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Just five days before Coloradans will decide if gray wolves should be reintroduced to the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted federal protection on the species. In an announcement made Thursday morning at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said, “Today’s action reflects the Trump administration’s continued commitment to species conservation based on the parameters of the law and the best scientific and commercial data available.” While Bernhardt’s department will closely monitor the species for the next five years, management of gray wolves will move to the individual states, according to a press release.
In March 2019, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin introduced a bill to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Five months later, the Department of Interior announced that forthcoming changes to the ESA would add and remove species from the Federal Register in an attempt to improve regulations.
“It’s not a surprise,” says Joanna Lambert, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and science advisor for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP), the organization that is working to reintroduce wolves in Colorado. “Earlier in the summer, there was an announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife stating that the delisting was going to happen probably sometime in early November, so it is a few days earlier than we thought. And it’s a big deal, it’s historical. Gray wolves were one of the first species that were listed on the federal registry of the Endangered Species Act in 1974.”
Lambert is concerned that the move will make it harder to successfully reintroduce wolves in Colorado if Proposition 114 passes. “I am most worried about the fact that while we do have a viable protection of gray wolves in the northern Rockies—as well as in the very upper midwest—getting wolf populations reestablished outside of those areas will be difficult without that federal protection,” she says. Without consistent conservation efforts and eyes on the ground, Lambert says reintroducing wolves in Colorado will be very complicated.
According to the announcement, the delisting is a result of successful conservation efforts made to protect gray wolves in the last four decades. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law,” the press release stated.
While gray wolves are protected by state law in Colorado, they can legally be hunted once they cross the border into Wyoming (wolves are federally protected in the greater Yellowstone area, which spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana). “So the likelihood of them getting here from the greater Yellowstone ecosystem through Wyoming is very, very unlikely,” Lambert says. “Despite the success stories of the wolves in the midwest and Rockies, wolves are still missing from upwards of 85 percent of their former distribution. This decision is premature and the chances of a viable population existing within that former distribution is unlikely.”
But for the time being, wolves are safe. “The rule will be published in the Federal Register at an unspecified future date, and will not be finalized until the 60-day window post-publication has expired,” Rebecca Ferrell, a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), said in an email. After those 60 days, the management of gray wolves will be in the states’ hands.
Ferrell says that CPW will continue to monitor wolf activity and dispersal in Colorado. And if Coloradans vote to reintroduce wolves on November 3, CPW will “work with federal partners, neighboring states, all of our partners and stakeholders across Colorado to create a plan to implement the outcome of the ballot vote.”
“This decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no bearing on what goes on here in Colorado,” Lambert says. “The ballot initiative is about the decision to reintroduce gray wolves, which is still on Colorado’s endangered species list. And it’s too soon to tell what’s going to happen next week.”