West Slope ranchers shared concerns at the Holy Cross Cattlemen's Association meeting on Jan. 21. From left to right: Philip Anderson (Walden), Renee Deal (Somerset), Lenny Klinglesmith (Meeker), Bill Fales (Carbondale). Photo by Amy Hadden Marsh

“Wolves are coming!” was an oft-repeated statement at Saturday’s Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association meeting in Rifle. And, indeed, they are. In fact, if all goes according to plan, wolves will be released into Colorado in December of this year. But, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) draft plan, made public in December 2022, is complicated.

Reid DeWalt, CPW assistant director for wildlife and natural resources, told The Sopris Sun Saturday that this project is the most complex he’s worked on. “The most difficult thing about it for me is that those who like wolves have a valid point and those who don’t [like wolves] have a valid point,” he explained. “And CPW is in the middle of that, trying to listen effectively to both sides and to provide a plan.”

Attendees at Saturday’s meeting heard from CPW and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials plus livestock growers from around the state. During a landowner panel, ranchers Bill Fales, Lenny Klinglesmith, Renee Deal and Phillip Anderson shared thoughts and concerns about the state plan. Predator pressure combined with the impacts of drought on grazing allotment rotation, water shortages, water use efficiency, compensation for livestock losses due to wolves and lethal control of wolves were some of the concerns discussed during the panel.

Deal, a fourth generation sheep rancher from Somerset, is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group that worked on the draft plan. “If we scrap this plan, we’re screwed,” she told the audience. When asked why, she said that the draft plan is a compromise that took a long time to hammer out.

“We can’t expect as livestock producers to get everything we think we need and we have to also give some concessions to the other side,” she told The Sopris Sun. She added that wolf advocates and livestock producers don’t trust each other but working on the plan together began to bridge the gap. “We worked on a lot of really contentious issues and we came to agreement on some things that shocked me,” she said. “There were some advocates that agreed that we need lethal control.”

The ability to use lethal control is right up there with loss compensation as what worries ranchers most. The draft plan states that the use of lethal control — or killing wolves as a management method — basically depends on certain factors.

One of those factors is compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, which could be a bit of a sticking point. Right now, the gray wolf is listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), so killing a wolf is prohibited except in self-defense. As long as the wolf remains a federally-listed endangered species, lethal control is a moot point.

Enter something called the 10J rule, which was a big topic at Saturday’s meeting. The rule is part of the ESA and allows the USFWS to “designate a population of a listed species as experimental if it will be released into suitable natural habitat outside the species’ current range.” Since an official population of wolves does not currently exist in Colorado, the agencies could use the 10J rule to define the reintroduced wolves as experimental, which would remove ESA protections and allow lethal control.

Delia Malone, ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Sierra Club, told The Sopris Sun in an interview that the 10J rule is a down-listing of a species from “endangered” to “threatened.”

“It allows for flexible management, including lethal control,” she explained. CPW would like the 10J rule to be in place prior to December 2023, but USFWS must complete an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If the reintroduced wolves hit the ground in Colorado before the NEPA process is complete, the wolves will remain protected as endangered.

Malone helped create an alternative restoration plan with several conservation groups, which has been submitted to CPW. You can find that plan at www.bit.ly/WEGwolves

The draft CPW plan is at www.bit.ly/CPWwolfdraft

CPW is hosting a public hearing about the plan in RIfle at Colorado Mountain College on Feb. 7 at 8:30 a.m.

A homemade cookie served at the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association meeting in Rifle on Saturday, Jan.21. Photo by Amy Hadden Marsh