Livestock lawsuit to prevent Colorado wolf releases fails

Five wolves cut loose Monday in Grand County

By Katherine Nettles

Wolves are officially on the landscape in north-central Colorado for the first time in almost 80 years. On Monday, December 18, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) released five wolves in Grand County, just three days after a U.S. District Court judge denied a request by the Colorado livestock industry to block the wolf reintroductions to the state. The Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association (GCSA) and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association filed a lawsuit earlier this month against CPW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking to stop the wolf releases. 

CPW’s Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan was approved in May 2023, and implemented in response to a voter-approved ballot measure passed in November 2020 that required CPW to plan for and begin reintroducing gray wolves to the western slope of Colorado by the end of 2023. GCSA had opposed the plan in its draft and final form as having insufficient environmental impact analysis as required by federal law, and potential for catastrophic losses for the livestock industry due to predation and stress on herds. 

The GCSA and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) filed a lawsuit on December 11 requesting a temporary restraining order against the planned releases. GCSA issued a statement in a press release Friday after the ruling was made. 

“While Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association is disappointed with Friday evening’s ruling, we will respect the decision of the Federal Court,” wrote GCSA president Andy Spann. “We want to thank Judge Rodriguez for the Court’s time and effort in looking at the arguments GCSA brought before the Court. GCSA will continue to look closely at the impacts that wolf reintroduction will have on its members, as well as other livestock producers across the state of Colorado. We know there remain major outstanding issues regarding wolf interaction with the livestock industry across Western Colorado. A serious effort to resolve those conflicts remains to be undertaken. GCSA would like to thank all who have contributed to the case and who have supported GCSA and CCA in our litigation. GCSA is proud of our continuing leadership on issues in the Gunnison Valley and the State of Colorado,” he concluded.

The court ruled against the restraining order, citing that data submitted to the court by the conservation groups, and not rebutted by petitioners, demonstrated that “in other states with hundreds or thousands of wolves, predation affects mere fractions of a percent of total livestock populations.” 

 WildEarth Guardians, and other conservation and animal welfare groups who had moved to intervene in the lawsuit, praised the court’s decision. “Rejecting this unfounded restraining order request is excellent news,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians in a press release Friday. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff have spent thousands of hours on this process, hundreds of them to ensure that livestock owner interests are heard. The court agrees that the public interest in seeing wolves reintroduced by the end of 2023, as intended by ballot measure and statue, is a priority.”

CPW experts proceeded to release five gray wolves onto undisclosed public land in Grand County on Monday, December 18. The goal is to create a permanent, self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado.

According to CPW, the five gray wolves were captured in Oregon from three different packs. CPW veterinarians and biologists determined they were fit for relocation to Colorado based on the age, sex, health and body condition of each animal. 

“Each gray wolf was weighed and measured. Staff collected genetic material – tissue and blood samples – before fitting each with a GPS satellite collar for tracking upon release by CPW staff. Then, the wolves were given vaccines and were placed in crates and flown to Colorado for release back into the wild,” according to CPW. 

 Colorado’s new wolves include two females and three males, with weights ranging from 69 pounds to 108 pounds, and are named based on the year of their release and state of their origin. All wolves captured, collared and released in Colorado will use the same naming convention, says CPW. 

The state agency will repeat the same process for another five to 10 wolves to be reintroduced in Colorado by mid-March 2024. The Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan states that  CPW hopes to release 30 to 50 wolves over the next three to five years using wolves captured from nearby northern Rockies states from several different packs by trapping and darting them in the winter.

“Today’s reintroduction of the gray wolf is a tremendous accomplishment for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the citizens of Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. “This would not have been possible without the tireless work of CPW staff and the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the members of both our advisory boards and the citizens and stakeholders who engaged and weighed in to make our wolf management plan the best for all Coloradans and for wolves that once again grace our Colorado landscapes.”

“It was an honor to participate in this historic effort,” said CPW Wolf Conservation program manager Eric Odell.

The new wolves will be managed by CPW, which cites that its reintroduction program builds on work started by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 when the federal agency began restoring gray wolf populations in Yellowstone National Park in Montana, then in Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona.

In May 2023, the Colorado legislature passed the Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund, which appropriates $525,000 for two years to cover costs as a result of livestock losses caused by wolves.  

CPW’s management plan will compensate livestock owners up to $15,000 for losses or to pay for injuries of domestic livestock and working animals such as cattle dogs, if owners submit required records and proof of loss or injury. 

A “Born to be Wild” specialty license plate is now available for Colorado vehicle owners, the proceeds of which will fund CPW’s nonlethal conflict prevention and reduction tools and initiatives. The plate will be available in early 2024.

CPW has not commented on when it might consider releasing in Gunnison County, however it has identified Gunnison County as another ideal location for future releases. And Grand County is a mere 200 miles from Gunnison County’s northern borders, as the crow flies or wolf travels. Time to start listening for a new kind of howl. 

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