Colorado tribe only wants wolves reintroduced in area that includes Routt County. Will CPW listen?
Wolves are expected to migrate, but the Southern Utes hope restricting releases to the north would minimize impacts to historical hunting grounds
One of Colorado’s federally recognized tribes is requesting that Colorado Parks and Wildlife only release gray wolves in the northern zone — an area that includes parts of south Routt County.
The first release of gray wolves later this year as part of Colorado’s voter-mandated reintroduction effort is going to happen in the northern zone, as outlined in the draft plan the agency’s governing body is slated to approve next month.
The second release — presumably sometime in 2024 — was going to be in the southern zone that includes areas between Montrose and the Continental Divide. But the Southern Ute Indian Tribe has asked the agency to only utilize the northern release zone in an effort to provide a larger buffer from the tribe’s reservation and the Brunot area, 3.7 million acres of land where the tribe retained hunting, fishing and gathering rights through an 1874 treaty.
“We did not ask for this reintroduction, and the state does not have jurisdiction over the tribe, but of course, wildlife knows no boundaries and will nevertheless be impacted,” said Vanessa Torres, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, at a Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting Thursday, April 6, in Steamboat Springs.
“We would like to see release sites as separate from tribal interests as possible,” Torres continued. “A predator not seen in the last three generations is concerning to us for how it may compound current issues with our population decline in our big game herds.”
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According to the Durango Herald, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe submitted a letter to Parks and Wildlife the day before the public comment window ended in February, outlining concerns the tribe has about how wolves will affect the White River elk herd, which is the largest in Colorado.
Penned by Southern Ute Indian Tribe Chairman Melvin Baker, the letter said the herd is facing a “serious problem of calf recruitment” that can be traced back to a myriad of factors including drought, disease, loss of habitat and recreation impacts.
“Any additional pressure from an apex predator like wolves will likely drive down the elk population further and reduce hunting opportunities,” Baker wrote.
The 1874 Brunot Agreement between the confederated bands of Utes and the federal government ceded the 3.7 million acre Brunot area in the San Juan Mountains. This area was a significant part of the tribe’s reservation as outlined in an 1868 agreement.
The agreement, which stemmed from the federal government’s desire to remove Utes from land seen as valuable for its mineral and agricultural values, according to the National Parks Service — included provisions that allowed the tribe to continue to hunt, fish and gather in the Brunot area.
In 2008, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe entered into a new agreement with the state to allow tribes to exercise these rights. While other hunters need to comply with Parks and Wildlife’s regulations in the area, the agreement allows the tribe to establish its own regulations and employ its own conservation techniques.
“Importantly, the tribe is a sovereign nation, and not subject to state regulation as it pertains to wolf management on the reservation or within the Brunot area,” Torres said.
While Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s wolf plan treats the tribe’s reservation like it treats neighboring states — creating a 60-mile buffer between reintroduction sites and sovereign borders — Torres and Baker requested the agency add the same buffer to the Brunot area.
While wolf releases will be restricted to zones Parks and Wildlife has identified west of the Continental Divide and 60 miles from state and tribal borders, wolves are expected to eventually roam far beyond where they are initially released.
Torres said they believe a slow, natural dispersal of wolves from the north would have less drastic impacts on the area’s elk. If hunting needs to be reduced because of wolf impacts, Torres said that is state officials’ responsibility, not the tribe’s.
While Parks and Wildlife drafted its own reintroduction and management plan for wolves, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service is working on a special 10(j) rule to allow greater management tools, Torres said the tribe will craft its own management plan for wolves.
“It will undoubtedly look different from the state plan,” Torres said. “As neighboring agencies, we expect frequent communication between the state and the tribe and how (the) reintroduction process is proceeding.”
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and agency staff did not indicate how they would respond to the tribe’s request on Thursday, but the agency has frequently emphasized the importance of tribal considerations through the reintroduction process.
Commissioners said they were pleased that Torres spoke favorably of interactions the tribe has had with Parks and Wildlife officials through the process, but also expressed disappointment that the commission had not engaged directly with the Southern Utes until Thursday.
“I think it certainly is a growth area and a flag for deeper relationship building across this commission and the two federally recognized tribes,” said Commissioner Taishya Adams. “Relationship building is essential before you have to make hard decisions together. … I’m hopeful that this experience has encouraged us to think differently about the ways that we are engaging.”