By JUDITH KOHLER
Associated Press writer
DENVER — A task force that says wolves migrating to Colorado from other states should be left alone unless they attack livestock or kill off other wildlife has volunteered to tackle the thorny question of whether the gray wolf should be restored to the state.
A 14-member panel presented its unanimous recommendations to the Colorado Wildlife Commission Thursday on how the state should handle stray wolves that wander into the state from Yellowstone National Park. The effort was launched last year after a wolf traced to Yellowstone through its radio collar was found dead along Interstate 70 in the mountains west of Denver.
Colorado wildlife managers agree it’s just a matter of time until more of the animals show up. The small number of Canadian wolves released in Yellowstone and central Idaho a decade ago to rebuild the population has grown to about 825, spread among Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
The Colorado task force, which includes ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates, said in a 67-page report that migrating wolves should be monitored and dealt with, possibly even killed, if they cause trouble. Wolves not making trouble should be left where they are.
Members also said ranchers who lose livestock to wolves should be compensated and the money shouldn’t come from the state wildlife funds generated from hunting and fishing fees.
The panel, appointed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, also asked to be kept together and called back to duty if the state decides to explore whether to restore wolves by releasing them in the state.
Del Benson, a fish and wildlife biologist and Colorado State University professor, said he and other task force members got to knew each other so well that they could cut through the rhetoric to reach a consensus.
“If they convene a new group, they’ll have to go through all that process,” Benson said.
Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority, a trade group, and Rob Edward of Sinapu, which advocates wolf restoration, said they’re willing to discuss whether the state should bring wolves to the state.
It doesn’t mean they’ll agree on the answer.
“To Rob, I think a lot of wolves is 1,200. My idea of a lot is 12,” Kline said.
Edward said there were several times that “people on either side of the table were ready to get up and walk.”
“What kept people from doing that was the clear understanding that if this group couldn’t do it, no one could,” he added.
The Division of Wildlife will study the group’s plan and wildlife commissioners will likely vote on it in May. Meanwhile, the task force will hold a series of public meetings on the report starting at the end of January.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reclassified the gray wolf as threatened, meaning it has fewer protections than an animal considered endangered. The agency wants to take the wolf off the endangered species list altogether in the northern Rockies, but won’t until Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have acceptable wolf management plans.
Fish and Wildlife has rejected Wyoming’s proposal, which it said wouldn’t protect the wolf enough, prompting a lawsuit by the state.
Colorado, meanwhile, is divided between the recovery area for the gray wolf and the Mexican gray wolf, which federal biologists are trying to restore in New Mexico and Arizona. Wolves north of I-70 in Colorado are threatened and can be shot if found attacking livestock.
South of the interstate, wolves are considered endangered, enjoying the highest level of protection, because Mexican gray wolves may wander north into the state.
Wolves are native to Colorado, but were wiped out by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned the predator. Task force member Mike Bond, who represents hunters, said his research showed that a majority of Coloradans support bringing wolves back.
“I came into this with somewhat of a bias against wolves,” said Bond, an oil and gas consultant.
That changed after he read more than 70 reports on the impacts of wolves on deer and elk. He said the effects are insignificant unless the herds are already in distress.
Benefits include improved habitat when wolves pick off sick and infected wildlife and thin herds that have overgrazed areas, Bond said.
Wolves have also generated about $40 million in extra revenue for Yellowstone National Park, where people travel to see and hear the wolves, he said.