Rule allowing wolf kills in Colorado will also green light reintroduction, supporters say

Elliott Wenzler
Vail Daily
Although wolves were originally considered responsible for the deaths of more than 40 cattle in Meeker in 2022, members of the Humane Society of the United States believe they died from brisket disease, after consulting with a member of the Technical Working Group on wolf restoration.
Sky-Hi News archive photo

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife document finalized Tuesday will allow for the harassing and killing of wolves that are predating livestock in Colorado, something currently illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

But the provision, known as the 10(j) rule, could become moot in the coming years as appeals to an overturned effort to delist wolves as an endangered species are litigated in U.S. District Court in California.

Meanwhile, an effort from U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert that would also delist wolves is making progress in Congress, passing the U.S. House of Representatives this week.

For the wolves set to be released in Colorado this year following the passage of Proposition 114 by voters in 2020, all of this will mean one thing: They would be wise to learn to stay away from livestock.

It’s a point both supporters and non-supporters can agree on, and for the time being, it looks like there will be no more legal hurdles to clear ahead of the Dec. 31, 2023, reintroduction deadline.

Rob Edward with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project has been working to see wolves introduced in Colorado for 30 years, through many ups and downs, and says at present he’s never felt closer.

“Right now, I don’t see any litigation on the horizon from the environmental side,” he said Wednesday. “This is a green light to get paws on the ground by the deadline that the voters set.”

‘Somebody will try to object’

The threat of litigation stopping the reintroduction was greatly diminished following Gov. Jared Polis’ vetoing of Senate Bill 256 in May. That bill would have not allowed reintroduction to occur during active litigation, which could be pursued for six years following the finalization of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s final record of decision ruling, (which occurred Tuesday.)

Former Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission chair Jim Pribyl said nevertheless, he’s expecting litigation from groups opposing reintroduction.

“If history is any guide, somebody will try to object,” he said.

Pribyl points to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone in the mid-90s as an example.

“The National Farm Bureau successfully got an injunction when the wolves were already sedated and crated and en route to Gardiner, Montana,” he said.

Renée Askins, the founder of Wyoming-based the Wolf Fund, recounted the story to Jackson Hole magazine in 2015.

“Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, there for the celebration, instead found himself speculating to the press about whether Yellowstone’s first wolves would arrive not in kennels but coffins,” she told the magazine.

A Colorado affair

But this reintroduction won’t have as much attention from the federal government, occurring on state-owned or private lands only. There will be no Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, or National Forest Services lands involved; and instead of the secretary of the interior, we might see a high-profile Coloradan like Polis at the event. Edward said he’s hoping National Geographic cameras will be on the scene.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife says the first wolves will likely be released along the I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail, along with the Highway 82 corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. After the first-year releases occur, a second area along the Highway 50 corridor between Monarch Pass and Montrose could also see wintertime releases in later years.

Edward said the initial release areas were chosen thoughtfully.

“They threw in some considerations that the original science which led to this effort to restore wolves here didn’t really build in,” he said. “We didn’t look at social tolerance, for example. CPW decided they’re going to do these releases within this area that includes the counties that actually voted for wolves, which are very few on the Western Slope.”

A map of the proposed reintroduction area. The darker green areas are determined to have more ecological suitability for reintroduced wolves.
Courtesy image/CPW

But once released, Edward said the 10 wolves introduced in Colorado this year are expected to disperse to other areas quickly.

Citing a recent map published by the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, Edward pointed to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, the Grand Mesa and Gunnision National Forest areas, “all the way down to the South San Juans,” as likely habitation zones, he said.

If there’s one issue that concerns him with wolves dispersing, however, it’s Interstate 70, Roberts said.

In 2004, the interstate was described by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife worker as “a terrible thing to have to cross” in reference to a wolf hit by a car and killed on I-70 in Clear Creek County.

That was the first wolf seen in Colorado in 50 years. It had traveled more than 500 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, according to a radio collar on the animal which eventually lost service. Colorado wildlife officials said they received reports of a wolf that matched her description in the Yampa area near Steamboat Springs, and other witnesses said they had seen the wolf trying to get under the guardrail on the shoulder of I-70 in Clear Creek County where it was eventually hit by a car and killed trying to cross the interstate.

Five years later, another Yellowstone wolf that had migrated south of the park was deterred by Interstate 80 several times, turning around twice before finally finding a location to cross. That wolf also made it into Colorado but did not cross Interstate 70.

During the 2023 reintroduction, however, advocates say the wolves will be released in an area that has more highway wildlife crossings than ever before, with a series of new crossings on Highway 9 reducing wildlife collisions by 90% in recent years. An interstate expansion project currently underway in Eagle County will soon create six new wildlife underpasses in the Vail Pass area, as well.

In avoiding incidents like the Yellowstone wolf killed in Colorado in 2004, the new underpasses will be “a great start,” for I-70, Edward said. “The timing is good.”

This story is from Vail Daily.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.