a multi-stakeholder approach and lots of public input never once agreed to any such resolution,” Wockner wrote in a press release on Nov. 19. “Further, the Chairman of the Commission right now, Robert Bray, sat with me for that whole year, and for him to push this resolution forward in his now-powerful position is a violation of the trust of the Wolf Working Group. Even worse, for [Bray] to write on this resolution that it supports the ‘Wolf Working Group’s recommendations’ is false and intentionally misleading.”

It was “feedback” such as this and discussions at the last Commission meeting that CPW spokesperson Matt Robbins says prompted changes to the Commissions resolution, namely the addition of two alternative options that are more open to wolf introduction/ reintroduction in Colorado.

This “whole conversation” about wolves in Colorado, says Robbins, “has been brought to the forefront because of the simple fact that it is on the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service’s agenda to renew its efforts to create a recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf.”

The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. There is controversy around the historical territory of Mexican gray wolves, with Gov. John Hickenlooper asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to bring the subspecies into Southern Colorado. (Jim Clark/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)Jim Clark/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. There is controversy around the historical territory of Mexican gray wolves, with Gov. John Hickenlooper asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to bring the subspecies into Southern Colorado.

Both alternative resolutions again “affirm” the CPW Commission’s “support of the Wolf Working Group’s recommendations adopted by the Wildlife Commission in May 2005,” but instead of opposing any introduction or reintroduction of wolves, they make some room for compromise.

The first alternative option, “recommends that Mexican wolf recovery efforts be confined to the subspecies’ historic range, and emphasizes the importance of bi-national recovery planning with Mexico.” The second option, “opposes the intentional release of any wolves into Colorado, recommends that Mexican wolf recovery efforts be confined to the subspecies’ historic range, and emphasizes the importance of bi-national recovery planning with Mexico.”

Wockner says the revised resolution still has “dramatic problems,” as it still opposes wolf reintroduction and “insinuates that wolves may migrate into Colorado when no scientists believe that is likely to occur.

“That resolution is just ridiculous, talking about we need to have a binational agreement with Mexico,” Wockner says. “So [the CPW commissioners] are trying to kick the ball down to Mexico and Mexico doesn’t have to pay a damn bit of attention to what the United States does with endangered species — and they don’t. They don’t do it with wolves and they don’t do it with the jaguar.”

Wockner says the Commission’s recommendations are aimed solely at benefiting Colorado’s ranching and energy extraction industries.

“It’s not about the Mexican wolf, it’s not about the gray wolf,” Wockner says, “You just have the Commission, appointed by [Gov. John] Hickenlooper, with a majority of which, point blank, loud and clear, are ranchers and energy extraction people, who are saying the public land of Colorado … is for cows and sheep and oil … instead of for all the wildlife that naturally lived on the landscape and that all the people want to see live up there. So this is just a big shot across the bough for the ranching and oil industries trying to keep their subsidies.”

Chris Castilian, current chairman of the CPW Commission, is the manager of Government and Community Relations for Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. The Commission’s vice chair, Jeanne Horne, is the owner and manager of J Bar H Outfitters, a family-owned big game and fishing outfitting business out of Meeker, Colorado. Representative Robert Bray, the former chairman of the Commission who Wockner openly condemned after the first resolution in November, is a director of CoBank, a national cooperative bank that provides financial services to agribusiness and rural power and water providers.

Others in the Commission have similar backgrounds.

On Nov. 13, Gov. Hickenlooper joined the three other governors of the Four Corners states — Arizona, Utah and New Mexico — in signing a letter to USFWS director Dan Ashe expressing they are “seriously troubled” by the selection of “non-neutral” scientists determined to give the Mexican wolf territory north of Interstate 40. This would put the wolves in Southern Colorado.

Much like wolf proponents, the Four Corners Governors claim that decisions are being driven “as much or more by personal agenda than by science.”

“Given that 90 percent of the subspecies’ historical range is in Mexico, any serious recovery planning effort must headline a Mexico-centric approach rather than the translocation of the subspecies out of its historical range into new, previously uninhabited ranges of northern Arizona / New Mexico and southern Utah / Colorado,” the letter states.

Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity says that science does in fact dictate that the Mexican wolf not only historically called Southern Colorado home, but that the subspecies needs the extra territory to overcome the possibility of extinction. He cites a 2012 paper by Carlos Carroll, Richard J. Fredrickson and Robert C. Lacy

“What scientists have identified as necessary for the Mexican wolf’s future — particular given the genetic bottleneck it went through where it was reduced to just seven animals that were bred together in captivity — they need at least 750 animals in total in three populations that would be linked together … to enhance the remaining genetic diversity in the species.

“Where in the modern world is there room for that many wolves?” Robinson adds. “And the answer is in part Southern Colorado where wolves, whether they were Mexican wolves or closely related wolves, filled the ecological role that Mexican wolves can now fill.”

Robinson says the CPW Commission’s current resolution on wolf introduction/reintroduction, even with its revised alternatives, is a reflection of decades of catering to Colorado’s livestock industry.

“Your Parks and Wildlife Commission has an absolutely… I’m not sure how to characterize this, but an embarrassing resolution that was written in 1982 that seems to be the basis of their thinking now,” he says. “I say embarrassing because [the 1982 resolution] said, ‘The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission hereby opposes any person or entity that may now or in the future suggests or proposes reintroduction of wolves or grizzly bears.’

“The language was an affront to the First Amendment for a government board to oppose a proposal or suggestion,” Robinson says. “Beyond that, it reflected the political dominance of the livestock industry for which the original job of wolf extermination was carried out, but by federal authorities 100 years ago and 90 years ago.”

CPW spokesperson Matt Robbins says he doesn’t believe politics outweigh science in the Commissions’ recommendations.

Only time will tell whether gray wolves will migrate into Colorado and establish stable packs.

“I believe the resolution doesn’t pass judgment on the value of wolves as a featured member of our state’s fauna,” he says, adding, “I also believe the purpose of the resolution is encouraging the federal government to focus Mexican wolf recovery efforts within its historical range.”

He says it’s the Commission’s hope that the USFWS does remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, much like its decision late last year not to list the sage-grouse — another animal that many in the state believe was forsaken at the hands of the oil and gas industry.

“We’ve gone through a long cycle, and I think your readers are familiar with some of the efforts and all of the work that was being done with the sage-grouse and all the work that was being done and the role our governor played and the role the other governors in the other 11 states played,” Robbins says. “We were very appreciative of the decision of Secretary [of the Interior Sally] Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not in fact list [the sage-grouse] but rather rely on the local states to continue to manage and partner with local jurisdictions and ranchers to help manage those. We simply want the same from this.”

As for any comment on whether politics play a larger deciding factor in the fate of wolves than does science, Robbins says, “I think any other discussions or leading statements that think that it’s more than that, I can’t comment on.”

He adds that he thinks it’s important for people to remember that there doesn’t have to be any solution from this particular meeting or this updated resolution.

“There’s no necessary outcome that will or will not come back from this other than we will provide an overview and an update on what we know on the wolf,” Robbins says.

Robinson says the future of wolves in Colorado is uncertain, but he harkens back to the sentiments of Wockner and other wolf advocates.

“It’s going to be a real test whether he’s (Gov. Hickenlooper) listening to the 99 percent of Colorado residents who are not livestock owners and the majority of who, as polls have shown, understand the important role that wolves will play in Colorado’s ecosystem,” he says. “So, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it’s a real turning point one way or another.”