Could the job of preserving America’s wolves shift to states?

Why We Wrote This

When the federal government steps back on conservation, can states pick up the slack? A controversial project in Colorado may hold answers.

Dawn Villella/AP/File
A gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minnesota, July 16, 2004. A Colorado ballot initiative to reintroduce the gray wolf into the state passed by a slim margin on Nov. 3, 2020, just five days after the U.S. Department of the Interior announced plans to remove federal protections from the species.

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The gray wolf, which was brought to the edge of extinction in the lower 48 states, is set to lose its protected status under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced on Oct. 29 that it plans to delist the wolf on Jan. 4, 2021, after a comment period. 

But less than a week after that announcement, Colorado voters narrowly approved reintroducing the animal to its Western Slope. Although controversial, the project might offer a model for other states.

“Colorado is useful almost as a laboratory,” says Ya-Wei Li, director for biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, a conservation nonprofit. “If it can balance the trade-offs, it might then signal a path for other Western states to deal with similar situations where there is quite a bit of human-wildlife conflict.”

Even those who opposed the plan see some promise in letting the states lead conservation efforts. “They know the lay of the land, they have local relationships on the ground, and they can respond to things when ranchers, hunters have concerns,” says Blake Henning of the pro-hunting Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

While the nation was transfixed by the presidential election, Coloradans had something else to howl about. 

Five days before the election, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that, on Jan. 4, 2021, the gray wolf will be removed from its list of endangered species. At the same time, Coloradans were locked in a fierce debate over a ballot question asking if the state should reintroduce gray wolves.

The Colorado ballot initiative, Proposition 114, passed by just 2 percentage points, making history as the first time a state’s voters, rather than the federal government, called for wolf reintroduction. 

The narrow vote in Colorado highlights how divisive this issue can be. But advocates on both sides hope that moving the dialogue from the federal level to the state level sets the stage for everyone’s voice to be heard. Perhaps, they say, Colorado might offer a model for other states. 

“Colorado is useful almost as a laboratory,” says Ya-Wei Li, director for biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, a conservation nonprofit. “If it can balance the trade-offs, it might then signal a path for other Western states to deal with similar situations where there is quite a bit of human-wildlife conflict.”

Wolves at the door

Conservationists have lauded the reintroduction of gray wolves to the American West. In Yellowstone National Park, wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s and are credited with changing the food chain there in a way that restored and stabilized the entire ecosystem. 

The wolves have also been reintroduced to central Idaho, and they have spread out from both places and are currently established in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. They’ve also been spotted in Northern California and northwest Colorado.

To wolf advocates and conservationists, these successes are justification to bring wolves back to Colorado, too. Eric Washburn, campaign manager for Proposition 114, argues that the wolves’ predation might strengthen ecosystems by reducing elk and deer populations that have overgrazed on vegetation. 

“We want these ecosystems to be as strong and resilient and biodiverse as possible,” particularly in the face of climate change, Mr. Washburn says. And, as has been seen in Yellowstone, he says, “We believe that wolves will help contribute to that.”

But in the areas where the wolves have returned to the landscape, the endeavor has also fueled tension. Ranchers worry about their livestock being attacked, and hunters worry about the welfare of wolves’ prey – and their game.

Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for the pro-hunting Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which opposed Proposition 114, says that deliberately reintroducing wolves to Colorado, instead of letting them migrate from other states, would leave too little time for humans and other wildlife to acclimate to their presence. 

Hunters eradicated gray wolves from Colorado by the 1940s. When they were federally listed as an endangered species in 1978, there were only about 1,000 wolves remaining in the lower 48 states, all in Minnesota. 

Colorado had considered wolf reintroduction before, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) rejected the proposals as recently as 2016, instead focusing its management plans on wolves that might migrate into the state on their own.

Indeed, wolves have been spotted in northern Colorado since they were reintroduced in Yellowstone and Idaho. It has mostly been lone wolves that crossed the border, but earlier this year, a small pack ventured into Colorado, too. 

Some members of the pack were killed when they crossed back into Wyoming, however. While Colorado does not allow any hunting of wolves, Wyoming does, something that Delia Malone, ecologist and wildlife chair for the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club, points to as a reason to reintroduce wolves directly to Colorado. “The political landscape in Wyoming is a gauntlet of guns and traps to wolves,” Ms. Malone says. “What that does is make Colorado more essential than ever for restoration. It turns Colorado into a kind of sanctuary.”

Who decides?

To Proposition 114’s opponents, like Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, it wasn’t a question of “do I like wolves or not?” Rather, Mr. Martini says, it comes down to who should decide. The strongest opposition to the measure, he points out, came from Colorado’s less-populous Western Slope, where the wolves would be reintroduced. 

With the next steps in the state’s hands rather than federal agencies, Mr. Henning is hopeful. “Yeah, I didn’t like the process,” he says, “but, given that the decision is made, I certainly feel better about the state’s ability to handle it. … They know the lay of the land, they have local relationships on the ground, and they can respond to things when ranchers, hunters have concerns.”

Mr. Washburn is also optimistic that CPW will come up with a plan using significant input from the ranching and hunting communities. “Maybe at the end of the day they’re not going to be thrilled with the plan,” the Proposition 114 campaign manager says. “But I think they’ll see that it’s fair, that it addresses their concerns appropriately.”

Robert Fischman, a professor of law and public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, says Colorado’s move might herald something of a rejuvenation for conservation at the state level.

When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, says Dr. Fischman, the states, which had historically led conservation efforts, became “junior partners” to the federal government.

“So I think this is a story of a revival for states taking the lead in managing not just their game populations, which they have continued to do through the 1970s, but now to have a renaissance of conservation efforts, and a renaissance of local extinction reversal efforts,” he says.

Having relationships locally is key, says Jason Shogren, chair of natural resource conservation and management at the University of Wyoming, and it can work well in less-populated states like Wyoming. “Everybody knows everybody” there, he says. “So there can be lots of exchange and interaction, and all of the players that need to be involved can get involved.”

In a much more populated state like Colorado, Dr. Shogren cautions, “getting all the key players together is probably the biggest trick.”

Mr. Li of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center says Proposition 114 could suggest how to strike a balance between federal and state conservation endeavors. The Endangered Species Act was designed to keep imperiled species from going extinct, he points out.

“To some degree, it’s taking where the federal government left off under the ESA,” Mr. Li says. Gray wolves are no longer about to blink out of existence, he says, but they probably still need some kind of management. “I think states are precisely where it’s appropriate to continue moving conservation progress forward for wolves.”

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