By Owen Woods | Owen@AlamosaCitizen.com
SINCE Proposition 114 passed in November, the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf in the state of Colorado has become a point of discourse. Keystone Policy Group, based out of Keystone and Denver, planned a series of open houses to be conducted throughout the state, including indigenous communities. This gives the public an opportunity to learn while providing their own perspectives about the reintroduction.
The open house in Alamosa took place Aug. 3 at the Ice Rink.
The law’s deadline of December 2023 gives the state plenty of time to hear the public. “Both sides” is a term being used quite widely in conversations about the wolf. It’s hard to find a middle ground. With the easy-going process of an open house, perhaps middle grounds can be found. The open atmosphere of these meetings is a step in the right direction for taking away stress surrounding Proposition 114.
For farmers and ranchers concerned about their livestock, and subsequently, their livelihoods, this gives an opportunity to voice concerns to wildlife management. Livestock safety is an ongoing issue. Due to a rise in hunting and trapping in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, the grey wolf adapted and began to use cattle and livestock as a source of food. This resulted in an aggressive eradication during the 1940s that brought about their subsequent extinction in Colorado.
Wolves will be brought in on the western side of Continental Divide
Other states have provided Colorado key information on how to prepare for a wolf reintroduction and what to expect. Colorado has nearly 80 years of experience from these states to draw from. However, our increasing population density is providing a unique challenge. This has been a concern with mountain lions, as our human footprint moves further and further into their territory. Wolves will be reintroduced on the western side of the Continental Divide, but the wolves are going to move where they please. There are documented cases of wolves from northern states making their way into Colorado. They will move with migrating elk populations and will no doubt move into areas that make people uneasy.
Easing the process of reintroduction, these open houses cover four topics: Engagement, Education, and Outreach, Wolf Restoration, Wolf Management, and Livestock Interactions. These give detailed processes to ensure and invite community outreach. With a little over two years before wolves return to Colorado, the state has plenty of time to develop a plan. But there are still questions that need to be addressed..
ENGAGEMENT, EDUCATION, AND OUTREACH
According to the CPW’s documents showcased at the open houses and found on Keystone’s website, “A draft Wolf Restoration and Management Plan is not available at this time.” At this point in the process, community-driven events allow CPW to begin taking comments and information that will be considered as they draft a plan. These considerations include scientific, economic, and social topics. The goal is to take as much public input as possible to make restoration and management as successful as possible.
Proposition 114, a citizen-based initiative, requires the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commision to use available scientific data to develop a plan to restore grey wolves, to hold statewide hearings in order to acquire information, and takes necessary steps to restore a grey wolf population no later than December 31, 2023, west of the Continental Divide in Colorado.
After sufficient public input, the CPW along with a Technical Working Group and Stakeholder Advisory Group, will draft a plan that will involve further public input.
Proposition 114’s goal is to reintroduce grey wolves to the state of Colorado so that a population can begin to thrive. Wolves were listed as federally endangered until January of 2021; however, grey wolves remain an endangered species in Colorado. Killing a wolf is a crime that carries with it jail time, heavy fines, or revocation of hunting and/or fishing licenses. Harassment of wildlife is also illegal in the state.
Before their eradication in the 1940s, grey wolves were native to Colorado and had a stable population in every county. In June of this year, the first documented litter of grey wolf pups since the 1940s was sighted near Steamboat Springs. The exact location of this litter has been withheld from the public to encourage a hopeful survival of these pups. They come from a collared breeding pair known as “Jane” and “John.” The breeding pair and their pups are being monitored and observed from a long distance by CPW management officers, to avoid any inadvertent danger.
Understanding how to restore a healthy wolf population begins with understanding their biology and habitat needs. Grey wolves are known as habitat generalists, meaning they don’t have specific habitat requirements. They can adapt and thrive on different diets and in different environments. The grey wolf lives and hunts in a pack made up of a breeding pair and their offspring. Like other wolf species, the grey wolf is a territorial animal and will defend its territory from other wolf populations and predatory species.
Breeding typically occurs in February, with pups being born in dens in mid-to-late April. Litters range from four to 10 pups.
Grey wolves, on average, consume roughly 10 pounds of meat per day. However, most of the time, wolves don’t eat every day. They live on what’s called a feast or famine diet. They may go several days without eating and then when a kill is made they indulge on a large portion of meat. Their main prey is ungulates, such as deer, elk, or moose. Wolves will go after vulnerable members of prey species, such as the young, weak, or sick. This in turn allows the prey species to thrive.
Past introductions can be viewed for a plan for Colorado. Two of interest are the Yellowstone and central Idaho introductions, which occurred from 1995-1996. In Idaho, the wolves were hard-released, meaning they were set free from cages and introduced immediately into their new habitats. In Yellowstone, the wolves were soft-released. They had several weeks of surrounding adjustment in pens before they were released into the wild. Colorado can also look at the Mexican Wolf reintroductions in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico, as well as the wolf introductions of the Great Lakes region of the U.S. On top of all this, Colorado’s own Canadian Lynx reintroduction can provide us with another perspective.
There are also logistics to consider before the draft of the restoration is published, such as the number of wolves to be reintroduced, a timeframe for reintroduction, age and gender ratios of wolves, genetic considerations, veterinary and travel costs, and reintroduction techniques (hard vs. soft releases).
The second biggest point of discussion, after livestock interaction, is how the wolves are going to be managed. There are a lot of considerations at play here, but federal and previous state guidelines for wolf management provide a clear picture of how future management will be conducted.
The draft plan will need to cover basic management principles and goals and their logistics. Varying population levels will trigger different management strategies. The big discussion will be funding to support monitoring, management, and depredation payments. Lastly, the possibility that the grey wolf will again be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act remains quite high. What this will look like on a federal and state level has yet to be determined, but will need to be a part of the plan.
However, even with these issues, CPW does have an idea of what will be included.
- CPW understands that wolves should be allowed to live with no boundaries.
- Problems or negative impacts will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
- Existing management programs for wolves will follow the same guidelines for species such as mountain lions and black bears.
- Cooperation with other agencies, organizations, and the private sector to achieve management goals is a vital path for the future of wolf management.
- And, that recommended funding for management be drawn from sources other than hunting licenses.
Other states have provided Colorado with their management strategies, which provides Colorado with the necessary information to ensure a successful restoration. Management flexibility is key to a successful restoration. Within those flexibilities, the consideration for a relisting of the grey wolf on the Endangered Species Act may be required, and management through lethal and non-lethal tools will be considered and implemented.
The CPW recognizes recovery and management thresholds that need to be met once the wolves have been reintroduced. These thresholds are seen as population sizes exceeding a certain limit and identifying a time for delisting recovery.
Recovery delisting thresholds have been drawn from three specific examples in Montana, Idaho, and the greater Yellowstone area. The threshold follows a revised recovery plan implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987 that defines a recovering wolf population as at least 10 breeding pairs for three consecutive years in the area of recovery, and a population of approximately 300 wolves.
Management thresholds will be determined as time passes and as the population of wolves grows. The threshold will be determined once reintroduction has been defined as a success.
The bulk of the presentation and feedback addresses livestock management. While the state has encouraged livestock owners to mitigate livestock loss themselves, it has also established a comprehensive compensation program.
The Game Damage Program, for example, is a CPW prevention and reimbursement program that compensates ranchers, farmers, and landowners for damage caused by big game animals.
This plan originated in 1931 and was revised 20 years ago to include damage prevention. The program is funded by the Game Cash Fund. Damage is considered when the quality or quantity of any property’s value is reduced. It includes the cost to restore the value to its condition prior to any damage. In this case, it is the trauma inflicted on livestock that results in injury or death.
What is the state liable for?
Colorado is liable for damages caused by big game and wolves, up to $5,000 per head of livestock injured or killed. The state is not liable for damages to livestock caused by coyotes, bobcats, or domestic dogs.
What is the value of livestock?
Payments are determined by sales receipts and contracts. The compensation will not include costs of livestock transportation, any kind of yardage, and amount of feed required for the animal. If the owner cannot provide any sales receipts or contracts, then the prices will be determined by USDA-AMS prices for calves and sheep, while any other livestock claims will be determined by a fair market value at the time of loss. There is a claim process that the owner must go through in order to be considered for damage.
In the management plan, funding, compensation, investigations, and management and control methods will be addressed prior to further public input.
Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all have comprehensive Depredation Compensation Programs that have varying sources of funding, criteria for payouts, and investigating agencies. These states’ programs can provide Colorado with an in-depth understanding of how investigations will be handled, how compensations will be determined, and most of all, give livestock owners peace of mind that there is decades of history to fall back onto when understanding the logistics.
However, while CPW has an extensive plan in place for compensating any loss, livestock owners are strongly encouraged to do their best to avoid any kind of loss or depredation. The best offense is a good defense, after all. CPW has a well-detailed best-practices list for ranchers, herders, and landowners to follow in order to mitigate any kind of wolf encroachment.
WHY DOES ALL THIS MATTER?
This wolf reintroduction is no easy feat and nothing to take lightly. This is a serious change in Colorado’s ecosystem that will take years to understand. Having the state come to Alamosa (and the San Luis Valley) to hear opinions goes a long way in allowing for a more diverse group to be heard. It also makes The Valley feel included. That’s a serious concern for a lot of folks here. The open houses show how the state is proactively taking the steps necessary to reach all four corners of Colorado.
If you would like to provide your own feedback or attend a virtual town hall to get an even more comprehensive look at the conversations being had surrounding this issue, visit https://www.wolfengagementco.org/.