Colorado wolf managers divided on rule change

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

By DAVE BUCHANAN

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

A ruling Tuesday by a federal judge that rescinds a Bush administration move to relax protection for wolves was met with mixed reactions from a state panel devising a wolf-management plan for Colorado.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones in Portland, Ore., rescinds a rule change that allowed ranchers to kill wolves on sight when attacking livestock, a key part of the compromise reached by the Colorado panel.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Jean Stetson, a cattle rancher from Craig and one of the livestock producer representatives on the 14-member Wolf Working Group. “It’s very important to many ranchers that they have the ability to protect their livestock and their livelihood. It’s very frustrating.”

The panel hosted a public meeting Tuesday in Grand Junction to discuss the management plan. Six other meetings are set for around the state this month.

The working group, comprised of representatives from livestock producers, conservation and sportsmen groups, local government officials and wildlife biologists, has been meeting since April to develop a management plan. The panel, when presenting its plan last month to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, unanimously agreed that migrating wolves be allowed to establish themselves in Colorado and that ranchers be compensated when a wolf kills livestock.

The wildlife commission changed the state regulation to be in line with a Fish and Wildlife Service ruling from April 2003, that reclassified wolf populations in the East and West as threatened rather than endangered.

But Tuesday the judge ruled that the government acted improperly by combining areas where wolves were doing well, such as Montana, with places where their numbers had not recovered. Wolves in certain parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, where wolves have been reintroduced and are considered experimental, nonessential populations, are not affected by Tuesday’s ruling.

Rob Edward, director of the predator conservation group Sinapu and a member of the wolf working group, said the ruling directs the government to do more to protect wolves.

“But it also begs the question: What now?” Edward said. “It does mean that the group needs to continue to talk and be more creative and do more to get the wolf recovered.”

How the judge’s ruling affects Colorado and the rest of the West is unclear, said Gary Skiba, multi-species conservation coordinator for the Division of Wildlife.

“We don’t know what recovery means anymore,” said Skiba. “We also don’t know when Colorado will get authority to manage its own wolves.”

Fish and Wildlife expressed disappointment in the ruling.

“We believe our rule provided for biologically sound management of the core population of wolves in areas where we knew they could thrive as stable viable populations,” the agency said in a statement. “We also believe the rule was correct as a matter of law under the Endangered Species Act.”

Practically speaking, only wolves in northwestern Montana were affected by the rule change that allowed ranchers to shoot wolves on sight, said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The rule never extended to experimental populations in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho and the rest of Montana, and no packs have been established in other states in the region, Bangs said.

Until last summer, wolves were considered extinct in Colorado, the last reported gray wolf killed by a government trapper in 1943. However, a female wolf from a Yellowstone pack was hit and killed this summer by a vehicle on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs.

Information about the Wolf Management Working Group is available at wildlife.state.co.us/species_cons/GrayWolf/.

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