MSLF hosts panelists to discuss wolf reintroduction
On March 22, the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) hosted a webinar titled Mountain States of Mind: When Wolf Wars Come to Colorado. Industry leaders met to discuss how the “rewilding” bait-and-switch, or the reintroduction of a wild animal species, is punishing the rural West.
Several of the panelists included: Colorado Attorney with Holsinger Law LLC Kent Holsinger; Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna; Montana Livestock Loss Board Executive Director George Edwards; and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Terry Fankhauser.
Wallowa County Commissioner and President of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association Todd Nash and Montana family rancher and Vice Chair of Montana’s Livestock Loss Board Elaine Allestad also participated in the conversation.
“This issue really hits close to home,” notes Holsinger. “When the Trump administration delisted wolves in the lower 48, recovery numbers were far in excess of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said would ever be required.”
“Not surprisingly, environmental groups filed suit and found a judge in the northern district of California in February of 2022 to say, ‘No, the wolf should be listed as endangered in the lower 48 but outside of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming,’” shares Holsinger. “Today we are looking at the southern Rockies and the Great Lakes where we have gray wolves listed as federally endangered.”
Down south, geographic areas are also impacted by Mexican gray wolves. These wolves are also listed as federally endangered, and Colorado falls in the middle, he adds.
Wolves in Western states
Magagna has been a part of this issue since 1984 when he was asked to serve on a task force by the U.S. Secretary of Interior to come up with a plan to reintroduce wolves into the Yellowstone National Park.
“Our approach in Wyoming has been based on this earlier experience – we only agree to the protection of wolves within the areas defined by the FWS in an effort to maintain a recovered population,” says Magagna. “One of the things we feel has worked well in Wyoming is this predator status. The wolf outside of the designated zone is a predator just like a coyote or any other species and can be taken by anyone at any time by any legal hunting or trapping method.”
“The area defined for the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) has been successful in maintaining a recovered population, yet the state of Wyoming has been challenged by wolves being delisted and relisted,” he continues. “Currently, Wyoming is not a part of the California District decision overturning the recent delisting, yet there was a petition recently filed by the FWS to consider a relisting in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The FWS did a mandatory 90-day finding and have concluded there is reason to proceed with a 12-month finding as to whether or not the species should be relisted in our three states.”
Magagna noted grizzly bears have been another concern in Wyoming. In the Upper Green River, ranchers have been particularly impacted by livestock depredation from wolves and grizzly bears. Prior to the introduction of wolves, the typical summer loss was three percent from all causes. Within five years after the wolves were introduced, loss increased by seven to nine percent. Today, loss accounts for 12 to 14 percent with a high of 17 percent from wolves, he explains.
“One interesting outcome is wolf depredation has declined significantly as the grizzly bears have established themselves as the more lethal and dominate species in this area,” Magagna adds.
Each state compensates loss differently, but in the state of Wyoming ranchers can be reimbursed on a confirmed wolf or grizzly bear kill.
“The compensation program is administered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD). Compensation comes out of sportsman’s dollars from the purchase of hunting licenses,” Magagna shares. “A kill has to be confirmed by a representative of the WGFD. Losses are compensated based on their value at the end of the season – a calf will be compensated not based on its worth the day it was killed, but what it would have been worth if it survived and made it to market.”
Through some work done in the state of Wyoming and Montana, compensation formulas were established – due to the realization not all animal kills are found, he notes.
“It’s one thing to have a delisted species when the state is in full authority related to a reintroduction, said Holsinger. “It’s another thing when you have to have a complacent federal agency which essentially has the oversight. The process is moving, but the process is about to get infamously more complicated because of the federal allotment in Colorado.”
As depredations go up, it is estimated compensation will rise. The question has become where do these animals get released and who pays for the damage done to livestock?
A complication of this proposed plan is Colorado will have to enter into a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) based approach and do an environmental impact statement for reintroduction.
FWS has said, “This is something Colorado has to pay for and this is a $1 million bill,” Fankhauser says.
“It’s a different world now – there’s a federal listing,” says Holsinger. “This means there are a whole slew of permit requirements under the Endangered Species Act and NEPA.”
“There’s a deadline in the ballot initiative, Colorado Proposition 114, Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative – it’s a statutory piece, so it could be changed, but it says by the end of 2023 there has to be a plan in place,” mentions Fankhauser. “Colorado’s governor came out and said, ‘Way too long, I want it done in a year.’”
“All the hopes and wishes are in place but a complicated NEPA process to achieve this in a year makes it unlikely – there is so much to be done,” he adds. “As much as the governor and local FWS members say, the deadline will be met – it’s more marketing than reality. Colorado could potentially reestablish the wolves naturally before the state ever reintroduces a wolf.”
Rules of engagements
“It’s not a fairytale, it’s a bit of a nightmare being written here,” concludes Fankhauser. “It’s a bit interesting because wildlife advocates have begun to pick and choose winners and losers in the wildlife community through ballot measures, state legislation and the courts. The wildlife officials at the state and national level are empowered with the tools to balance all wildlife so we don’t continue to see extinction or continue to see detrimental impacts from one species to another, but it’s really tough to do when tools are taken away.”
“Right now, anything with fangs and claws is very popular to pedestalize and really what is going to happen long before we see wolf obliterate elk, is these game agencies are going to be hurting financially – we’re going to be having them pay for things they won’t have the checkbook to be able to do,” adds Fankhauser.
“The loss of other wildlife is huge and if the people of Colorado start seeing the moose and elk populations severely declining – maybe this will be something for them to consider before moving forward with the reintroduction of the wolf in the state of Colorado,” says Edwards.
“This is a good warning for the state of Colorado – we’ve had wolves travel over 500 miles – those wolves are there and killing livestock and other species of wildlife, so to think the wolves will stay in the mountains is a huge misperception the state is about to see,” Edward concludes.
To listen to the full conversation, visit youtube.com/watch?v=eGIT_bPHS_c.
Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.