With wolves already in Colorado, Routt County ranchers oppose reintroduction
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Proposed legislation to reintroduce wolves to Colorado has received opposition from Routt County ranchers and raised concerns among the area’s state representative.
This comes more than a week after wildlife officials confirmed the presence of at least six gray wolves in Moffat County. Gov. Jared Polis said it likely is the first wolf pack to inhabit Colorado since the 1930s.
News of the pack spurred Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, on Friday to propose a bill to reintroduce gray wolves in western Colorado by 2025. That is two years later than a ballot initiative that will go before voters in November. Both measures would establish a fund to compensate livestock owners for any losses caused by wolves.
Despite that provision, many ranchers in and around Steamboat Springs oppose the reintroduction effort, arguing it will add further pressures to their business and is an unnecessary step, given that wolves have made their way naturally into Colorado.
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Proponents cite the ecological benefits of bringing a predator to restore ecological balance, namely to help curb deer and elk herds.
The issue has exacerbated a growing urban-rural divide in the state, with many on the Front Range supportive of the reintroduction effort.
“This is historic, the first time people of a state will have the chance to directly say we want to restore an endangered species,” Rob Edward, president of the Lafayette-based Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, told The Denver Post regarding the ballot initiative.
Adonna Allen, treasurer and former president of Routt County CattleWomen, said such a view may be easy to take for people outside of western Colorado who will not have to deal directly with the consequences of wolf reintroduction. But for her cattle ranch, the prospect of an influx of wolves, in addition to the ones arriving naturally, threatens her very livelihood.
“It is difficult to remain in ranching and agriculture in certain areas, Steamboat being one of them,” Allen said. “Whenever you add another concern or pressure, such as the wolves may bring, it just adds another trigger that may cause farmers and ranchers to leave industry or sell out to development.”
Local ranchers already have discussed how to mitigate possible losses from wolves currently in neighboring counties. In addition to the pack in Moffat County, a lone, black wolf has been confirmed roaming in Jackson County near Walden, according to Area Wildlife Manager Kris Middledorf with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
While no wolf sightings have been confirmed in Routt County, Middledorf said their migration here is always a possibility.
“I can’t say they will or will not (come to Routt County),” he said. “They are very mobile animals.”
Bringing more wolves could spur the rate at which the animals move into Routt County, Allen said. While the ranchers with whom she has spoken are readying themselves for the wolves that may arrive naturally, adding more to the mix through human-led introduction could put livestock owners like herself in an untenable position.
Gray wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to intentionally harm or kill them in Colorado, even if they are in the process of taking down someone’s cattle. Killing a wolf can result in federal charges, including a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, per offense, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations.
Elsewhere, including the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, reintroduction programs have fostered sustainable populations to the point that officials have allowed wolf hunting.
Parks and Wildlife has a game damage program, which can reimburse ranchers who lose livestock to big game. Damages from wolves currently are not eligible under that program, according to Middledorf.
Ensuring a compensation fund for livestock owners accompanies any wolf reintroduction program is one reason why Sen. Donovan proposed the bill. She told The Denver Post it is difficult to create detailed policy on a yes-or-no ballot question.
Under the bill, reintroduction could be delayed if Colorado does not identify a revenue source for compensation, and it could be cancelled altogether if the state’s natural wolf population is deemed self-sustaining by 2025.
State Rep. Dylan Roberts, who represents Routt and Eagle counties, urged for science, not a ballot initiative or rural-versus-urban politics, to prevail over the issue of wolf reintroduction.
“This is an issue that is going to affect a certain part of the state but will be voted on by the entire state,” Roberts said.
While Roberts said he would not take a position on Donovan’s bill before it comes to the House, he is supportive of finding a middle-ground on the issue, which is what he believes the bill aims to do.
“We need to figure out a way to prevent unintended consequence and harmful results while still protecting people’s right to petition a ballot,” Roberts said.
Parks and Wildlife has not adopted an official position on the ballot measure, according to Middledorf. Colorado wildlife commissioners opposed a similar effort to reintroduce Mexican wolves to the state in 2016.
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