Wolf reintroduction controversy uncertain for commissioners

“We shouldn’t be taking a stand on this in January”

By Katherine Nettles

The Gunnison County commissioners have struggled to pinpoint their role in the concept of a referred measure on wolf reintroduction in the state, and decided at their most recent meeting to take an approach of due diligence and holding off on any official positions while hearing from constituents and experts on all sides of the issue.

The Colorado secretary of state’s office announced on January 6 that Initiative 107, the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative, qualified for the statewide November ballot. The measure would reintroduce gray wolves on designated lands west of the Continental Divide.

“Historically, wolves were an essential part of the wild habitat of Colorado but were exterminated and have been functionally extinct for 75 years in the state,” according to the statute.

The gray wolf is listed as an endangered species, and proponents argue that if they are restored to Colorado, this “will help restore a critical balance in nature.” The initiative accounts for the need to prevent, compensate and resolve conflicts with ranchers and farmers in the state whose livestock may be affected.

Opposition to the newly coined initiative has been directed at a range of issues, including the need to better plan for the re-introduction, to protect the rural and agricultural West from the predatory population, and to avoid the extensive costs associated with the re-introduction plan.

The commissioners have reluctantly joined the conversation, but have agreed they are all uncomfortable with taking any positions at such an early stage of an election year.

“People seem to misunderstand that if enough counties [take a stand] it goes away,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck of some of the e-mails he has been receiving since the ballot measure became official.

Messner said he thinks other county commissioners passing resolutions so early on to state their positions “is just political posturing as a referred measure for the ballot… I think we do have a role to play, but not until we hear what the opinions of the people of Gunnison County are,” he said.

Commissioner Roland Mason suggested a public input meeting.

“Maybe we should hold a forum… as opposed to writing a resolution that we are for this or against this,” agreed Houck.

County manager Matthew Birnie cautioned that they should plan for a very large turn-out if they did hold a meeting on this.

“This is an incredibly emotional issue for folks across the spectrum,” he said, predicting that attendance will be significant.

“Are we the right folks to put this forward?” wondered  Messner. “I don’t recall us ever doing that for any initiative.”

“What is CPW’s [Colorado Parks and Wildlife] current management plan, and what would happen if this were to pass? There are a lot of different aspects to this. I think a lot of people are curious what our positions are on this, but we are not the drivers here,” he argued.

Houck agreed that maybe it wasn’t the commissioners’ role to take on public education, although he hoped there would be an effort to that effect. He was interested most in providing informative resources to the community so voters can make an informed choice.

Mason suggested they get in touch with another entity about the initiative, such as Western Colorado University.

Houck has gotten some very thoughtful e-mails and some advising how he should vote. “There’s this important piece where people need to understand our role…. Our votes as citizens of Colorado will count the same as any other three people.”

“We do take positions on stuff, and we can take positions on it. But we shouldn’t be taking a stand on this in January,” said Messner. He emphasized that this would be more appropriate in summer after they had all done more research, heard from constituents and election season was closer.

“So the answer to current inquiries is that it’s premature,” said Birnie.

Mason offered to bring the topic of wolf reintroduction up at a mayor/managers meeting to discuss with other community leaders.

Later, during the public comment portion of the commissioners meeting, Gunnison resident Tom Zieber spoke. Zieber said he works in Crested Butte and was at one time a paid gray wolf advocate with extensive experience studying the gray wolf and its reintroduction or revival in various parts of the country.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that wolves from a lot of perspectives … are not easy to have around. There’s no doubt in my mind that the ranching industry has the brunt of a restoration … I personally would love to see wolves just migrate into Colorado. However, as a wolf advocate I’ve been waiting 20 years for this,” he said. Ever since the reintroduced population in Yellowstone National Park grew large enough to disperse, Zieber said he expected wolves would have a chance to come back into Colorado through natural migration.

The reality, as Zieber described it, is that one or two will occasionally migrate but end up shot, run over or poisoned. The hundreds of miles between protected areas of Wyoming to the Colorado state line prevent wolves from travelling safely, particularly with laws that allow them to essentially be shot on sight. And the benchmark for an established species “is a reproducing population.”

“Your position in a livestock-accommodating county, and also with a ski area that tends toward…more environmental protections, is not enviable. Some people are going to advocate that you need to be opposed to Initiative 107. Some people are going to say that you should support it,” said Zieber to the commissioners. “I am urging a neutral ground, that you should study the situation and what it means to actually have wolves on the ground and how it is going to affect people.”

Zieber recommended two groups exploring that “middle ground,” the Wood River Project in Idaho, a collaboration between livestock growers studying how to discourage wolves from interacting with livestock, and a California-based organization working toward proactive stewardship. California has a natural wolf migration from Oregon, he said.

Ultimately, Zieber said, he supports the initiative, despite some questions he has about its focus on the Western Slope. “I’m hoping this doesn’t turn into a difficult, divisive debate. It’s really easy to frame this as an urban versus rural, left versus right, environmental versus rancher—it’s pretty much a common theme.”

Commissioner Houck thanked him for his thoughtful approach, and this discussion is certain to lead to many more.

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