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Wolves set to return as CPW Commission makes history in Spring Valley

In a voluminous gymnasium on Colorado Mountain College's Spring Valley campus between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, CPW Commissioners held a marathon nine-hour meeting Wednesday.

They're going to do it again Thursday, but the heavy lifting is now behind them.

Voters narrowly approved Proposition 114 in the November 2020 election.

The ballot measure directed CPW to restore wolves to Colorado by December 31, 2023, and kicked off years of stakeholder and technical group meetings, public engagement and opportunities for written comment after CPW released a draft plan on December 9, 2022.

There have been six virtual and in person meetings around the state, with about 4,000 written and verbal comments submitted. All that culminated Wednesday with commissioners voting 11 to 0 to approve the final Colorado wolf restoration and management plan.

Eric Odell, a species conservation program manager for CPW, is the state's biological and technical lead for wolf restoration.

He told the crowd of dozens of ranchers, outfitters, conservationists and C P W officers and officials that the process has benefited from discussions with counterparts in other western states that already have wolves.

"A fundamental and primary takeaway from these conversations was that the biological realities of reintroducing and managing wolves is not that different from many other species that state wildlife management agencies have experienced with," Odell said. "But what is fundamentally different about wolves when comparing that to other conservation efforts is the level of public interest and attention in the polarizing social and political aspect that this species brings—and that's certainly been what we've experienced throughout this process."

And it has been polarizing with ranchers and outfitters, claiming wolves would destroy their livelihood, and even the Western way of life; meanwhile, conservation biologists and animal welfare advocates have pointed to the success of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in nurturing a balanced ecosystem, restoring overgrazed aspen forests, even boosting bee populations and riparian habitat.

Thirty-nine of Colorado's 64 counties passed resolutions opposing wolf reintroduction before the vote in November 2020, and ultimately Prop. 114 only got a majority of the vote in 13 counties—but those were very populous counties on the Front Range, along with Pitkin and Summit counties, and three counties in the southwest corner of the state.

Garfield County Commissioners have been staunch opponents of wolf reintroduction, and have worked with ranchers and state lawmakers to try to boost compensation figures for wolf depredation of livestock.

They've also advocated to postpone restoration until the state can receive a 10(J) designation from the federal government that would classify wolves as a non-essential experimental population, and allow CPW and the public more leeway to kill the apex predator if livestock, working dogs, or humans are threatened or harassed.

"Sixty-three percent of Garfield County citizens voted against the reintroduction," Mike Samson told the CPW Commission. He's held office since 2008. "The state reintroduction plan must provide our citizens grazers, outfitters, et cetera with adequate tools to manage an apex predator being forced upon them. As you're aware, Garfield County has stood against the effort to reintroduce wolves since well before the vote. However, here we are."

Under the final plan, ranchers will be eligible for $15,000 per animal that they can prove was lost to wolf depredation—even up to $30,000 if they have veterinary costs.

After the entire wild gray wolf population in the state was exterminated in the 1930s and '40s, it took until the early 2000s for them to return, wandering back into Colorado from the restoration in Yellowstone.

Nearly two decades later, in 2021, the state had its first breeding pair since the 1940s.

It's believed that only two wolves reside in the state right now.

Even with the final management plan in place, it's possible that reintroduction could still be delayed for years: Several bills with bipartisan support making their way through the Colorado legislature would undermine the will of the voters, halting restoration until the state can receive a 10( J) designation.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and CPW officials support seeking that designation, but believe it can be in place before paws are slated to hit the ground on the last day of this year.

The governor himself made an appearance via Zoom Wednesday after commissioners approved the final plan.

"Thank you to everybody for all of your work, and congratulations on the unanimous adoption of the wolf reintroduction plan," Polis told the crowd.

For KDNK News, I'm Morgan Neely.

Morgan is KDNK's News Director. He comes to KDNK with public radio passion and experience. He was a news host, reporter, and operations/programming director at KAJX-Aspen, and has extensive experience working in municipal government.