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A Look at Colorado’s (Very) Preliminary Plan to Reintroduce Gray Wolves

We've got a long way to go until we'll hear the canid's distant howl in Colorado, but the lengthy and complicated process is moving forward. Here's what will happen next.

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It’s been less than three months since Coloradans voted to reintroduce gray wolves into the Centennial State, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is already getting to work. On January 4, an 11-person CPW commission—a citizen-led board that sets regulations and policies for the state’s parks and wildlife programs—held their initial meeting to discuss a proposed timeline for restoration, and importantly, how to manage the canid once they’re brought back to the Western Slope.

But Coloradans shouldn’t expect to hear distant howls any time soon. In a lengthy discussion over what will be a complicated and involved process, the commission pinpointed a number of steps, hurdles, and needs that must be met before the reintroduction can move forward. Here’s a quick look at the preliminary plan and what will happen next.

Who will create the reintroduction plan?

With the passage of Proposition 114—which was approved by a narrow margin in November—Colorado made history as the first state in which voters decided to reintroduce gray wolves. And with the legislation’s text calling for paws on the ground by December 2023 (more on the timeline in a bit), CPW has to work fast. The commission will soon convene two groups, a technical working group and a stakeholder advisory group, in an effort to determine the best plan to bring wolves back to the state. Both these groups are just advisory, meaning they wouldn’t have any authority on wolf management policy or operations, Reid DeWalt, assistant director of the commission, said in his presentation of the plan during the January 4 meeting. Those duties will still lie with CPW.

The members of the technical working group—they’ve yet to be named—will provide scientific-based research and guidance to find the best conservation and management strategies. According to DeWalt, CPW director Dan Prenzlow and the commission will approve the group’s members, who may come from within CPW, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Department of Agriculture, local tribal representatives, and other federal agencies. Because several states across the U.S., including Oregon, California, Minnesota, Montana, and Washington, have reintroduced wolves in the last couple decades, the group has access to concrete data on what methods could effectively work in Colorado.

The stakeholder advisory group, which will represent a wide range of viewpoints and interests from throughout the state, will have a say regarding recommendations and concerns for the plan. To best represent the interests of Coloradans, the stakeholder group may encompass individuals from “advocacy groups, livestock producers, representatives of local or county government, representatives of environmental interests, sports persons, academic institutions, or Cooperative Extension,” DeWalt said.

When can we expect the reintroduction to take place?

It’s unclear right now if the goal of reintroduction by December 2023 will be feasible, as many steps in the preliminary plan are contingent on one another. Commissioner Taishya ​Adams​​ voiced concern during the January 4 meeting that the proposed plan lacks transparency on exact timing for each phase. “I want to make sure that we are crystal clear that there could be no confusion over what we approve,” she said.

However, Commission Vice Chair​ ​Carrie Besnette Hauser believes that flexibility and tentative dates are absolutely needed in a process as complicated  as wolf reintroduction. “There’s going to be a lot of details that are going to go into [the plan],” she said. “And actually some fluidity with the notion that we’ve got an end date and a deadline from which to reverse engineer, I think is really important.”

So, what’s the timeline until then?

While the commission has yet to set a goal date for reintroduction, DeWalt expects the next steps in the planning process to take place this winter and spring with a public education tour. “This phase will focus on building public awareness and obtaining input through an education and listening tour to understand issues perceived to be critical for success,” DeWalt said, adding that by the time summer rolls around, DeWalt expects the advisory groups to be staffed and working.

Depending on the efficiency of the groups’ work throughout summer 2021, the commission expects to start holding multiple public opinion forums, surveys, and webinars by next fall or winter—they’ll continue throughout the planning process—to gather opinions and concerns from citizens. The two working groups will take these concerns into account when making their recommendations.

If all goes as scheduled, Coloradans can expect to see a detailed restoration plan by 2022. By the end of that year, the commission is expected to approve or amend the draft plan. At that point, the public will get a chance to weigh in again.

After addressing any outstanding public concerns, the stakeholder advisory group and the technical working group will put the finishing touches to the plan in collaboration with CPW before submitting it once again to the commission for final approval. Once approved, CPW will implement the plan.

What are the main citizen concerns CPW will be grappling with?

While some still question the biological advantages of wolf reintroduction, the commission expects to see social and political differences as the biggest challenges going forward. From where gray wolves are reintroduced to how to fairly compensate ranchers for livestock losses—the plan is to use state funds—the working groups and CPW will have their hands full in the coming 36 months.

The individuals and groups who originally opposed Proposition 114 are still concerned with potential conflicts and consequences of wolves roaming the Western Slope. “Although wolf depredation is a small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole, the impacts to individual producers can be substantial,” said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for CPW during the January 4 meeting. “Calculating these costs, including the…direct mortality from wolf predation, and other indirect impacts is challenging.”

Even after the reintroduction plan is put to place, and wolves once again roam freely in the Centennial State, the commission recognized that this issue is likely to remain contentious—and with good reason. “The gray wolf symbolizes the diversity of American thoughts, values, and opinions. From persecuted beasts to resourceful survivors, to the top of the food chain, the gray wolf encapsulates the full spectrum of human emotion,” Odell said. “Because the attention people pay to wolves is not balanced with the relatively minor impact that wolves have on the lives of most people, wolf management will probably remain complicated, expensive, political, and controversial.”

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