Reintroduction of gray wolves takes a step closer, recommendations face resistance | Legislature


The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission began reviewing Wednesday of one of two major sets of recommendations on how the state will implement a largely Front Range vote-approved measure from 2020* to reintroduce gray wolves into western Colorado.

The two sets of recommendations came from working groups that have been meeting for a year: A technical working group, primarily focused on scientific literature reviews and scientific research, and a stakeholder advisory group charged with looking at issues, such as logistics, funding and herd management.

The technical group, known as TWG, presented its recommendations to the commission on the first day of the its two-day June meeting held in Buena Vista.

But one of the recommendations is already drawing resistance from long-time supporters of wolf reintroduction.

The TWG plan calls for a phased approach that initially allows for more conservative and protective management of wolf populations.

Phase 1 is referred to as “state endangered,” tied to the gray wolves’ listing on the state’s endangered species list.

That phase would include mid-winter minimum counts of wolves when they are grouped and more easily counted, according to Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for wildlife and natural resources. Actual counts work best while the population is below 200, he said, adding above that will have to move to estimates.

The state is currently in Phase 1, with a minimum count below 50. Once that minimum count hits 50 anywhere in the state for four successive years, the state would move to Phase 2. That’s when wolves would be “downlisted” to a “state threatened” species.

During Phase 2, wolf populations would increase from 50 to a minimum count of 150 for two successive years, or a minimum count of 200 with no time requirement. At that point, gray wolves would be delisted.

DeWalt explained that minimum counts are not population objectives, merely a tool to determine the species’ recovery status. At 200 wolves or more, the working group believes the species would be a “secure” population and no longer threatened.

There’s more to it – and that’s geography. DeWalt explained that a conservative estimate is eight animals per pack, and 200 wolves would be roughly 25 packs. Assuming each pack has a territory range of about 180 square miles, that would spread wolves over about 2.8 million acres, he said.

That’s about 10% of the Western Slope, he said.

However, wolves are unlikely to stay only on the Western Slope.

Eric Odell, a species conservation program manager with CPW who worked with the technical group, told commissioners there is no expectation that wolves will not migrate east of the Continental Divide.

“We expect that to happen,” he said.

Phase 3 moves to the “delisting” portion, a potential future act to classify wolves as non-game status or as a game species.

The working group did discuss whether to classify wolves as game species, DeWalt said. He cited views from the report the group sent to the commission: “Determination of whether to move to game classification should include consideration of social input regarding acceptability of wolf harvest and means of take, demand for population size management, livestock conflicts, impacts on other wildlife populations, other impacts from conflict, and/or demand for harvest opportunity.”

DeWalt said the working group did not go into a “greater depth of discussion” on that issue, given that it is beyond the scope of what’s required by the state law that came out of Proposition 114.

That did not go over well with several members of the public, including Delia Malone of the Colorado Sierra Club. She pointed out that the enacting statute for Proposition 114 said gray wolves “means non game wildlife of species lupus,” and noted the working group has said it would consider “social acceptability of wolf harvest or demand for harvest opportunity.” Management must be based on best science, Malone added, arguing that is being ignored.

She also raised concerns about the meetings of the stakeholder group, which are not recorded, not open to the public nor available to the deaf or hard of hearing.

The commission is expected to receive the recommendations of the stakeholder group within the next month.

Proposition 114 sets a deadline for wolf reintroduction on Dec. 31, 2023. Things are expected to move once the stakeholder group’s recommendations are in the hands of the commission. An internal draft plan is due in the fall, according to DeWalt. That will be followed by education and outreach, largely on how to prepare the public, including agricultural producers, for wolves in larger numbers than there are now.

In order to meet timeline deadlines, the draft plan must be completed in time for the commission to review in December. A public comment period will follow, including opportunities for comment on both the Western Slope and the Front Range, slated for January and February of 2023. The commission gets the final plan back in April and votes on it in May 2023.

So far, there is one pack of about eight wolves in North Park, near Walden, Colorado. A year ago, there was an adult pair and six pups, but no apparent increases so far, DeWalt said. The collar on the female, who is about six years old, timed out, and that’s around the average life span of a female wolf. However, there’s no indication that wolf was poached, either, he told the commission.

But that pack of wolves is putting stress on CPW’s staffing. Commissioner Marie Haskett of Meeker pointed out that another claim for damages came in just on Monday. She also questioned just how much wolf reintroduction is going to cost the state, and not just claims for damages.

DeWalt noted that CPW staffers in North Park are focused “24/7” on the wolves, given that “the demand is so great” for their assistance. Plans for adding staff have not yet been determined, according to CPW.

The other issue on Tuesday focused on a 2016 commission resolution that opposed any reintroduction of wolves, and what to do about that, given some public skepticism on whether the commission is fully on board with reintroduction. The 2016 resolution dealt with Mexican wolves and the gray wolves subspecies, and noted that Colorado was not part of that species’ historic range. At that time, the commission voted to oppose the “intentional release” of any wolves into Colorado.

The commission discussed a new resolution in light of the passage of Proposition 114 that would reverse its previous decision. Some commissioners favored reversing the 2016 resolution; others questioned whether there is any need for action at all, given the existence of state law.

Commissioner Jay Tutchton of Hasty pointed out that the resolution is already null and void, but “there is a part of the public that doesn’t trust us on this issue because we opposed it in the past.”

A new resolution would be symbolic but also a show of good faith, he said.

One item that got no comment from commissioners is the situation with CPW Director Dan Prenzlow, who is on administrative leave tied to an allegedly racially insensitive comment he made about a CPW employee at a recent conference.

Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, told the commission that Investigations Law Group, which developed recommendations on how to handle harassment complaints for the General Assembly in 2018, has been hired to do a third-party investigation of the incident.

“I know this is very difficult for DNR staff – this process in general. We will be fair, get this done as quickly as possible and move on,” Gibbs said. He also announced DNR is doing a “cultural issues analysis” tied to the incident.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife director on leave after complaints of ‘inappropriate comments’

Editor’s note: a previous version had the wrong year for Proposition 114.

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