Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on wolf reintroduction. To read part one, click here.

As the final steps fall into place before wolves are officially reintroduced to Colorado, policies governing both lethal take in response to livestock depredation and how to foster coexistence with the apex predator have been a flashpoint among livestock growers, conservationists and lawmakers. 

It’s been a long, three-year haul from Colorado voter approval of gray wolf reintroduction to the creation of the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan (CWRMP) in May to locating a viable population in a Western state that is willing to donate the wolves. (Oregon announced in early October that it would donate 10 wolves, after other Western states with established populations declined to do so.) 

Many have remained anxious about having a lethal control option or “management flexibility” in place before Dec. 31, the date by which the state is legally required to reintroduce wolves. It wasn’t until mid-September that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) signaled that it would authorize a so-called 10(j) rule allowing for lethal control of wolves that have preyed on livestock. Barring a reversal, the rule is expected to be in place in time.

However, some conservationists are already saying the management plan and the 10(j) rule will set up the wolves to fail.  

The side of a rancher’s barn near Crawford, Colorado.

What is 10(j)?

Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) applies to reintroduced, federally threatened or endangered species. Since an official population of gray wolves does not yet exist in Colorado, during CWRMP development, CPW requested that FWS designate the reintroduced gray wolves as a ”‘non-essential, experimental population,” using the 10(j) rule. This would remove ESA protection, essentially downlisting gray wolves from endangered to threatened. 

The draft 10(j) rule, released Sept. 15, states that the FWS may designate a population of a listed species as experimental if it is released into suitable natural habitat outside the species’ current range but inside the species’ historic range. Non-essential means that the loss of that population would not decrease the ability of the species to survive in the wild.

The express purpose of the 10(j) rule is to allow for lethal control. It is illegal to kill an endangered species in all cases except proven self-defense. If the reintroduced gray wolves are downlisted to a threatened, non-essential, experimental status, the 10(j) rule would allow those wolves, identified by geographic location, to be “hazed, killed or relocated,” but only if they kill domestic animals and only if there’s proof.

The FWS is now in a “wait period” before issuing the final record of decision on the 10(j) rule. 

Delia Malone, ecologist and chair of the Wildlife Committee of the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter, was hopeful that the state’s wolf reintroduction management plan would have required non-lethal coexistence measures, but those were not included in the final draft. Credit: Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism

No mandate for coexistence

MIchael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told Aspen Journalism that the draft 10(j) rule has left out three key components. First, he said, the rule fully authorizes killing wolves that kill livestock with no restriction on the number of wolves to be killed, even on public lands. “The [CWRMP] and [draft 10(j) rule] have no limits on killing wolves on public lands,” he said. “What that means is the same level of negligence that is permitted throughout the state also applies to public lands. If wolves kill livestock on public lands, wolves will get killed also.”

Secondly, he said, “Ranchers do not have to take preventative measures.” Neither the CWRMP nor the draft 10(j) rule requires non-lethal control or coexistence methods, such as range riders, lights, noise or fladry (the use of flags on a fence to scare off predators), prior to killing a wolf that may be threatening or killing livestock. “Right now, it’s voluntary,” said Robinson. 

Delia Malone, ecologist and chair of the Wildlife Committee of the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter, told Aspen Journalism that the final CWRMP took out parts of the draft plan that conservation groups agreed with. ”A key thing that the [draft] plan suggested was that coexistence methods be required, and that was not included” in the final plan, she said.

The final plan states that “conflict management techniques are not required to be eligible for compensation; however, CPW will work with livestock producers to implement such techniques to reduce the risk of further depredation.” 

Robinson’s third concern is that the effort in Colorado makes no room for the reintroduction of Mexican wolves. He said scientists recommend, for good reason, that the endangered Mexican gray wolf be recovered alongside the northern gray wolf in the southern Rockies. “The Mexican gray wolf has limited genetic diversity,” he said. “A large enough population to regrow genetic diversity could occur from being connected to northern gray wolves, which is what it was like before wolves were exterminated.”

Robinson added that the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado is being set up for failure as result of the combination of no requirements for preventive, non-lethal measures and generous payment for livestock loss. “It’s a perverse incentive to facilitate wolves killing livestock and for more wolves to be killed,” he said. “The livestock industry, having failed with a big-money campaign to defeat [2020’s Proposition 114], has worked to subvert it through a wolf plan that includes the absence of a requirement for preventative measures.”

Colorado drivers, beginning on Jan. 1, will be able to purchase a “Born to be Wild” specialty license plate. Proceeds will benefit programs to foster coexistence with wolves. Funding for depredation reimbursement will be automatically appropriated annually from the state’ general fund. Credit: Courtesy image

Depredation funding mandated while coexistence support is a choice

The activity of Colorado state lawmakers during the 74th General Assembly, as evidenced by two funding bills, suggests that lethal control and livestock compensation are seen as higher priorities than coexistence strategies.

The CWRMP plan states that livestock producers can receive fair-market value up to $15,000 per animal that is a confirmed wolf kill, plus up to $15,000 for veterinary costs. Compensation covers cattle, sheep, horses, mules, swine, goats, llamas, alpacas and guard animals, such as burros and dogs. State lawmakers voted to fund compensation via Senate Bill 23-255, which establishes a special Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund (WDCF). The bill, which passed unanimously in both chambers and was signed into law in May, appropriates hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state general fund for livestock compensation for the foreseeable future.

Colorado state representative Elizabeth Velasco (D-HD57) poses for a photo with Congressman Joe Neguse (D-CD2) and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D). Velasco is a primary sponsor of the “Born to be Wild” bill that designates money for non-lethal control methods from the sale of a specialty license plate. Credit: Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism

For the fiscal year ending June 2024, $175,000 will go to the WDCF. For every fiscal year thereafter, $350,000 will be transferred to the WDCF for livestock loss compensation. The largest sources of general fund revenue are income and sales taxes. State Sen. Dylan Roberts (D-District 8), co-sponsor of the bill, told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that “by creating this in statute, we are dedicating funds that will always be available for compensation, regardless of what happens with the state budget or DNR programming.”

On the other hand, House Bill 23-1265, also known as the “Born to Be Wild” bill, which governs money for non-lethal control, puts the onus on vehicle owners who like wolves. A specially designed license plate will be available starting Jan. 1, 2024, for $100. A one-time fee of $25 goes to the Highway Users Tax Fund (HUTF), and another $25 goes to the Colorado DRIVES fund. The remaining $50 goes into CPW’s Wildlife Cash Fund for non-lethal control. Whoever buys the plate agrees to pay $50 annually to keep it. “This bill is an opportunity for everyone who supported [Proposition 114] to support non-lethal measures for our farmers and ranchers,” state Rep. Elizabeth Velasco (D-District 57), primary sponsor of the bill, told Aspen Journalism in an email. Velasco estimates that the fees could bring in up to $1 million for non-lethal mitigation. 

State Sen. Perry Will (R-District 5) sponsored a bill that funds non-lethal control measures to support wolf reintroduction with funds generated by a new specialty license plate. Credit: Amy Hadden Marsh/Aspen Journalism

For fiscal year 2023-24, the bill authorizes a $548,000 appropriation to the Department of Natural Resources for use by CPW. That amount corresponds with the estimate that state finance officials believe the license plate sales will bring in before the end of the fiscal year in June. It also sets the ceiling for how much the state can spend on non-lethal control. “The appropriation of $548,000 is the limit of our authority to spend for the stated purposes,” said Travis Duncan, CPW public information supervisor. “If less revenue is received, we will spend less than that total. If more is received, we will need to ask the legislature for authority to expend more.”

According to the Colorado Legislative Council Staff’s April 5 revised fiscal note for the “Born to Be Wild” bill, expected demand for the plate is based on 60% of the actual demand for the “wildlife sporting” license plate in its first three years, when a total of 22,810 such plates were purchased. “As such, the fiscal note assumes that the ‘Born to Be Wild’ plate will be issued on the following schedule: 10,960 in the first year, 2,740 the next year and at least 200 plates per year thereafter.” But, unlike SB 23-255, the amount is not guaranteed.

Duncan told Aspen Journalism that the agency will work closely with the state to determine license plate revenue. “These funds will go into CPW’s Wildlife Cash Fund (WCF) and be used to implement gray wolf reintroduction and management,” he said in an email. “But not for lethal control.” The bill also states that revenue from the wolf license plate can be used for non-lethal mitigation programs, training, personnel, contractors, community outreach, equipment, research and bill promotion. 

State Sen. Perry Will (R-District 5) co-sponsored the bill despite a general dislike for license-plate legislation. “It’s a good bill,” he told Aspen Journalism. Will noted that the legislature considered a license plate bill for livestock compensation but decided against it.  “It wouldn’t bring in enough money,” he said.

Part 1 of our wolf-reintroduction coverage looked at perceptions among various communities on the eve of the wolf’s return. You can read it here.

Amy Hadden Marsh is a freelance journalist and longtime resident of the Roaring Fork Valley.