State commission planning wolf reintroduction putting stakeholder feedback ahead of speed

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The commission tasked by voters to develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves in Colorado by the end of 2023 will reportedly take its time to gather feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders.

The prodding pace has garnered pushback from supporters of reintroduction who say such a long process could make the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission miss the deadline for wolves to be released set by voters in November.

“We’re very early in the process,” said Commission Chair Marvin McDaniel. “There is a lot of strong commitment by every commissioner to involve the folks on the Western Slope or anywhere that is going to be affected by this.”

Proposition 114 was passed by less than two percentage points and just 13 of the 64 counties in Colorado supported the measure. Of the 22 counties west of the Continental Divide, where wolves will be introduced, just five of them supported the measure.

In January, the commission approved a framework plan from Parks and Wildlife staff laying out a process to engage with communities that will be affected when wolves are let loose. But a letter from supporters of reintroduction sent to the commission earlier this month says that process is “perilously cumbersome.”

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They stress that in the current framework, wolves would not start to be released until December 2023, leaving just a month to actually release them.

Norman Bishop, a national park ranger for 36 years who was involved with wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, criticized the process, saying it will be “inviting those with opposing viewpoints to line up at the microphone and repeat the campaign debate.”

Bishop suggested staff should draft the reintroduction plan, and then get public comment on that draft. But for ranchers who never favored wolf reintroduction, the process should be thorough and allow scientists at Parks and Wildlife to craft the best possible plan.

“The election is over. We will except the election and the rest, but our biggest concern as cattleman and (agriculture) people out here is trying to make sure that we are not rushing the process, and that we are taking time to adequately understand the impacts and not just haphazardly move forward,” rancher and former Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said.

In the coming months, the commission will have educational sessions for those on the panel, not to make them subject matter experts, but to provide them with the basic knowledge needed to properly engage in reintroduction discussions.

Topics of these sessions would include how wolves will impact producers, the tools they have to prevent wolves from causing damage to producers, how they will monitor wolves, how they will affect other species and how reintroduction efforts have gone in other states.

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association, told the commission it also needed to address the indirect cause of conflict between wolves and livestock.

“If you have a cat that is scared of dogs, then you have that cat around a bunch of dogs, well, it doesn’t really do too well. It is under constant stress. It doesn’t eat well. It doesn’t drink well. The same thing happens with livestock,” Monger said.

That stress is what can cause the lower gestation rates and even weight loss, Monger said, because the cows are constantly looking out for a predator.

Where Jay Fetcher ranches in North Routt County near Hahns Peak, he would expect to lose about two to three calves each year, but he expects the indirect costs to be steeper.

“Right now, our cows are so comfortable. They know where the gates are, they know where they are safe,” Fetcher said. “If there were wolves in the mix, I fear it would be us getting back on horses. Right now, we move the cows on bicycles.”

This would result in a lot more “cowboying,” Fetcher said. Right now, they check on their cattle every four or five days, but when wolves are in the area, he would expect a decent amount of every day to be devoted to watching over cattle, potentially requiring him to hire another hand.

Fetcher is also worried cattle stressed out by wolves will congregate in the same places, not spreading out their impact to the U.S. Forest Land as widely as the permits that allow them to graze cattle there require.

The ballot question passed in November requires the state to hold listening sessions across the state to explain the plan. Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Dan Gibbs said they have heard from several Western Slope organizations looking to do these listening sessions, adding that they need to start right away.

The preference is these meetings would be in person, but Gibbs stressed they can’t let the pandemic slow the process down. He suggested setting up meetings with county commissioners to reach some of these Western Slope communities.

Gibbs also stressed the need to present people more details than just an outline of the plan to reintroduce wolves to provide properly informed feedback.

“We’re not starting from scratch necessarily, we have our 2004 plan that I think was extremely well done,” Gibbs said. “I would urge us to have more than just an outline of a plan because we really want folks to have some meaningful information to chew on.”

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Jay Fetcher’s name.

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