By JUDITH KOHLER
Associated Press Writer
DENVER (AP) – A new federal court ruling on the status of gray wolves gives any of the animals wandering into Colorado full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which means ranchers can’t shoot them even if they attack livestock.
The ruling issued Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones in Portland, Ore., overturned a Bush administration rule that lowered protection for wolves in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes area. The effects, however, will ripple into Colorado, where the state Wildlife Commission recently approved a rule that would have allowed wolves migrating from other states to be shot if they were caught attacking livestock.
The ruling also will likely delay when Colorado gains authority to manage wolves.
A state task force on wolf management was formed last year after a wolf traced to Yellowstone National Park through its radio collar was hit and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 70 in the mountains west of Denver.
Colorado wildlife managers agree it’s just a matter of time until more of the animals roam from the Yellowstone area, where they were restored a decade ago in efforts to rebuild the animal’s numbers.
Wolves were wiped out in Colorado by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned the predator.
The decision overturning the federal government’s move to reduce the gray wolf’s status from ”endangered” to ”threatened” throws Colorado’s management plans into question.
”What seems to be the clear fallout is that it will take longer for the state to get to manage wolves,” said Gary Skiba, a biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and coordinator of the wolf management task force.
Skiba was in Grand Junction Tuesday as part of a series of open houses on recommendations the task force made to the Wildlife Commission in December. The proposals include leaving migrating wolves alone unless they attack livestock or kill off wildlife and compensating ranchers who lose animals.
The court decision eliminates the division of Colorado into two wolf recovery zones. When it lowered protection for the gray wolf, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said wolves found north of Interstate 70 in Colorado would be considered threatened. To conform with the change, state wildlife managers approved rules in November allowing ranchers to shoot wolves caught attacking livestock.
Wolves south of I-70 still have full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which means they can’t be killed unless they threaten people. The goal is to protect Mexican gray wolves that may migrate from Arizona and New Mexico, where they are being restored and are classified as endangered.
Now, wolves found anywhere in Colorado will have the highest level of protection.
The Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified wolves in the northern Rockies as threatened in 2003 when the number of animals grew to several hundred in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The agency released wolves from Canada in the area in 1995.
Environmentalists who challenged the move argued that the government hasn’t done enough to recover wolves, which are still absent from much of their historic range. The judge ruled that the Interior Department improperly applied the law when it lowered the animal’s protections.
Rob Edward of the Boulder-based environmental group Sinapu said he hopes the court ruling builds momentum for restoring the wolf to Colorado. Edward is a member of the wolf management task force, which has offered to study the prospect of releasing wolves in the state.