Moffat County ranchers angry with Colorado voters for forcing wolves on the Western Slope
Livestock producers say they will never be fully compensated for their losses
Resentment and contempt were consistent themes as ranchers from Moffat County expressed their dismay last week with plans to reintroduce wolves in Colorado later this year.
Seeking public input, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service organized one of three meetings on Wednesday, March 15, in Craig to offer more information and take public comments before Colorado Parks and Wildlife reintroduces wolves on the Western Slope by the end of 2023. Other meetings for public comments were held in Grand Junction and Walden.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting at the Moffat County Pavilion, wolves came up at Craig City Council, as council member Tom Kleinschnitz reminded his colleagues of the upcoming opportunity to comment.
“Speaking personally, I wish the wolf initiative had never passed,” Kleinschnitz told his colleagues. “It is going to cost the people of the state of Colorado a tremendous amount of money, I think more than anybody ever anticipated. Some of the ramifications are just ungodly. Unfortunately, it lends itself to that urban-rural divide that we seem to just be driving ourselves at.”
Backed largely by Front Range voters, Colorado narrowly passed Proposition 114 in 2020 mandating that the state reintroduce gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023. The scenario is unique because it’s the first time state voters have weighed in on the reintroduction of an endangered species.
“It’s a law. Wolves are going to be reintroduced here,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Lauren Toivonen told the crowd at the Moffat County Pavilion. “That wasn’t a decision made by CPW or Fish and Wildlife Service. That was a decision was made by voters.”
However, bringing back an apex predator has exploded fears across the ranching community whose land these wolves might roam. A small pack of wolves in Jackson County has killed a dozen cows, calves and dogs since 2021, highlighting local concerns that wolf depredations will soon become a common occurrence across all of Northwest Colorado.
“I think somebody ought to introduce a bill that the people who voted to introduce these wolves ought to be taxed to the point they pay for it,” said Ron Lawton, an 82-year-old lifelong Moffat County resident who raises hay and cows, and hunts. “The ones that want them ought to be the ones that pay for it.”
After the presentation, Lawton admitted that he has “a bad attitude” concerning wolf reintroduction. In his words, he doesn’t want to work through the night saving a calf just to have that calf go to feed wolves.
To offer more flexibility for managing wolves once they’re released on the Western Slope, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed designating the incoming wolves a nonessential, experimental population, as well as introducing a 10(J) rule. If included in the agency’s final decision, the rule would allow CPW more flexibility with its management plan for the federally endangered species.
That includes measures allowing for lethal take in a handful of specific circumstances, such as when a wolf is caught preying on livestock. For many local ranchers, the 10(j) rule is seen as an essential tool for dealing with an already bad situation, but that’s not their only concern.
On Wednesday, one local rancher spoke about how wolves might stress a herd of cattle, causing a reduced number of pregnancies and births among the heifers, and he questioned how that rancher’s losses would be defined and compensated.
“I can tell you right now, we will never be compensated for our losses,” he said. “It’s partial at best.”
And he wasn’t alone.
“My concern is adding on to the losses (we already have),” another rancher said. “They introduce wolves and we lose animals — we’re already being taxed for that, and then we have a loss, so we’re getting taxed doubly. We didn’t vote this in. How is that fair on our part? We get hit twice losing animals, and we didn’t want this.”
Fish and Wildlife officials told the rancher that’s a big reason why the agency is working to add a 10(j) rule in Colorado, so that landowners will have some means to defend their livestock.
“It’s not only livestock, it’s our way of life,” the rancher replied. “Our hunting, our livestock, our dogs, our horses, it goes down and down the list. We’re paying for it two or three times.”
One woman wondered how the ungulate populations in the area could support additional pressure with wolves preying on them, and others expressed concerns for hunting-related businesses that could also take hits, such as lodging, meat processing, taxidermy and more.
“Everything you’re talking about is damage control,” said Jim Nicoletto, a retired power plant worker who raises sheep and goats on a small scale to have control over his food.
For Nicoletto, it’s hard to understand why anyone would support a measure that makes ranchers’ already difficult job even harder.
“These people in this room feed the world,” he said. “We have all these people in these cities that don’t have any idea of where their food comes from. It comes from people like us, and they’re doing everything they can to make it harder on us.”
He commended the federal wildlife officials for doing the best they can with “this horrible deck of cards (they’ve) been dealt.”
With multiple reports of wolf sightings in the area, many locals say wolves are already in Northwest Colorado, and that sparked one of the most pointed exchanges of Wednesday’s meeting.
“I call (expletive) on your two known wolves in Colorado,” a rancher told the federal officials. “There’s no way you can base that on the facts. The extreme northwest corner of Colorado has wolves. We’ve got them up here in Craig crossing the line every day. You cannot sell that to us. That’s wrong. How can you reintroduce something that’s already here?”
Nicole Alt, Colorado Ecological Services Supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responded that the agency defines a wolf population as two breeding pairs raising at least two pups over two consecutive seasons. Based on what wildlife officials know about wolves in Colorado, those thresholds have not been met.
“I hear you. I don’t think we’re making our decision based on the fact that there are only two, but this is the best available information that we have right now,” Alt said.
“Typical fake news,” the rancher replied.
Framing the situation for the room, Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock said it can be tough to separate the different pieces of the state and federal plans, but the state will be the entity that has to address compensation for losses, while his focus on the federal documents centers on the 10(j) rule.
“Nobody in this room voted to put wolves on the ground,” Comstock said. “The county doesn’t support it either. What we have to do is impress upon the (state) wildlife commission before that plan becomes final those kinds of things that we need in there, the compensation.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service … this is one of the few times that we find ourselves in agreement with what the feds are doing. They actually want to be able to kill wolves. That’s what 10(j) does. Without that 10(j) rule in place, we’re subject to a fully protected species under the Endangered Species Act, so this is a good thing.”
According to the Fish and Wildlife officials, comments that speak to specific management aspects of the proposal are viewed as the most useful.
As a result, some suggestions for comments include providing information pertaining to the conservation of gray wolves, the adequacy of the proposed regulations for the experimental population, any management flexibilities that could be added to the final rule and whether to allow legal management of gray wolves that are affecting ungulate populations.
Currently, managing wolves for their impact on ungulate populations is not included in the federal plan. For Comstock, that is another important aspect on which locals might want to focus.
The comment period ends April 18. For more, go to FWS.GOV/office/colorado-ecological-services-field-office/colorado-gray-wolf-updates. A virtual meeting is also scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22. Register online at bit.ly/COgraywolf.
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