Holding off on formal resolution for now
By Katherine Nettles
The Gunnison County commissioners have been under increasing pressure to take a stance on the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative that will appear on the state ballot this November, and this week they made their opinions public.
On Tuesday, February 4, all three commissioners addressed a crowd of Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association members and sportsmen who were present to oppose the initiative, and said in no uncertain terms that they agree wolf reintroduction in Colorado is a bad idea. The crowd encouraged the board to pass a resolution to that effect, but the commissioners maintain that such a move would make a bigger impact on voters later in the election year.
A group of 18 men attended the commissioners’ meeting and waited patiently until the time allotted at the meeting’s end for unscheduled citizens to speak. Before opening it up to public comments, the commissioners addressed the audience to acknowledge they were probably there to talk about the gray wolf and to state that they were also unanimously opposed to the initiated state statute, 107.
“We’ve received many emails about wolves,” said commissioner John Messner. “I stated in the beginning of January that I wanted to hear from more constituents, and I appreciate hearing from people about wolves.” He said emails he has received have been largely “respectful, intelligent communications from people,” and said he has been doing his own research as well.
“I certainly have an opinion. I do not think reintroduction is a good idea,” said Messner. He suggested that the board should consider writing a resolution opposing the reintroduction for a number of reasons, but noted that in doing so too soon, the message might get lost by election time.
“I feel that a large number of people on the Front Range are interested in this. A resolution could do a lot to be strong against it, but … it may also pass,” he said. He argued that the gray wolf’s listing as an endangered species is the one thing that might keep it from being reintroduced if 107 passes in November, since that would mean the U.S. Department of the Interior would need a formal management plan and would likely determine Colorado is an ill-fit for reintroduction.
“I want to caution us to be tactical …. People want action right now, and I’m not sure that right now is the right time,” concluded Messner.
Commissioner Jonathan Houck said he is also opposed to the wolf’s reintroduction in Colorado. And while he acknowledged the board’s role as a voice in the county, “One thing that’s becoming clear is that we are not decision makers on this. And more concerning, there seems to be a matter of misinformation that if … 33 counties oppose it, it will go away. But we are only three votes in the state election.”
Gunnison County residents need to show up and vote, ultimately, Houck said, and suggested utilizing Western Colorado University as a neutral convener to help educate people.
“If we just write a resolution now, people will forget about the issue,” said Houck.
Commissioner Roland Mason agreed that educating voters is important, and WCU is a good venue for that. “I feel that the wolf reintroduction is going to be detrimental to our county,” he said.
Citizens commenting were quick to commend the commissioners for their position, but encouraged them repeatedly to pass a resolution stating their objections, joining at least 17 other counties in Colorado to do so.
Ten men spoke to the commissioners on the record, beginning with Steven Guerrieri, a local livestock grower and guide. Guerrieri wanted to clarify Messner’s prediction that since the gray wolf is a federally listed species, the Department of the Interior would not allow it to be reintroduced. He said he was encouraged to hear the position of the board.
“I suppose it’s going to be up to you as leaders of the county… to lead on a message that people should vote against this. And it is up to you to emphasize why,” Guerrieri said. “Moving forward, [a resolution] can show some good consolidation from the counties on the Western Slope, saying ‘It is not good for us.’ I think we’re moving in the right direction, but I think we need to educate the people of the county as to why.”
Paul Mallory, president of the Stockgrowers Association, delivered a letter on behalf of the organization (see page 4). “I’m glad to hear that the three of you are opposed to the 107 initiative.” He asked when wolves might be on a future agenda at a commissioners meeting, and implored the board to take a stance for agriculture. “You’ve done such a good job supporting us with the [Gunnison] sage grouse battle. We would like to see you oppose this, but on the side of agriculture—and rec, and tourism.”
Shane Cox, also with the Stockgrowers Association, agreed that wolves would be detrimental to Gunnison County. “The wolves are already here, migrating from other areas, as we know, so why not let the Colorado Parks and Wildlife tend to the matter, rather than force reintroduction here,” he said.
Stan Irby encouraged commissioners to take a position based on the sage grouse recovery efforts for the endangered species. “Have you given any consideration to how the reintroduction would affect them?”
Houck responded that they already have predation concerns, and a balance that includes big game and ranching. He agreed, “It’s true, we are already managing a listed species here that’s challenging…”
“You have been involved in a key level, and if we don’t take a stand we will see that population [of sage grouse] drift away,” said Irby. He too encouraged the board to get their name out statewide as a county opposed to 107. “You’ve worked too hard on this. You’ve accomplished too much with the sage grouse,” he said, to let it be threatened by a new predator. “It’s a key, important role in this whole thing.”
Irby called on the board to consider two or three generations down the road, when a future board may be struggling to manage wolves and how to keep them off someone’s back porch.
Navid Navidi urged the board to write a resolution and pressed for a timeline. “People outside of this board room need to hear your position,” he said. “We would like to hear from you in an official manner. I respect your position. It’s just this is a big issue, and I don’t think it’s going away.”
“We are trying to be as thoughtful as possible,” said Houck. “What you’re asking for is happening,” he assured the group.
Randy Clark, a business owner, sportsman and hunter, asked if the board could draft a resolution fairly quickly, and then do something later in June or July to “bring it to the forefront again.”
Messner said writing a resolution is different from advocating for a specific group that is lobbying for something. Houck reiterated his belief that there needs to be a public forum in the community to allow people’s voices to be heard.
Brad Phelps weighed in, saying his ancestors did a good job of managing wolves. “I think it’s insulting to them to bring them back.”
Scott Shondeck asked if others can draft a resolution and present it to the board, “just to get a word out there, even if it isn’t adopted—to get the conversation started.”
The commissioners remained firm that they are committed to their stance, and will come through with a resolution formalizing their position later this year. They assured the audience that they would not change positions and want to make the most impact they can in the process.
“What, do you think we’re politicians?” joked Messner.
“Hearing Stan’s remarks on the sage grouse, that is valuable input for us to include. I want to continue to hear from constituents, to strengthen our argument,” said Houck.
“We don’t do boiler plate resolutions, either,” said Messner. He emphasized that the resolution they draft will be a result of careful, continued research and strategic timing to align with the election.
The commissioners did not specify when the matter would appear on their agenda, but Mason and Houck both expressed their hope to see an educational community forum, hosted by WCU or League of Women Voters, for instance, in the near future.