Division of Wildlife officials start work on Gray Wolf Management Plan in anticipation of Canis lupus' return

Russell Smyth, Montrose Daily Press

GRAND JUNCTION – Colorado residents may get a chance to see one of North America’s most romanticized, and demonized, species – wolves – lope through the Centennial State again. Residents also may get a chance to manage wolves following decades of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have reintroduced wolves to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona during the past decade, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife believes Canis lupus eventually could return to old hunting grounds in the Southern Rockies. In preparation for the possible return of wolves, the DOW will draft a Gray Wolf Management Plan.

Federal Fish and Wildlife Service officials still have priority over Western state wildlife agencies for wolf management, but states will take control over the large canids as populations recover, said Ed Bangs, western wolf recovery coordinator for the FWS. Colorado’s decision to discuss wolf management with state residents and prepare a plan before the species returns is a sound idea, Bangs said.

“Right now we have a viable population in Montana and Idaho and Wyoming, and we have no interest in (managing) wolves in other places,” Bangs said from his office in Helena, Mont. “The bottom line is I think the Division of Wildlife in Colorado is doing everybody a big favor in talking to everybody openly and honestly about all viewpoints. When wolves show up, there is just widespread panic – it’s just as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. _ The best thing to do is talk to people when they are still pretty calm and ask them, ‘Are wolves going to play a future in Colorado?'”

The DOW is giving Colorado residents an opportunity to answer that question during six public meetings held throughout the state. Beginning March 2 in Fort Collins and concluding March 25 in Denver, the meetings mark the initial stages of the division’s Gray Wolf Management Plan. Thursday night, about 70 people filled a conference room at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Grand Junction to tell the DOW just what they think about the idea of wolves in Colorado. Most of the people who commented were opposed to wolves.

“We have enough damn trouble with the bears, the mountain lions and the coyotes,” said Nick Theos, a Meeker area sheep rancher, former president of the Colorado Wool Growers Association and former state legislator. “The sportsmen do. The ranchers do.”

Sheep ranchers in Colorado already suffer 5 percent to 30 percent losses to coyotes, said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association.

“We feel strongly the Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn’t be able to walk away from the financial responsibility of wolves,” Kline said.

Ernie Etchart, a Montrose area sheep rancher, said he might be able to accept wolves back into Colorado if he could be compensated for any sheep he lost to wolves and if he could kill wolves that he catches preying on his livestock.

“Having another predator around – it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Etchart said after Thursday night’s meeting.

Peter Treasure, a Grand Junction resident, Division of Wildlife volunteer and supporter of Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that compensates ranchers for livestock losses resulting from wolf depredation, said the return of wolves to Colorado would help restore a natural balance between predators and prey.

“If the wolf does come back to Colorado, it can only benefit Colorado,” Treasure said.

Dick Steele, a Delta area veterinarian and president of the Colorado Sportsmens Wildlife Fund, said that deer populations are already in trouble in Colorado and that wolves could upset well-established game management practices.

“If we allow wolf populations into Colorado, how will we manage wolves so they don’t affect hunting?” Steele asked.

In addition to concerns about wolves killing livestock and game animals, some people worry wolves will hurt people. There is no documented case of a wolf killing a human in North America, according to the Division of Wildlife.

The public should have a chance to learn more about wolves, said Grand Junction area resident Michelle Burris.

“If the wolves do come back into Colorado, and I hope they do, there needs to be a lot of public education. _ I’ve got a bumper sticker that says, ‘Little Red Riding Hood lied,'” Burris said.

DOW officials expect to develop a draft Gray Wolf Management Plan by the end of August and finalize the plan by the end of 2004.

The plan will address ways to manage wolves that migrate to Colorado on their own, said Gary Skiba, multispecies coordinator for the DOW’s Species Conservation Section. The plan is not designed to capture wolves and reintroduce them to Colorado.

“We’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you reintroduce wolves?’ but we’re not doing that,” Skiba told attendees at Thursday night’s wolf meeting.

Some wolf experts believe wolves will wander into Colorado before long, and other experts don’t think wolves will return at all, Skiba said.

“We think wolves may be coming to Colorado,” he said. “We don’t know when. There’s been a lot of speculation.”

Gray wolves historically ranged from the northern reaches of Alaska, Canada and Greenland to southern Mexico. Hunters, ranchers and government trappers extirpated the carnivores from Western states by the mid-1930s. Following a gradual change in public attitudes, wolves received protection through the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973. The canids established six packs in northwest Montana in the early 1980s, and in 1995 and 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 66 wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Populations continued to increase, and by the end of 2003, the Northwest Montana Recovery Area held 92 wolves, the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area held 301 wolves and the Central Idaho Recovery Area held 368 wolves, according to the FWS.

FWS officials set population recovery objectives for wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming at 30 or more breeding pairs distributed equitably among the three states for three successive years, and wolves reached that objective by the end of 2002, according to the FWS.

However, recovery goals also include adequate state management plans for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, Bangs said. Montana and Idaho have developed adequate plans, but Wyoming has not, he said. After the FWS approves Wyoming’s plan, the federal agency can propose steps to delist – remove – wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

“We’ve reached our recovery goals,” Bangs said. “We want to delist them. The only reason we don’t is because we don’t have a recovery plan for Wyoming.”

Wolf pros and cons

Fish and Wildlife Service officials tap into some vehement public opinions during wolf management discussions.

Back in 1994, when the FWS was deciding whether or not to include Colorado in the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan, the agency had Colorado State University study residents’ attitudes toward wolves. The study indicated 70.8 percent of Coloradans would support wolf reintroduction. Support from Eastern Slope residents was slightly higher, at 73.8 percent, than support from Western Slope residents, which was 65.1 percent.

Rob Edward, director of conservation restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental group dedicated to restoring wolf populations in Colorado, falls in with the majority of Coloradans who supported wolf reintroduction. Edward said the DOW’s desire to create a Gray Wolf Management Plan could give Colorado an opportunity to reverse the historic extirpation of wolves.

“I look forward to the upcoming process,” Edward said from his office in Boulder. “I believe the state of Colorado has a tremendous opportunity ahead of them to right a wrong that our forebears wrought upon us. We owe it to our grandchildren to make that right.”

Sinapu hopes Colorado wildlife officials will move a step beyond just developing a plan to manage any wolves that might eventually migrate here.

“It’s encouraging that the state of Colorado is being proactive in developing a plan for wolves,” Edward said. “We believe the state should do what they have done so well with lynx and actually take steps to restore the species through reintroduction.”

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, also is glad the DOW is developing the Gray Wolf Management Plan.

“We were one of the groups, along with the wool growers, that strongly requested the Division of Wildlife develop a management plan for wolves,” Fankhauser said from his office in Arvada. “We find wolves _ fairly close to Colorado, and Division of Wildlife personnel need to be able to react. When they get phone calls saying wolves are killing our livestock, they need to be able to know what to do.”

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, however, does not want to see wolves return to the state, Fankhauser said.

“We feel that Colorado most assuredly isn’t suitable for a wolf population,” he said.

The subject of wolf depredation on livestock can string a barbwire fence between ranchers and wildlife advocates. Confirmed livestock depredations from wolves in the Northwest Montana, Greater Yellowstone and Central Idaho recovery areas during 2003 included 64 cattle, 211 sheep and 10 goats, according to the FWS. In response to the depredations, 59 wolves were killed. The northern packs prey mainly on elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and bison.

Colorado is home to about 2.5 million head of cattle, 370,000 sheep and zero known wild wolves.

A population of zero wolves suits Fankhauser, who said the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association would like to see any wolves that migrate into Colorado captured and returned to areas such as Yellowstone where the FWS originally reintroduced the wolves.

Legal methods used to address depredations on livestock for wolves in northern recovery areas have included ranchers killing wolves caught in the act of killing livestock, harassing wolves with rubber bullets, moving livestock to different pastures and increasing riders on grazing allotments, according to the FWS.

Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group based in Washington, D.C., has paid more than $337,000 to 282 ranchers for livestock losses caused by wolves in northern packs since 1987, according to the organization’s Web site.

Sinapu supports Defenders of Wildlife’s compensation plan, Edward said.

“We think that’s a great first step and perhaps at some point the people of Colorado would also consider finding ways to fund (livestock losses) through some either tax or license fee setup to augment that (Defenders of Wildlife) fund,” Edward said. “We do believe it’s important for livestock owners to be justly compensated for losses.”

Defenders of Wildlife’s compensation does help ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, but losing livestock to wolves defeats the purpose of ranching, Fankhauser said.

“Certainly we believe there is a value on what is lost,” he said. “But to get to the point, we don’t raise livestock to get it killed to get a check on a per pound basis. It takes years and years of management and breeding programs to develop the genetic program we have. To have those animals killed in the blink of an eye and have a check for $500 or whatever paid does not get to the crux of management.”

Whether a Coloradan would love, or hate, the sound of a wolf howling in the wild, Canis lupus may well be on its way back to the Centennial State. More than likely, before the first wolf sets a paw in Colorado, the Division of Wildlife will be ready with its Gray Wolf Management Plan.

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