It could be an issue more controversial than the presidential election. Colorado voters likely will be asked in November 2020 if they want wolves reintroduced on the Western Slope.
Yet, while opposition has arisen from nearly one onethird of Colorado’s 64 counties, Gunnison County Commissioners have yet to weigh in. Still, when contacted this week, commissioners said they remain open to the opinions of constituents.
Initiative 107 would direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to draft a plan to reintroduce the gray wolf to lands west of the Continental Divide by 2023. If approved, the commission would conduct statewide hearings and use scientific data to reintroduce the wolf in Colorado.
The ballot language provides a compensation plan for livestock owners who suffer losses to wolves. Proponents of the measure say it will bring 30-50 donor wolves to designated lands on the Western Slope for repopulation.
The topic has been hotly debated with Colorado wildlife management officials reviewing the topic four times since 1982, only to forgo reintroduction. Most recently, rather, officials said they would manage the species should it migrate to the state.
Proponents of reintroduction have taken action to put the issue in the hands of voters. More than 211,000 signatures were collected as of a Dec. 13 deadline and submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office (SOS) for verification. Only about 124,000 signatures were required to have the question placed on November’s ballot.
The ballot question began as Initiative 79 but was abandoned in pursuit of 107. The difference between the measures is that 79 called for reintroduction on public lands, while 107 calls for it on designated lands, public or private.
The SOS must complete its verification of the signatures by Jan. 9, which will determine whether the wolf reintroduction question will be placed on the ballot.
Polling shows support
The gray wolf once roamed the landscape of Colorado until about the 1940s, when it was exterminated by hunters and ranchers.
In 1978, the gray wolf received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, the wolf has been reintroduced in nine states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Wyoming.
In fact, the reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park is credited with a renewal of that park’s ecosystem, by controlling elk herds and allowing natural fauna to rebound.
Additionally, existing wolf populations in Minnesota have bounced back under federal protections. The gray wolf has done so well, it has been “delisted” in northern Rocky Mountain states.
To the south of our state, the Mexican wolf — a subspecies — has been reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico. Colorado forms a gap between the two populations.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is behind the campaign to put wolf reintroduction on the ballot. Campaign spokesman Rick Ridder spoke with the Times last week and cited numerous benefits to wolf reintroduction.
First, he said, wolf reintroduction would return western Colorado to a more balanced ecosystem, similar to what happened in Yellowstone. Population of elk herds would be kept in check by the wolves, allowing for a sort of ecological domino effect to occur — soil erosion would diminish, native grasses would be restored and fish populations would benefit from riparian habitat recovery.
Reintroduction, he said, would provide a “natural bridge” to form between the gray and Mexican wolf populations, allowing for more genetic diversity as well. Plus, the initiative includes compensation to ranchers who lose livestock to wolves.
Ridder said the initiative is supported by Western Slope voters and does not further the “rural-urban divide” as some have claimed.
“Our research has shown that over 60 percent (of Western Slope respondents) are supportive of wolf reintroduction,” said Ridder. “When they learn of compensation, it’s as high as 75 percent.”
Public to decide wildlife matter
Yet, Stop The Wolf Coalition chair Denny Behrens refutes those claims. He said that western Colorado is not Yellowstone National Park. The park, he said, does not allow hunting, and does not have human residents, like the Western Slope.
He believes wolf reintroduction would only lead to more human-wildlife conflict. He cited a case in New Mexico following the Mexican wolf reintroduction in which a family horse was killed in a corral only 150 feet from a home.
Behrens said that the gray wolf is a larger, more aggressive animal than the Mexican wolf, and any interaction between the two populations would be to the detriment of the smaller species.
Also, he questioned the accuracy of the polling touted by the Wolf Action Fund, noting that an online poll does not reflect a true sample of voters.
Behrens also said leaving the decision to voters — rather than wildlife experts — is nothing more than “ballot box biology.”
“I never like the public to vote about wildlife issues because you have the warm fuzzy factor,” Behrens said. “Natural migration is happening — we don’t want a reintroduction.”
Local interest yet to be determined
Behrens noted that as of early this week, 20 counties had passed resolutions opposing wolf reintroduction. Those counties represent both sides of the Continental Divide — and include Hinsdale and Montrose, both adjacent to Gunnison County.
But Gunnison County Commissioners said this week they are unlikely to take a stand just yet because they have heard little from constituents on the issue. However, should groups come forward, the policy makers said they are willing to listen.
Commissioner John Messner said he was comfortable having the question on the ballot, largely due to the difficulty which must be overcome in getting such an initiative in front of voters. Like Behrens, he said he would prefer wildlife issues be left to professional managers, yet if passed the ballot measure would put the reintroduction and management plan square in the hands of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Messner said he could be compelled to support the measure if he was shown the science behind the action. Yet, he noted he did not want to see more conflict between ranchers and wildlife occur.
“I’m not interested in having 30-50 wolves introduced to have them killed,” said Messner of the potential for wolves to be shot. “But if there’s a plan to introduce a species ... I could be compelled by the science and protections for ranchers. But I’m not saying that is what this is.”
Likewise, Commissioner Rolan Mason said he too was not ready to take a position and that he was still learning about the issue.
“Until I hear some more interest one way or another, either from ranchers or environmental groups, I will probably get more information, read up on it and see how other counties are handling it,” he added. “But I won’t take a stand until I’m asked to weigh in.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .)