Ranchers make case against state wolf reintroduction draft plan

“State should play by same rules as everyone else…”

By Katherine Nettles

One of the state’s oldest livestock organizations has made it clear that its members have major concerns with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (CPW) wolf reintroduction and management draft plan, and they aren’t afraid to challenge the agency’s legal standing on the subject. The Gunnison County Stockgrower’s Association, Inc. (GCSA) submitted a long list of disputes to the agency last week regarding plans to release gray wolves in Western Colorado, particularly in the Gunnison Valley between Monarch Pass and Montrose. The extensive commentary implores CPW to address a range of issues from uncertain program funding to environmental impacts and livestock loss compensation, and reflects the GCSA’s legal intent to defend its interests and constitutional rights should the agency decline to make major changes before releasing a final plan.

The comment letter was endorsed and signed by 51 members of the GCSA, which was founded in 1894 as an incorporated non-profit company representing and advocating for almost every active livestock producer in the Gunnison Valley. GCSA submitted the 22-page document to CPW on February 15 and the commission’s public comment period on the draft plan ended February 22. 

A team of seven GCSA representatives worked with a legal team specializing in environmental law in the Rocky Mountain region to prepare the comment letter. One of the stakeholders is Ken Spann, longtime rancher in the Gunnison Valley. 

“We are very concerned about the process CPW is using to introduce wolves in Western Colorado,” wrote Spann in a press release on February 15. He took some time away from feeding 700 yearling calves at one of his feedlots in Delta this week to speak more about the process of preparing the comments to reflect the collective voice of area stockgrowers. 

“The Stockgrowers Association began working on this immediately after the draft plan release on December 9,” says Spann. He emphasizes that the organization’s intent is not to overturn the state-wide voter-led initiative from 2020 which mandated that CPW restore the gray wolf to Colorado’s Western Slope. 

The vote passed by a slim margin, with Gunnison County and most other Western Slope counties voting against it.

“The vote was what it was,” says Spann. “Now it’s about having a workable set of policies on the ground. This has to be coordinated.”

Spann explains that as the GCSA team considered the draft, they grew increasingly concerned. “Around mid-January the association decided that this thing was serious enough that we needed to hire some of the very best legal counsel we can.”

The GCSA retained the services of Deborah Freeman of Trout Raley law firm and began an analysis from the focused perspective of the Gunnison Basin.  

GCSA’s letter makes about 20 key points about the draft plan, and argues for the need of an environmental impact statement (EIS) to assess how the proposed gray wolf reintroduction might impact elk range habitat, Gunnison sage grouse populations, and to more thoroughly prepare for how it will affect livestock producers. 

“GCSA has assessed the Draft Wolf Plan with the long-term interests of its members in mind and a view toward the requirement…that the reintroduction ‘must be designed to resolve conflicts with persons engaged in farming and ranching in this state,’” according to the letter. “Unfortunately, the draft plan does not currently meet that requirement, and key elements need significant revision.” 

“Much work needs to be done to ensure that the reintroduction does not wreak havoc on the livestock industry, the elk and deer herds in the Gunnison Basin, and endangered species such as the Gunnison sage grouse that GCSA and its members have worked hard to protect,” the letter states.

The letter also alleges that the Gunnison Valley is an inappropriate location to release wolves, citing “A serious lack of attention to the field level details that should have accompanied any analysis.” It calls for more information regarding how the release locations were selected and how potential conflicts with existing livestock use, ungulate populations, winter temperatures, snow levels and slopes, and livestock locations were determined. “In truth, the Gunnison Valley is a high conflict area and an inappropriate area to reintroduce wolves into Colorado, as the study authors would realize if they had done any field research in the area.”

Spann feels the plan dismisses Gunnison sage grouse habitat protection efforts, after millions of dollars have been spent in Gunnison to protect them. “And they got three lines in the draft plan. If the elk and deer get to moving into their habitat, and they settle the snow, it can become like concrete. And how will that disrupt the sage grouse nesting areas?” He describes the certificates of inclusion that many ranchers have adopted to protect the sage grouse on their private lands. “To dismiss that in three lines is a little scary.”

The comments also advocate for a full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which is considered the standard for a federal agency taking major environmental actions. The GCSA calls into question a “de facto” use of federal lands, noting that state lands to be used for the release make up only 1.1% (36 square miles) of Gunnison County total land area. The remaining majority (80% or 3,239 square miles) of land is federal land and CGSA asserts that wolf packs will more than likely disperse beyond that state-owned land onto private and federal property, thereby requiring a federal approval process. 

“Some of the issues that really bothered us is the state taking the position that they are somehow immune from the federal NEPA process,” says Spann of numerous other examples of agricultural, recreational and governmental organizations being required to go through the environmental assessment process.  

“I think they have to do NEPA. They should be playing by the same rules that everyone else has to play by,” says Spann.

The comments also advocate for CPW’s plan to include lethal taking of wolves under certain circumstances; for the commission to secure adequate long-term funding and account for operational expenses; that CPW remove livestock and guardian animal depredation compensation limits, remove certain “undue” and “proprietary” compensation claim requirements and consider additional mitigation and predation prevention measures such as large scale fencing and real-time wolf pack monitoring.

Last, the series of public information and comment meetings that CPW conducted this year left many stakeholders feeling disenfranchised by limited time to speak. 

Spann recalls sitting in the front of the room at the Gunnison-based event in January. “There was a tremendous expertise in that room that decided not to sign up to speak. If you are a fifth or sixth generation rancher and a state official tells you that you can only talk for two minutes? That doesn’t go over well.”

The final public input event was held in Denver on Wednesday, February 22 during which time GCSA member Greg Peterson and president Hannah Kersting testified on behalf of the GCSA. 

Spann confirms that the GCSA comments reflect an intent to follow through with legal measures depending on how CPW proceeds in formulating a final plan. 

“We’re not bluffing. If it’s handled wrong or poorly, this becomes a real threat to our livelihoods,” he says. “I think the wolf reintroductions will be successful on some level. And if they multiply like we expect them to, there are instances where a livestock loss could add up to more than a $25,000 claim in one night. And a pack of wolves in the wrong situation could carry serious repercussions over a week or 10 days. We’re trying to plan for that; that’s the challenge,” he concluded. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service published its own draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) in review of the CPW draft plan on February 17, opening a 60-day public comment period through April 18. Additional public information meetings on the proposed rule and DEIS will take place in Grand Junction on March 14, Moffat County on March 15, Walden on March 16 and in a virtual public meeting on March 22. During this time, comments may be submitted online at www.regulations.gov by searching docket FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100.

CPW has expressed the intention of drafting a final plan by the end of 2023 as mandated in the 2020 initiative.

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