Will the wolf arrive? State planning for the day

By Dale Rodebaugh,
Durango Herald

Colorado wildlife managers are developing a program for managing wolves. Although Colorado isn’t home to wolves and probably won’t be for a while, state wildlife officials are working to have a management plan in place for the day the predator arrives.

As a first step, three Colorado Division of Wildlife employees will visit Durango tonight, seeking suggestions on how to manage wolves.

The division isn’t considering reintroducing the wolf to Colorado, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did successfully with the Rocky Mountain gray wolf in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and the Mexican wolf in New Mexico and Arizona.

But others would like nothing better than to bring the wolf back to Colorado as quickly as possible. There have been no wolves in Colorado since the 1930s.

The need for a state plan is more urgent north of Interstate 70 because of the wolf’s proximity in states to the north, according to DOW wildlife biologist Gary Skiba.

The federal agency planned that once Montana, Idaho and Wyoming could manage their own wolf populations, the predator’s “threatened species” designation and federation protection would be lifted. Lifting that protection, called “delisting,” would be for all three states or none.

Just as it appeared that the Fish & Wildlife Service was ready to hand off wolf control to the states, a snag occurred, according to Ed Bangs, Western Wolf Recovery coordinator for the agency.

“Delisting is on hold for now because the Wyoming plan is not adequate,” Bangs said. “But Colorado is going in the right direction. The time to discuss wolves is not when there is a dead calf on the ground, but while people can engage in rational discussion.”

That’s what Skiba has in mind. No matter that there are no wolves in Colorado – north or south – the biologist said. Colorado must be prepared in the eventuality wolves find their way to the state.

If Colorado has no federally acceptable wolf-management plan, Fish & Wildlife Service regulations would govern the handling of the species.

Rob Edward, with Sinapu, a Boulder-based organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of large carnivores in the southern Rockies, said the Western Slope is the “last best place for the wolf.”

“A management plan (based on sporadic arrival of wolves) is okay as far as it goes,” Edward said. “But the most effective, expeditious and economically viable method to give the wolf a foothold is active reintroduction.”

Edward’s rationale:

• Sixty-three percent of the Western Slope is relatively unpopulated public land, which would provide an ample range for the predator.

• Ecological benefits have accrued in Wyoming from the presence of wolves. Stream-bank trees, eaten to the nub by unharassed elk, have recovered because wolves keep elk herds on the move. Beavers and birds are taking advantage of the recovering vegetation.

• Wolves help stabilize elk populations and can have beneficial long-term health effects on herds by eliminating the weakest animals.

• Methodic reintroduction of wolves from different areas would avoid the “genetic bottleneck” resulting from the in-breeding of wolves that trickle in from the outside.

“A thriving wolf population in Colorado and to the south, would connect the Arctic to Mexico,” Edward said. “That would be one of the great conservation victories of the last 100 years.”

Wolf reintroduction has been more successful in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho than in Arizona and New Mexico. Thirteen of about 50 wolves believed to be roaming Arizona and New Mexico were killed by vehicles or shot in 2003, Skiba said.

It probably will be years before there are self-sustaining wolf populations in the Southwest, Skiba said. Wolf recovery south of I-70 probably would be deemed successful when there is a minimum number of breeding pairs – the same standard used to declare the wolf recovered in the north.

“A wolf-recovery plan for the area south of I-70 exists, but isn’t very detailed,” Skiba said. “It doesn’t have any specific goals.”

Skiba expects that the six meetings the DOW will convene around the state on wolf management will bring together environmentalists, ranchers, wolf lovers and sportsmen. A working group would be formed to devise a wolf-management plan.

“The three issues that are sure to come up are, Do we allow wolves in northern Colorado and if so, how many and where?'” Skiba said.

Although wildlife officials don’t plan to broach the matter, Skiba said, another topic of conversation could well be reintroduction of the species.

The documentation of at least 30 breeding pairs of wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana led to the decision that the wolf had reached a self-sustaining level. It no longer needed the “threatened species” designation.

But the lack of an acceptable Wyoming management plan has put delisting on the sidelines for the time being. The Idaho and Montana management plans have passed muster.

Disagreement over how much protection to give the wolves outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and wilderness areas is holding up acceptance of the Wyoming wolf-management plan, Skiba said.

Removing the gray wolf from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in the three states also would affect Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and California, which have few or no wolves.

But with wolves on the prowl in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, they could be showing up elsewhere, Skiba said.

Colorado would do well to decide how it wants to manage wolves before they arrive, Skiba said.

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