Nearly 18 years ago, during my third term representing Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, I wrote a foreword for “Comeback Wolves” an anthology of essays about wolves’ role in maintaining ecological balance across America’s vast landscapes. In anticipation of wolves returning to Colorado, I wrote then: “Management and sustainability are the key concepts that should guide us…”
Colorado needs a robust, sustainable wolf population to contribute to nature’s balance, healthy ecosystems, and reduced prevalence of disease in deer and elk. This is especially true as climate change threatens the existence of many native species, some of which are already in decline.
And we need thoughtful management that helps prevent conflicts between wolves, people and livestock.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife and our Department of Natural Resources are to be commended for the immense work invested in a draft plan released last week, including engaging in extensive public hearings that begin Jan. 19 in Colorado Springs.
As required by law, the agency has included programs to help ranchers reduce conflicts with cattle and sheep and offered a generous compensation program in the few instances when predation does occur.
In short, the draft plan, based on recommendations from panels of wolf scientists and stakeholders, protects our western heritage, including livestock ranching, while restoring wolves to their native landscape.
But, a few changes are absolutely necessary to create the best wolf management plan in the nation that is faithful to the intent of Colorado voters.
Wolves thrived in the Southern Rockies for millennia before our forebears annihilated the last one in the 1940s. But today, the prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among our deer and elk herds, as well as Colorado’s increasingly climate-stressed ecosystems, has shown us that we need to restore wolves to help combat these trends.
First and foremost, the final Colorado wolf restoration plan must reflect the voters’ intention to establish and maintain a self-sustaining population of wolves.
To achieve this goal, key loopholes in the plan that would allow for the unnecessary killing of wolves must be removed.
First, the plan must clarify that all ‘non-lethal’ preventive rangeland management practices must be exhausted by ranchers, and ‘lethal control’ of problem wolves is only to be used as a last resort. Wolves should never be killed on public lands, and officials should not be granted the power to kill wolves to “avoid conflict with human activities,” which can include all sorts of things.
Nor is facilitating the sale of elk and deer licenses a legitimate reason to kill wolves. Ironically, doing so will promote the spread of disease in those same elk and deer populations and deprive us of a key tool in ensuring that our ecosystems are healthy enough to withstand climate change and other threats like habitat fragmentation.
More than 25 years of experience in the Northern Rockies has demonstrated that we can protect Colorado’s ranching heritage with robust rangeland prevention programs. CPW should expand its draft conflict-prevention program to ensure that ranchers have all the tools they need.
If wolves are to be successful in suppressing disease in deer and elk and rebuilding healthy ecosystems, then the target wolf population must be raised substantially. The best available science – the standard set in the law for the Colorado wolf restoration plan – suggests that the state can support several hundred, perhaps as many as a thousand wolves — far more than the 150 wolves that would lead to delisting them as endangered species, as stated in the draft plan. And they should be geographically distributed across the 17 million acres of suitable public land in Colorado.
Finally, all references to the recreational hunting of wolves should be removed, as recreational hunting of wolves directly contradicts Colorado voters’ intent to restore wolves as a “non-game species” when they approved Proposition 114 in 2020.
Even CPW’s Wolf Stakeholder Advisory Group, a majority of which opposed wolf restoration, wisely noted that considering a recreational wolf hunt is premature and will only lead to political polarization. It should be dropped from the draft plan.
Through this ongoing CPW-led process, Colorado can restore a sustainable and ecologically beneficial population of wolves, while minimizing conflicts through thoughtful management. All Coloradans can be rightly proud of this achievement.
I urge the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to adopt these recommended changes in the final plan, leading to a successful reintroduction of wolves in our mountain valleys by the end of the year, as required by Colorado law and the will of the voters.
Mark Udall represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate from 2009 to 2015 and the 2nd Congressional District from 1999 to 2009. He supported the campaign for Proposition
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