CPW no longer final arbiter of wolf reintroduction after court relists species as endangered

Wildlife officials say the change doesn’t derail reintroduction’s timeline, but it will be a “big lift”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife released this photo of the first gray wolf born and collared in Colorado on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.
Eric Odell/Colorado Parks & Wildlife

A federal court ruling in February relisting gray wolves as an endangered species across much of the United States could complicate Colorado’s wolf reintroduction effort.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated its latest intention to delist wolves in May 2019. Colorado voters then approved wolf reintroduction in November 2020, and the final delisting was published soon after. Colorado Parks and Wildlife assumed management authority of wolves in January of 2021.

But three lawsuits filed at that time in the Northern District of California challenged the delisting of wolves, and, on Feb. 10, a judge tossed out the agency’s rule and returned wolves to the status quo that had existed before the ruling.

“In essence, (the ruling) said the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it delisted wolves, and in order to remedy that violation, the delisting rule had to be vacated and sent back,” said Lisa Reynolds, an assistant state attorney general, to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission last week.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff maintain watch over gray wolf M2101 after it was tranquilized and fitted with a GPS collar. M2101 has been spotted in north-central Colorado traveling with gray wolf M1084 from Wyoming’s Snake River Pack.
Courtesy/Colorado Parks & Wildlife

In Colorado, the ruling means that state officials are no longer the final arbiters of reintroduction. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will need to be a “copilot” with the state through the process and it will require federal environmental reviews before a plan can be implemented.

It also means that emergency hazing regulations — approved methods allowing ranchers to scare wolves away from livestock — passed last month also need to be reviewed.

Still, Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources, said all of this can still be fit into the timeline approved by voters that says wolves need to be reintroduced by the end of December 2023.

“We need to work very closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now,” DeWalt said. “It will be a big lift on all our parts.”

The service has been attempting to delist wolves since the early 2000s, but each time they have been unsuccessful. The February ruling wasn’t unexpected, and Reynolds indicated she didn’t think they would appeal.

The argument for delisting was twofold. First, to designate a species endangered, it needs to be a species, subspecies, or distinct population, and federal wildlife officials argued wolves are none of these. Reynolds said she always felt this argument was “too cute by half.”

The other argument was when looking at populations across the country, there are more than enough wolves in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions to ensure a sustainable population, and therefore the species has recovered.

“The court rejected all of these things,” Reynolds said.

Wolves across the country are not necessarily impacted in the same way by the ruling. Wolves in Minnesota were only considered threatened, meaning they are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, and they return to that status.

In the Northern Rockies states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and eastern parts of Oregon and Washington, wolves were delisted by an act of congress. These wolves were not listed before the original delisting, and are still not considered endangered now.

The ruling doesn’t impact Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona either. Those states have what is called a 10(j) ruling under the Endangered Species Act designating those wolves an “experimental population,” which gives agencies more flexibility when trying to reestablish them.

To give the state authority to reintroduce wolves, DeWalt said the agencies are working to set up a 10(j) ruling in Colorado, which will be necessary to get “paws on the ground.”

To get this ruling, DeWalt said the proposal would need to go through a National Environmental Policy Act review process, which can be expensive and lengthy.

It could cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million — paid for by CPW — and even an expedited timeline projects it could be approved by Dec. 15, 2023, just 16 days before wolves need to be reintroduced by law.

But DeWalt said he feels they know enough about what the state’s plan will look like to begin this process now, even though a draft of that plan wont be presented to the CPW Commission until December. The hope is to hire a contractor for the NEPA process by May.

The change in who governs wolves also impacts emergency regulations the CPW commission approved at its January Meeting. A letter from Regional Director Matt Hogan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent to CPW earlier this month said several of the approved hazing methods are acceptable to them.

Still, the letter does not list the use of non-lethal projectiles like rubber bullets as acceptable hazing methods like CPW’s regulation did, though it does note the list was not exhaustive.

“We’ll have to look at the rule passed and whether it stays in place,” DeWalt said.

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