Lawsuit seeks to thwart the will of Colorado voters, upend democratic process

For immediate Release

DENVER – The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project today hailed the decision of Regina M. Rodriguez (The United States District Court, District of Colorado) to deny a motion to halt the impending release of the first of several groups of gray wolves to Colorado.

Advisors to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project are deeply concerned by these last-minute lawsuits to stop wolf restoration in Colorado, which are a delay tactic, an affront to the voters of Colorado, and an insult to the dedicated agency wildlife professionals who have worked hard to fulfill their legal mandate. Colorado wolf reintroduction is a state-led process—a historic first. It is an effort three decades in the making; the first use of direct democracy to reintroduce a federally protected endangered species to its historic range. 

In 2020, the people of Colorado voted to restore wolves through Proposition 114. Now codified as CRS 33-2-105.8, the law mandates that Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) develop a wolf restoration plan based on the best available science, designed to minimize conflicts with livestock producers, which they have done. Implementation is required to begin by December 31, 2023, a timeframe that has given the agency and the public over three years to prepare, including extensive consultation and engagement with livestock, hunting, and tribal communities.

The lawsuits from the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), and from the so-called Colorado Conservation Alliance would, if successful, upend a longstanding public process that has involved many stakeholders, including livestock producers, many of whom were members of the organizations suing.

Colorado has had a live-and-let-live policy regarding wolves for almost two decades, since CPW adopted its 2004 wolf management plan developed by a stakeholder group that included ranchers (some of whom were members of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association), hunters, and wildlife conservationists. At the time, wolves were federally protected throughout the contiguous US. Since then, policies in Wyoming have changed, preventing wolves from successfully establishing a viable population in Colorado. 

Since Prop 114 passed, CPW has followed the law with a lengthy and highly collaborative public engagement process. This included a stakeholder process that involved ranchers (many of whom are CCA members), hunters, outfitters, wildlife biologists and conservationists. We are proud that some of our members were involved in that process, during which they worked hard to accommodate the concerns of ranchers. Livestock producers benefitted from this stakeholder process, receiving much of what they demanded, including the country’s most generous compensation program for livestock lost to wolves or other predators.

During the months of public hearings on the draft Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission heard from hundreds of Coloradans, including many members of the organizations behind this lawsuit. They made increases to an already generous compensation program before unanimously approving the final plan.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) produced an experimental population designation for wolves in Colorado, under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, which provides management agencies with flexibility to address conflicts with people and livestock. Many members of the ranching community demanded this 10(j) rule, including the organizations that are suing. The 10(j) rule was preceded by a year-long public process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), with two public comment periods, which resulted in the final rule and accompanying Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). 

It is time now to move forward with the plan that CPW developed, based on stakeholder collaboration, and the corresponding 10(j) rule which USFWS developed based on the EIS with public involvement.

Meanwhile, CPW, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the USDA, our state universities, and NGOs, including RMWP, have been working hard to help prepare livestock producers for wolf restoration. We look forward to continuing to support livestock producers during and after the reintroduction. 

  • We have visited ranches in North Park, where Colorado’s sole wolf pack has been located for the last two years. Some of us volunteered our time to help install fladry in North Park.
  • We worked with northwest Colorado ranchers and Colorado State University to host a gathering of ranchers and wildlife advocates, where wildlife advocates learned about ranching, ranchers learned about wolf restoration, and there was broad agreement to work on conflict minimization.
  • We developed the Born to be Wild license plate, which creates a funding mechanism for wildlife advocates to support non-lethal conflict minimization. According to the state’s fiscal note on the bill creating the plate, it may raise as much as $600,000/year for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to assist ranchers.
  • We worked with Colorado State University to develop the Wolf Conflict Reduction Fund, and provided a generous seed grant to kickstart the fund and support two pilot projects assisting livestock producers.
  • We have donated over $15,000 worth of conflict minimization equipment to CPW.

We are deeply disappointed that factions within Colorado’s livestock and outfitting industries filed these lawsuits. It is a disrespectful gesture to the people of Colorado, who widely support ranching, hunting, and wolf restoration.

“I am very confident that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are on the right side of history and the law here,” said Rob Edward, strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. “This lawsuit is frivolous, with no merit, in fact or law.” Edward also led the campaign for Prop 114.

“What people are really arguing about here is not just wolves and livestock–we can and will have both–but competing visions for the future of the West, underlying values of wildness and domesticity, and even deeper cultural assumptions about the human place in the more-than-human world,” said range scientist Matt Barnes, a former ranch manager in Gunnison County who is now a science and coexistence advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, and founder of Reintegrating Wildness at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.

“While this lawsuit was expected, signaling the ongoing culture war against wolves and highlighting a perceived rural-urban divide, it does little to advance the interests of the very stakeholders it is professing to champion,” stated Courtney Vail, strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. “It will serve to further polarize wolf advocates and ranchers, dismissing and sabotaging the diverse community of supporters in Colorado who are actually seeking to assist producers, listen to their fears and concerns, and equip them with real solutions to successfully coexist with wolves in Colorado.”

“Humans have lived alongside wolves for our entire existence in the northern hemisphere. From all over the world, the science is clear that humans can live with large carnivores, even those that are potential predators of livestock,” said Joanna Lambert, PhD, a University of Colorado Boulder professor and science advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. “If we are to live in a world where we don’t just kill everything that is challenging, then we must (re)learn how to live and coexist with wildlife, including predators.” 

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, based in Colorado, is dedicated to working together for wolves and people. We are working towards a future where the myths and perceived negative impacts surrounding wolves are replaced by true coexistence between people and this much-maligned species, and where respect for both western livelihoods and an ecologically significant population of wolves can exist side-by-side in Colorado.