Glenwood Springs and Gunnison are ground zero
[ By Mark Reaman ]
The Gunnison area along Highway 50 between Monarch Pass and Montrose has been chosen by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to be one of two primary areas in which wolves will be reintroduced to Colorado over the next several years. A public hearing on the draft Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan will be held in Gunnison on January 25. The Gunnison Stockgrowers Association said this week they do not have an official comment on the draft plan but will be meeting in early January and expect to take a position before the hearing.
State voters approved a wolf reintroduction initiative in 2020 and the law states that reintroduction must start no later than December 31 of 2023. The citizens of Colorado mandated that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission restore the gray wolf to the state and that they be placed west of the Continental Divide. Given the geographic criteria determined to be best for the wolves, two large areas become apparent for consideration as wintertime release sites in western Colorado, and Gunnison is one of the ground zeros.
The so-called northern area is along the I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail and extends down the Roaring Fork Valley. The second, the so-called southern area, is along the Highway 50 corridor between Monarch Pass (east of Gunnison) and Montrose. The draft plan states that, “Based on the ongoing evaluation of geographic mandates and constraints, relative conflict risk, and ecological suitability, and barring the need to alter this plan, release sites will be chosen from within these identified north and south areas. Releases in the first year will occur in the northern area only. Subsequent release sites will be considered based on the efficacy of the initial release but will be located within or near the identified north and south areas.”
The draft plan anticipates that CPW will introduce 30 to 50 wild wolves in total over the next three-to-five years, or 10 to 15 wolves per year. The wolves will likely be sourced from populations in the northern Rockies. All wolves will be monitored using satellite GPS collars. Releases will be considered a “hard release” so the reintroduced wolves will not be kept in pens or given supplemental food or care once released.
Based on monitoring of wolves released in Yellowstone and central Idaho, it is expected that wolves released in Colorado will move substantial distances after being released. The observations noted in the draft plan show wolves move anywhere between 22 to 140 miles from release sites. “It is anticipated that wolves will expand widely over time, including to the Front Range of Colorado,” the draft states. “Furthermore, it is unknown whether wolves will remain in proximity to initial release sites or range more widely before establishing territories within suitable habitat.”
Gunnison county commissioner Jonathan Houck was a member of the technical working group helping to come up with the draft. While most group members were scientists who have dealt with wolves, he was selected in part because of his experience dealing with Gunnison Sage Grouse issues.
“Habitat-wise the two primary release areas meet the needed criteria to reintroduce wolves in Colorado,” he said. “We can’t dictate where appropriate habitat is, we just happen to be in the center of what is good country to reintroduce wolves.
“I wanted to make sure the compensation for ranching issues were adequate and also ensure that not just the ranching interests, but sportsmen were represented in the process,” Houck continued. “Given this is a draft, I’ll be curious to see the statewide reaction as well as how people in our community feel about it.”
In the 2020 election, Gunnison County voters overwhelmingly voted against wolf reintroduction by a margin of 57% to 43%.
According to the draft document, releases will occur on state or private lands. “The plan does not currently contemplate releases on federal lands because CPW does not have the staffing or financial resources to undertake the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis prior to any federal land management agency authorizing releases on federal lands,” the draft plan states. “CPW will attempt to select release areas that are likely to promote successful wolf recolonization, while also considering the potential for livestock or human conflicts. Specific release locations will not be made public in this plan in order to protect private landowner information and sensitive species locations, but targeted outreach will occur with potentially affected stakeholders prior to release.”
While the local stockgrower association has not yet taken a position, local ranchers have expressed significant concerns with the wolf reintroduction proposal. They have said wolves will have a major impact on their business not just with the potential loss of individual livestock but through putting more stress on the area’s relatively mellow herds causing the cattle to lose weight which directly impacts prices. Their feeling is that wolf introduction will negatively impact the local hunting and tourism sectors as well.
The state statute governing reintroduction and the CPW plan includes a “wolf-livestock compensation program that provides 100% fair market value (FMV) compensation, up to a maximum of $8,000 per animal, for the confirmed death or injury of livestock (cattle, horses, mules, burros, sheep, lambs, swine, llama, alpaca and goats, pursuant to CRS 33-2- 105.8(5)) and guard/herding animals.” The draft plan says that conflict minimization techniques are not required to be eligible for compensation; however, CPW will work with livestock producers to implement conflict minimization to reduce the risk of further depredations.
Upon arrival in Colorado, animals will be immediately released in areas identified as suitable habitat west of the Continental Divide. This is commonly referred to as a “hard release,” in contrast to a “soft release,” in which wolves are kept in pens at the release site for an extended period of time. No supplemental food or care will be provided once the wolves are released.
The public can comment on the draft plan online and in the upcoming public meetings through February 22, by visiting engagecpw.org.