Colorado gray wolf reintroduction: Rio Blanco County’s leaders say they won’t allow it
While Colorado is in the early planning stages of carrying out the voter-mandated reintroduction of the gray wolf, it’s already facing resistance from one rural county in the northwest corner of the state — and more are expected to join.
Rio Blanco County’s Board of County Commissioners last week approved a resolution declaring Rio Blanco a “Wolf Reintroduction Sanctuary County,” essentially daring Colorado Parks and Wildlife to bring the wolf back into the county under the state law passed by voters in November.
Rio Blanco officials are encouraging neighboring counties to follow their lead in allowing natural migration, but objecting to “artificially reintroduced wolves.”
“We are more alike than we are different,” board chairman Gary Moyer said. “Right now it feels like a war is being waged on rural Colorado, and they are coming at us from every direction. However, we are also stronger together, and it will be hard to ignore us if we are working together.”
County Attorney Tom Starr said Rio Blanco “would respect the natural migration of wolves. We’re just asking CPW pay attention to the science and the overwhelming desire expressed by our citizens in the vote to not introduce them artificially in our communities.”
Gray wolf populations are to be restored in Colorado after a November ballot measure that narrowly passed with the support of urban voters. In Rio Blanco County, voters opposed wolf reintroduction 3,148 to 437, according to state election data. The proposition was opposed by ranchers and farmers, who decried the power of the urban vote that drives so much of Colorado’s politics.
That urban-versus-rural battle will be on full display as CPW develops its plan to reintegrate wolves into the state.
On Thursday, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission discussed progress on the plan, which requires the state to have a sustainable number of wolves on Colorado public lands west of the Continental Divide by December 2023. Important details remain unknown, such as how many wolves will be brought to the state, which established wolf populations in other states will source Colorado’s packs and where they will be released.
To get there, CPW is setting up multiple advisory groups to help with planning, including a stakeholders group and a technical advisory group. The agency also is hiring a facilitator who will lead public meetings and guide public involvement in the planning and development of a public education program.
The commission still must figure out how to pay for the reintroduction and during Thursday’s meeting several commissioners said they did not want to fund the wolf project by increasing the cost of hunting and fishing licenses and other outdoor recreation fees.
Past planning for wolves’ arrival
In 2004, Colorado predicted wolves naturally would migrate to the state as their populations grew in Wyoming and Utah because of their protected status as an endangered species. At that time, the state established a volunteer task force to study what impacts the wolves would have and how the state could monitor their integration into the ecosystem.
The group wrote 70 recommendations, but with wolf migration slow to come those never came into play. Early in 2020, ahead of the vote on the reintroduction plan, wildlife officials confirmed the presence of a wolf pack in Colorado, likely for the first time since the 1930s.
Now, that task force’s recommendations will serve as a roadmap, although every aspect must be revisited, said Eric Odell, CPW’s species conservation program manager. The plan did not consider any efforts by humans to bring wolves back and much in Colorado’s landscape has changed in 17 years, he said.
Still, those recommendations offer hints at all the environmental, political, social and economic considerations to come, Odell said.
For example, the group said wolves should not have boundaries as long as they naturally migrated, and it recommended various types of technology for monitoring their movements. It said the state needed a plan in case wolves, who are predators, started impacting the populations of other species and how it would control that. And it recommended ranchers be reimbursed 100% for every confirmed loss of livestock and 50% for every probable loss, Odell said.
“The working group created a live-and-let-live policy,” he said.
Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources, said there is a sense of urgency within the agency in its wolf planning. On March 1, 250 CPW employees participated in a virtual seminar on wolf management with Wyoming Fish and Game Department employees sharing their work, he said.
“Wolves are taking a lot time right now,” he said.
The CPW commission did not address how it will negotiate with those who oppose wolf reintroduction, but the plan already involves the inclusion of people with competing interests.
Multiple counties along the Western Slope have said they do not want wolves to be reintroduced. But Rio Blanco is the first to pass a formal resolution.
In an emailed statement, Travis Duncan, a CPW spokesman, wrote, “We are aware of Rio Blanco County’s recent resolution. Although state statute supersedes county resolutions, we hear their concerns. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a long history working alongside our county partners and we are committed to ensuring that their concerns, ideas and questions are addressed throughout the planning process.”
But Starr, the Rio Blanco county attorney, believes the commission would have legal standing if CPW insists on placing wolves within the county’s boundaries. The resolution is consistent with the county’s natural resources plan and with county government’s right of self-determination of use of land within the county, he said.
Sanctuary counties in Colorado
In declaring itself a wolf reintroduction sanctuary, Rio Blanco’s commissioners borrowed a strategy used by several counties and towns in 2019 to oppose a gun law.
In 2019, a handful of Colorado counties and towns declared themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” because of a new state law that allowed judges to order the removal of guns owned by people determined to be safety risks. So far, no county has needed to legally defend its self-declared sanctuary status and one county sheriff in a Second Amendment sanctuary even used the law to confiscate the guns from a woman threatening to harm herself and law enforcement.
Rio Blanco’s officials argue wolf reintroduction could harm the county’s economy. Already the county is trying to recover from lost revenues due to the decline of the fossil fuel industry, something they blame on increased regulation. They say cattle, sheep and hay farming are an $18.8 million industry that would be threatened by wolves, which would prey on livestock.
And they fear wolves would reduce the big game populations that draw hunters and tourists to the region, Starr said. Outdoor recreation spending in the northwest region of Colorado exceeded $10 billion in 2017, according to a CPW report produced in 2018.
“Ag producers are under attack anyway and then to artificially introduce wolves in addition to those naturally migrating this way, it’s a stress and a real cost and an impediment to their success that the government is putting on them,” Starr said.
But wolves could find their way into Rio Blanco County without help from humans.
Already, a wolf pack has been identified in neighboring Moffatt County, which shares a northern border with Rio Blanco. Wolves have been sighted near the county line and county officials believe there has been a wolf sighting near Rangely, Starr said.
In February, CPW announced it had captured a gray wolf in North Park near the Wyoming border. Wildlife managers put a tracking collar on the 110-pound male and released him.
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