By Marilyn Gleason
A panel of Colorado residents is trying to reconcile 19th century fears with a 21st century fascination with wild predators.
In the fourth meeting of the Gray Wolf Working Group, members said they were unlikely to meet an October deadline for a draft plan to manage wolves in the state. The group will gather at the Sunlight Mountain Inn at 10 a.m. Tuesday and 8 a.m. on Wednesday. The meeting is open to the public, with participation limited to a comment period.
Barely a month after the group was assembled last spring, the discovery of a dead gray wolf on the side of Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs lent a new urgency to its mission. The wolf, which wore a collar and had migrated from Yellowstone, was the first to roam the state since at least 1945. Love them or hate them, wolves are an emotional issue.
“It’s a very tough process, a very volatile issue,” said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association and a member of the group. “We have an excellent group of people, but it’s a tough deal.”
The panel is comprised of four wildlife advocates and four livestock producers, as well as two representatives each for the viewpoints of sportsmen, local government and wildlife biologists.
Representatives from eight federal and state agencies involved in public land and wildlife management, as well as the Colorado Office of Economic Development, advise the panel.
The 14 members of the Gray Wolf Working Group must overcome their differences to fashion a management plan to be implemented by the Colorado Department of Wildlife after a 60-day public comment period.
Kline is fighting for Western Slope sheep, which are most vulnerable to wolves. Wolf advocate Rob Edward of the Boulder-based organization Sinapu acknowledged that “sheep don’t seem to have that innate ability to defend themselves. It’s been bred out of them.”
But what sheep lack in instinct, they make up for in political clout. The Colorado Wool Growers Association, founded in 1926, about a decade before wolves disappeared from the state, exists as a legal issues management organization for the state, lobbying at the state and federal level.
What wolves lack in political clout, they make up for in popularity. Two polls in the past decade have shown that high percentages of Coloradans want wolves restored.
Coloradans and residents of Arizona and New Mexico supported wolf reintroduction and restoration by margins upward of 2Ðto-1 in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2001. Enthusiasm for wolves was slightly lower on the Western Slope than east of the divide in 1994, but still high at between 58 percent and
65 percent; enthusiasm was lowest among livestock producers.
The division of wildlife created the Gray Wolf Working Group in May with the stated goal of having a draft management plan, after five or six meetings, by the end of October. Gary Skiba of the DOW is the wildlife biologist adviser to the panel.
“Right now we don’t have any legal authority to manage wolves in Colorado,” he said – even if the state had any wolves.
Nonetheless, two factors have pushed the agency toward having a management plan. Successful reintroduction programs in other western states mean the federal government is close to taking the wolf off the list of threatened species, at least in the northern part of Colorado, which will return management to the state.
Second, although reintroduction is unlikely in Colorado, few doubt that the wolves will get here on their own soon enough, as lone individuals migrate from Wyoming to the north and New Mexico and Arizona to the south.
Endangered wolves were reintroduced in five western states beginning about a decade ago. Although Colorado is part of the gray wolf’s historic range, it was not required to have wolves under the Endangered Species Act.
Last year the Fish and Wildlife Service revisited the animal’s legal status. Observing that populations to the north are establishing well, the agency drew a boundary between wolf populations in order to speed the gray wolf’s removal from the list of endangered species, a boundary which splits the state of Colorado.
Reintroduced wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are now considered threatened, while the southern, or Mexican, wolves in Arizona and New Mexico remain under the more highly protected endangered designation.
In Colorado, the most endangered wolf of all was the lone female who wandered 500 miles and died on Interstate 70, which is the artificial boundary between southern and northern wolf populations.
The boundary is controversial on both sides. Kline would like to see all the wolves delisted, and chafes at the idea that a wolf who made it safely across the interstate would attain additional protection.
“We’re not sure there’s any evidence that we ever had Mexican wolves,” she said.
Sinapu’s Edward calls the action “unprecedented” and faults the Fish and Wildlife Service for falling short of its duty to effect species recovery throughout its former range. The wolf now occupies only 5 percent its historic range, according to Edward. He sees the wolf delisting as part of a “pattern developing after 15 years of cantankerous opposition to the Endangered Species Act by industry – mining, logging, grazing and private property rights groups.
“Because wolves are such a political hot potato, and because the livestock industry is very powerful in the West, wolves are being treated differently,” he said.
At the group’s July meeting, Edward exhibited some of the restless intensity of a predator while Kline showed none of the meek vulnerability of a feedlot lamb. Both organizations hold a hard line on their issues.
“As an association, we’re opposed to wolves in Colorado,” said Kline.
Sinapu is dedicated to restoring and protecting large carnivores in the southern Rockies.
The two represent the extremes on the committee that must come together for a plan to be successful.
So far, tangible achievements are negligible. The panel agreed to recommend relaxing a stringent Colorado law protecting wolves to come into line with the federal standard. Now a rancher north of I-70 can kill a wolf caught in the act of preying on livestock.
And, although Colorado is not required to manage for wolf survival, Skiba said the group has said it will allow some wolves to live here.
“Even that is a big step – a difficult step for some people,” he said.
“These are people with very strongly held opinions on both sides of the spectrum,” Skiba said of the panel. “There is movement on both ends of the spectrum,” but finding agreement among the full group is a challenge.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit has taken pressure off the group to stick to the timeline.
Because wolves in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have met recovery goals, they were expected to be off the list of endangered and threatened species by the end of the year. But Wyoming’s plan to sustain the wolves was deemed unacceptable.
Edward explained that under Wyoming’s definitions, “It was open season on wolves anywhere outside of Yellowstone.”
Now Wyoming is suing the federal agency for rejecting the plan, delaying the wolf’s delisting in nine Western states and easing pressure on the state DOW to have a plan in place.
While the group intended to save time by utilizing the experience of other states in creating wolf management plans, Kline noted, “No other states have put together a plan in less than a year.”
Skiba said the group must determine how to prevent and compensate livestock depredation; how to compensate ranchers; and how many wolves should reside in the state, possibly by setting maximum or minimum figures.
Skiba said the question of whether the plan can be drafted by the end of October will be a “major point of discussion” at the meeting this week in Glenwood Springs.