Polis Fishers Peak

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks at the opening of Fishers Peak State Park near Trinidad on Oct. 30, 2020. Fishers Peak is the 42nd state park and the second-largest at more than 19,000 acres. 

When I was talking to Gov. Jared Polis about his first-term legacy a couple of months ago, I told him I needed to get a picture to go with my story.

With hardly a pause, he said he would be at Colorado's newest state park, Fishers Peak in Las Animas County, in a few days, if we wanted to catch up with him there.

Maybe that was convenience or maybe it was a picture worth 10,000 words. The Polis legacy will live in the outdoors, I’m more than confident.

Besides Fishers Peak, the former Crazy French Ranch, the governor already has his eyes set on creating another park before his time as governor is done.

He’s also looking to steer a more reliable source of funding into state parks through the existing lottery fund and perhaps a vehicle registration fee that benefits state parks.

Montana has a registration fee for parks. Vehicle owners can pay $9 to get new tags or check a box to opt out, promising not to use the vehicle in a state park or to go fishing in state waters. In the bargain, parks ditch their entrance fee.

Polis is banking on most people’s love of the outdoors to support Colorado’s parks and wildlife. I’m as stingy as they come, and I’d pay that, because I can't put a price on an astonishing view from the Continental Divide.

Commission chairman Marvin McDaniel, a Colorado native and former Xcel Energy executive, commended the governor’s passion for the outdoors and wildlife, “that, quite frankly, we didn’t get from previous governors.”

That all sounded promising as the governor explained it to the Colorado Wildlife Commission last week.

Then Polis, being Polis, swerved off the road into treacherous political terrain.

Last year voters statewide passed Proposition 114 to reintroduce gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 23, 2023.

Polis says: Why wait? He wants wolves in the Colorado high country next year.

“You don’t want to be up against a deadline in three years, and you also don’t want to rush it through to try to get wolves on the ground this year,” he told the commission. “I think next year is that sweet spot.”

He added, “I’ve talked to the governor of Wyoming. They’re happy to send us some wolves when we’re ready.”

Coloradans could pay possibly $900,000 a year, depending on how many cows, goats or pigs that wolves eat. The money would come from the legislature or fees from hunting and fishing licenses. 

While there’s nothing in the ballot measure that says Colorado can’t move faster, doing so feels like mission creep in this taut affair that feeds the age-old conflict between the Front Range and the Western Slope.

The wolf vote was hardly a mandate, passing 51% to 49%, with the heavily populated Front Range making all the difference. If you deduct out the limousine villages — Steamboat, Aspen and Telluride — wolves bit it nearly 4 to 1 in counties west of the Continental Divide.

The governor and the first gentleman are avowed animal lovers, so people who make their living off of animals think the deck is stacked against them.

“Polis has teamed up with wolf enthusiasts in a bad faith effort to move the goalposts set by Prop 114 and accelerate an already compressed timeline to plan and implement the initiative," Shawn Martini, the vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, told me.

Folks on the Western Slope feel marginalized enough, he said.

“Not satisfied with the win at the ballot box, the governor is asking wildlife officials to take a shortcut on good science, a shortcut on public input and a shortcut on the process voters selected, leaving Western Coloradans to suffer the consequences," Martini said.

Wildlife commissioner Carrie Hauser, the president of Colorado Mountain College, suggested to Polis that he sell his plan on the Western Slope in-person.

“We want to do this as a state and not have this done to the Western Slope,” she cautioned.

By fall, Polis hopes to stage listening sessions at locations on the Western Slope and online.

“If my presence helps at some of them I’m happy to be there and integrate some thoughtful commentary,” the governor said.

He cautioned the tar-and-feather crowd, though.

"This is not about re-litigating what the voters have decided,” Polis said. “That’s the law of Colorado. We will carry that out.”

Polis, though, isn’t through unloading his ark. He wants to bring back the wolverine next. Wolves disappeared from Colorado in the 1930s. The last wolverine vanished in 1919. Wolves are canines. Wolverines are weasels the size of a squatty hound dog.

“Colorado’s high elevation and rugged terrain were and are good wolverine habitat, but because the species naturally exists in extremely low numbers wherever it is found, the species was never numerous here,” according to an analysis by state wildlife experts. 

At best, Colorado might support 100 of the solitary beasts, or roughly the pre-pandemic crowd at the Red Onion in Aspen at 2 a.m.

For Polis to follow his vision over the horizon on public lands to restore or preserve Colorado critters, he has to share the view.

Right now most Coloradans see the Continental Divide only from their side. The question is whether the governor sees it that way, too.

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