January 27, 2023

“Wolves are coming!” was an oft-repeated statement at Saturday’s Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association meeting in Rifle. And indeed they are. If all goes according to plan, wolves will be released in Colorado this December. However, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) draft plan, released in December 2022, is complicated.

Reid DeWalt, CPW deputy director of wildlife and natural resources, told The Sopris Sun on Saturday that this project is the most complex he’s worked on. “The hardest part for me is that those who like wolves have a legitimate point of view and those who don’t [like wolves] have a valid point,” he explained. “And CPW is in the thick of it, trying to effectively listen to both sides and come up with a plan.”

Attendees at Saturday’s meeting heard from CPW and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials, as well as ranchers from across the state. During a landowners panel, ranchers Bill Fales, Lenny Klinglesmith, Renee Deal and Phillip Anderson shared thoughts and concerns about the state plan. Predation pressures coupled with the effects of drought on grazing plot rotation, water scarcity, water use efficiency, compensation for livestock losses by wolves, and lethal control of wolves were some of the concerns discussed during the panel.

Deal, a fourth-generation Somerset sheep farmer, is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group that helped draft the plan. “If we scrap this plan, we’re screwed,” she told the audience. When asked why, she said the draft plan was a compromise that took a long time to develop.

“We can’t expect ranchers to get everything we think we need and we also have to make some concessions to the other side,” she told The Sopris Sun. She added that wolf advocates and ranchers do not trust each other, but work together on a plan to bridge the gap has begun. “We worked on a lot of really contentious issues and agreed on some things that shocked me,” she said. “There were some proponents who agreed that we need lethal control.”

The ability to use lethal controls is on par with loss compensation, which is what worries ranchers the most. The draft plan states that the use of lethal control – or killing wolves as a management method – is fundamentally dependent on certain factors.

One of those factors is compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, which might be a minor sticking point. Currently, the gray wolf is listed as an endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), so killing a wolf is prohibited except in self-defense. As long as the wolf remains an endangered species, lethal control is a moot point.

Enter the so-called 10J rule, which was a big topic at Saturday’s meeting. The rule is part of the ESA and allows the USFWS to “designate a population of a listed species as experimental when released into an appropriate natural habitat outside of the species’ current range.” Because no official wolf population currently exists in Colorado, authorities could use the 10J rule to define the reintroduced wolves as experimental, which would overturn ESA protections and allow for lethal control.

Delia Malone, an ecologist and chair of the Colorado Sierra Club for Wildlife, told The Sopris Sun in an interview that the 10J rule was a downgrade of a species from “Vulnerable” to “Vulnerable”.

“It allows for flexible management, including lethal control,” she explained. CPW wants the 10J Rule to go into effect before December 2023, but USFWS must conduct an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If the reintroduced wolves in Colorado touch the ground before the NEPA process is complete, the wolves remain protected as vulnerable.

Malone helped create an alternative restoration plan with several conservation groups, which was submitted to CPW. You can find this plan at www.bit.ly/WEGwolves

The draft CPW plan can be found at www.bit.ly/CPWwolfdraft

CPW is hosting a public hearing on the Plan in RIfle at Colorado Mountain College on February 7 at 8:30 am

A homemade biscuit served at the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association meeting in Rifle on Saturday 21st January. Photo by Amy Hadden Marsh

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