(Colorado Newsline) Federal wildlife officials Friday announced they will grant Colorado a key exemption that paves the way for the state to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope by the end of this year, while still allowing "lethal take" of the endangered animals in some circumstances.
In a final environmental impact statement on the state's wolf reintroduction plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed a so-called 10(j) rule that will allow Colorado gray wolves to be managed as an "experimental population." Named for a section in the Endangered Species Act, the rule will authorize lethal control, as well as "injurious nonlethal" methods and "intentional harassment," against wolves who threaten livestock.
The issuance of the 10(j) rule had been a top priority for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, state lawmakers and ranchers in the regions where wolves will be reintroduced, who feared that without it, livestock producers who killed or injured wolves to protect their herds would be left open to federal prosecution. Bipartisan majorities in the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year requiring the rule to be in place before releases began, potentially complicating the Dec. 31 deadline set by Proposition 114, the wolf reintroduction ballot measure passed by Colorado voters in 2020.
Governor Jared Polis vetoed the bill, expressing confidence that the federal rulemaking process was on schedule and the 10(j) rule would be approved before the end of the year. The USFWS obliged his administration on Friday will a draft record of decision that, barring any sudden reversal, means the rule will go into effect in mid-November.
Under the rule, landowners or livestock producers with grazing permits on federal land will be granted broad authority to kill wolves within 24 hours of an attack on livestock or working animals, subject to evidence confirmed by state or federal wildlife agents. On a case-by-case basis, additional authorizations can be granted to intentionally harass wolves, or to seek out and kill wolves determined to be "repeatedly depredating" livestock in a given area.
Beginning with federally-led efforts in and around Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, wolf reintroduction programs have been highly controversial among ranchers, who have fueled a conservative backlash against such efforts in states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, shows that wolf depredations account for less than 1% of unwanted cattle and sheep mortality in states with established wolf populations.
"Today's announcement is the result of extensive coordination and outreach among many partners in Colorado at the local, state, federal, and Tribal levels," the USFWS said in a press release. "This management flexibility can help ensure co-existence between wolves and affected landowners contributing to the conservation of the species while reducing the potential impacts of reintroduction to stakeholders."
CPW officials told lawmakers earlier this week that they plan to capture and release up to 15 wolves within a large region centered on Glenwood Canyon this winter, with the agency's "release season" beginning in mid-December and lasting until mid-March.
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