Grand County commissioner, community members speak on wolf reintroduction plan
On Feb. 22, the public had their last chance to speak to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on the Draft Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. The commission has revised certain parts of their draft plan based on robust comments over January and February. The plan calls for 10-15 gray wolves to be released on the West Slope by the beginning of 2024.
Throughout the two-month period, Parks and Wildlife received about 4,000 online comments and heard from 232 people at its five public meetings throughout Colorado. The last public meeting on Feb. 22 took place in Denver, with Commissioner Merrit Linke representing Grand County.
During this meeting, a wide range of community members spoke, from ranchers, to land stewardship leaders, to members of the National Wildlife Federation. Some were favor of wolf restoration, while others expressed opposition. Commissioner Linke was the first person to speak. He made comments as a member of the general public, as well as a member of the Technical Working Group for Gray Wolf Reintroduction.
Linke is a fourth-generation rancher – his family’s ranch in Granby is located near where his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1883. Linke first discussed what he learned from being a member of the working group panel. The panel included representatives from states where wolves now roam.
“I think the process was very robust. The people on that panel from surrounding states – Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon – that made comments and had direct boots on the ground experience … was very valuable, not only for the process and in developing the plan, but simply for me to learn more,” Linke said.
After their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995, wolves dispersed into Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon. These states were formerly natural territory for wolves, before humans eradicated them the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Linke stated that he learned from “some of the mistakes and problems that popped up in some of the surrounding states and what they’re doing about (wolf reintroduction). Hopefully Colorado can learn from those things.”
He believes that parks and wildlife officials are restoring trust with Coloradans by monitoring the wolf population that already lives in North Park. Linke applauded Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s decision to collar more wolves there with tracking devices, which will allow officials to provide realtime information to ranchers.
Linke also reflected on the differences between Colorado and other areas where wolves live. He explained that the combined populations of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho “doesn’t equal the population of the Front Range of Colorado, let alone the entire state.” He added that Rocky Mountain National Park can’t be equated to Yellowstone National Park as potential wolf habitat. Yellowstone encompasses 2.2 million acres, while Rocky is 265,807 acres. (A 2008 proposed plan to bring wolves to Rocky was shot down, although wolves relocated to Colorado may migrate into the park.)
Linke concluded that he has three requests for the plan. First, that the 10(j) rule of the Endangered Species Act be put in place to mitigate wolf conflicts. The rule would allow Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials, ranchers, farmers and outfitters to legally kill wolves threatening livestock.
Linke’s second request is to expand the definition of livestock to include a wider range of animals, from cattle to goats, to working dogs, which are “a critical part of the infrastructure to running the ranch.” His third request is that the the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission should secure long-term, sustainable funding for reintroduction.
“What we don’t want to happen is, somewhere down the road, ‘Oh well, we can’t fund livestock compensation plans this year,’ or ‘We can’t fund CPW monitoring this year because we don’t have the money,'” Linke stated.
Other community members spoke on why they welcome wolves to Colorado. Patrick Unruh stated that people can look towards the benefits of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone as an example.
Unruh explained that when wolves began thriving in Yellowstone, their presence created a trophic cascade – a return to natural ecosystem balance from the top down. Biologists previously thought that to restore ecosystem health, action had to be taken from the bottom, by resorting plant life. In reality, restoring an apex predator – the wolf – allowed Yellowstone to reattain biodiversity. Wolves kept herbivores that were overeating vegetation in check. In addition, wolves kept smaller carnivores, such as coyotes, from overrunning the area. This allowed plants, birds, small rodents and more to thrive.
“I know that Yellowstone has a different environment than where we are now in Colorado, but what Yellowstone saw … was remarkable changes to the environment,” said Unruh. “That included trees and other vegetation that started to thrive again, that brought more species that they’d never seen before, such as beavers, ducks, fish.”
Unruh added that foxes, badgers and even bears were able to live in the balanced environment.
“Rivers were even affected – not just animals, the rivers – because the regenerating forests helped stabilize the riverbeds,” he said.
Thanks new vegetation, as well as work from newly returned beavers, there was less soil erosion and collapsing riverbanks.
“All of these animals work together as ecosystem engineers. They provide essential living needs for each other. Wolves are amazing animals with the power to bring balance health and biodiversity to our Colorado ecosystem,” Unruh stated.
He concluded by describing his experience visiting the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Teller County, where he got to interact with wolves, many of which are rescues.
“They’re gentle creatures, they’re amazing animals … I never want to live in a world without wolves. I want to see a new population of wolves in Colorado; I want to see the ecosystem thrive with wolves,” he said.
During the six-hour meeting, the commission heard from over 40 other community members. After the public comment period, the commission also outlined many of their new agreements, some of which are described below. To view the full list, including all revisions of the draft plan, visit CPW.State.CO.US and click on CPW’s March 3 news release.
Wolf-livestock depredation compensation agreements
- Raise the cap on livestock compensation, as well as guard and herding animal compensation, to $15,000 per animal.
- Exclude veterinary expenses from the compensation cap for livestock, guard and herding animals, up to $15,000. This means residents claiming loss can get paid for injury and death to livestock and related veterinary expenses, up to a potential maximum of $30,000 per animal.
- If conflict minimization practices are implemented by residents claiming loss, up to seven missing calves and sheep may be claimed for each confirmed cattle or sheep depredation (a 7:1 ratio).
Wolf reintroduction and management agreements
- Add the technical working group recommendation that any wolves injured in transport will be sent to a rehabilitation facility where feasible, in lieu of euthanasia.
- Once biologists document a minimum wintertime count of 50 wolves anywhere in the state for four successive years, wolves will be delisted from Phase 1 (state endangered status) and move down to Phase 2 (state threatened).
- Remove Phase 4 of the “Recovery of Wolves in Colorado” chapter, concerning moving wolves into game status, where they could be hunted. The Commission will replace Phase 4 (big game status) with the following statement: “At some point in the future, the long-term management of wolves in Colorado may need to be considered further than what is outlined in this plan. These discussions would only occur after wolves have successfully been recovered and removed from the State Threatened and Endangered list. The long‐term management of wolves should be impact- and science-based, with consideration of biological and social science as well as economic and legal considerations.”
Community members can visit Parks and Wildlife’s Stay Informed page to keep up to date with wolf restoration efforts, as well as sign up for Gray Wolf Reintroduction eNews and watch former Commission meetings. The final reintroduction plan will be adopted via a two-step approval process at the Commission’s meetings on April 6 in Steamboat Springs and on May 3 – 4 in Glenwood Springs.
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