By David Frey
Aspen Daily News
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Ranchers, environmentalists, sportsmen and government officials are gathering at Sunlight Inn to hash out a plan to deal with wolves when they come into the state, whether they’re reintroduced or they wander in on their own.
The two-day meeting is part of a series held by the state Division of Wildlife’s wolf management working group, which brings together conflicting interests to handle what many consider inevitable: that one way or another, wolves will come back to Colorado.
“I don’t want wolves past the state line,” said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association. “I don’t want them now. I don’t want them at the end of the plan. But I’m trying to be a team player.”
At the Glenwood meeting, the first to be held outside the Denver area, members are trying to come to agreement on generalities in the hopes of finalizing a plan to present to DOW commissioners and the public next month.
Group members say they haven’t agreed on anything yet, but they seem to have settled on at least one issue: Wolves will have some kind of presence in Colorado.
“I think it is a pragmatic realization that they are probably going to drift here and we have to have a plan in place to manage them,” said group member Jean Stetson, a cattle rancher near Craig, where ranchers have reported unconfirmed wolf sightings.
Wolves have been considered exterminated in Colorado since the last known wild wolf was killed in 1945. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has introduced gray wolves into Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona.
Last June, just days before the group was first supposed to meet, a radio-collared wolf was killed on Interstate 70 after having wandered 490 miles south from Yellowstone National Park. Its appearance drove home the likelihood that wolves would wander into the state on their own from reintroduced packs either to the north or the south. North of Interstate 70, wolves are to be taken off the endangered species list. Wolves found south of the highway would still be considered endangered.
Wolf supporters want to launch a reintroduction program in Colorado, too. Rob Edward, director of the Colorado carnivore reintroduction group Sinapu, calls Colorado the “last, best place” for wolves.
Wilderness areas like the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs and in the San Juans in southwestern Colorado are eyed as prime spots for wolves to return. The Flat Tops has the country’s largest elk population, Edward said, and one of the largest mule deer populations, making for good wolf hunting grounds.
“The people of Colorado want wolves now and the wildlife needs wolves now,” said Edward, citing two polls conducted over the last decade that found most Coloradans supported wolf reintroduction. Studies of habitats where wolves have returned showed improvements to everything from elk herds to aspen stands, he said.
Colorado’s Western Slope could sustain over 1,000 wolves, he said. “I think it rivals the capacity of Yellowstone and Idaho in terms of its capacity to support wolves.”
That’s something many sheep and cattle ranchers, who fear wolves could damage their herds, don’t want to see.
“The problem to me is, if there’s a mom-and-pop operation that’s already on edge and struggling, I don’t want that to be the one thing that puts them over the edge,” Stetson said.
Government programs where wolves have been reintroduced pay ranchers for losses to wolves. But compensation won’t cover things like genetics in breeding animals, Stetson said, and it won’t make ranchers who oppose the very idea of the wolves’ return change their minds.
“For some ranchers, compensation means acceptance of the program,” she said. “I think there are some ranchers that wouldn’t accept the program.”
Stetson said at her Moffatt County ranch, she’s already changed her irrigation system to accommodate the endangered native fish the humpback chub and changed grazing methods to protect the endangered sage grouse. Others have had to deal with white-tail prairie dogs, the Preble’s mouse and lynx, she said.
“You throw the wolf on top of it, I’ve had about all I can take,” Stetson said.
Participants are asked to try to put some of their differences aside and create a plan that represents as much of a consensus as possible. DOW wildlife biologist Gary Skiba said his agency would settle any lingering disagreements.
“We’ve come to consensus on a lot of issues,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll resolve all of them. I don’t know. There are strong opinions on these things.”
That means thorny issues like reintroducing wolves into the state may not be addressed in the plan.
The group planned to work late into the evening Tuesday and get back to work by 8 a.m. today.