After wolves rebound across US West, future up to voters

This June 3, 2020, image released by Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows a wolf on a CPW-owned game camera in Moffat County, Colo. Wolves have repopulated the mountains and forests of the American West with remarkable speed since their reintroduction 25 years ago, expanding to more than 300 packs in six states.

A threatened lawsuit by environmental groups against a decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to delist the gray wolf could put the recent decision by Colorado voters to reintroduce wolves in Colorado on a slower track.

On Oct. 29 Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the delisting of the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), to howls of outrage from environmental groups, including some who backed Colorado's Proposition 114. 

That action takes effect on Jan. 4.

According to a news release from Interior Department, “The gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery” after 45 years on the ESA list. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”

The gray wolf population in the lower 48 states has grown to more than 6,000, “greatly exceeding the combined recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes populations,” the statement said.

Proposition 114 requires the state’s Park and Wildlife Commission to come up with a plan on reintroducing the species in Colorado, “using the best scientific data available,” and to reintroduce the wolves west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 31, 2023.

The ballot measure was approved by voters on a narrow 50.9% to 49% margin. The measure won based on strong support from urban communities along the Front Range and in Southwestern Colorado. Rural communities, including those west of the Continental Divide, where the wolves would be located, overwhelmingly opposed it.

On Nov. 5 a coalition of wildlife environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which backed Proposition 114, notified the Department of Interior that they intend to sue over the delisting. The notice of intent to sue has a waiting period mandated by the ESA, meaning it can’t be filed for 60 days, putting its timing on course for a filing right around the date the delisting becomes official.

The pending lawsuit and the costs of reintroduction came up Monday with the Joint Budget Committee (JBC), which received a staff briefing on the budget for the Department of Natural Resources.

JBC staff analyst Justin Brakke wrote in his briefing document that if the legal challenges to the federal decision are successful, and federal courts put the wolves back on the endangered species list, Colorado's parks and wildlife division could not reintroduce the gray wolves to Colorado without the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

On the other hand, if the delisting decision stands, the state parks and wildlife division would not need federal approval, and CPW could implement the plan it’s tasked with coming up with to reintroduce the wolves.

There’s one other resolution to the issue: that the incoming Biden administration might order the Department of Interior to reverse that delisting decision. But is that likely?

No, says Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, who was among the proponents of Proposition 114. That’s due not only to the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it applies to the ESA, but previous actions taken by presidential administrations, including the Obama administration, in which President-elect Joe Biden served as vice president.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has had an anti-wolf tendency for decades, Robinson explained. It goes back to about 30 years after the agency’s founding in 1885, when its mission was changed to an economic one that transformed the agency into an agricultural service.

That lasted until the 1960s, when then-Rep. John Dingell Jr. of Michigan persuaded Congress to enact a series of laws that eventually led to the Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1973. That forbade the USFWS from exterminating wildlife and tamped down, but didn’t eliminate, its agricultural service component. That bias remains to this day, Robinson explained.

Should the lawsuit against the delisting succeed, that puts the permitting process back into play for Colorado’s reintroduction plan, and back into the hands of Fish and Wildlife and its anti-wolf tendencies.

The permit process itself is fairly simple and would require little to no research by federal biologists, Robinson said. The permit would rely on the ESA’s “enhancement of conservation” section, which would entail development of a management plan, already part of Proposition 114’s requirements. That would show that the act of taking a live animal would result in a conservation benefit, and should meet the requirements for the permit.

There’s one wrinkle in that, however, and that’s the political ramifications, which don’t favor reversing the delisting decision.

Robinson cites an example from 2011, a deal contained in the federal budget and made by President Obama on behalf of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who was facing re-election in 2012. The deal allowed wolves to be delisted from the ESA in Idaho, Montana, northeastern Utah, eastern Oregon and Washington. Robinson said that deal was made in contravention of the science-based standards required by the ESA. It resulted in thousands of wolves being killed in the years that followed, he added.

The 2011 decision is not unlike decisions made by previous presidential administrations over the decades, Robinson explained. The Eastern gray wolf was delisted by the George W. Bush administration, and the Clinton administration, according to Grizzly Times, removed grizzly bears from the ESA, in part to save the ESA. That decision was later reversed by the Bush administration.

Once wolves are off the ESA, they can be hunted and killed, whether it's pups in their den or killing of adults, Robinson explained. In Wyoming, for example, wolves in 85% of the state can be killed by hunters or ranchers.

Delisting — and the resulting risk to the wolves from hunters or ranchers — flies in the face of an intent to reintroduce a population with an end goal of growing the species in Colorado.

The budget for reintroducing the gray wolves, according to the JBC analysis, is about $800,000 over the next two years. Brakke explained that there are three options for funding it, including using existing fees obtained from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, which go into the state’s wildlife cash fund. That fund also derives some of its funding from GoCo Colorado, and, according to Brakke’s analysis, the department believes it can apply for the initial costs of coming up with the reintroduction plan without raising the fees on those licenses.

Two other options exist, Brakke wrote. One is a license plate, but JBC Chair and Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City quickly replied that the JBC doesn’t like license plates.

The other is to use general fund dollars. “If the general public wants wolves in the state, the general public can pay for them with general tax dollars,” Brakke wrote in his briefing document. But the current budget situation, with billions of dollars in general funds cut from the state budget just months ago, makes that unlikely.

The wildlife cash fund would also be the source to compensate livestock owners, should their livestock be killed by wolves, but it contains a caveat: that funds have to be available.

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