Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, courtesy of Flickr
For Immediate Release: February 16, 2023
Emphasis on Wolf Killing Undermines Goal of Restoring Self-Sustaining Wolf Populations
DENVER —The United S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday unveiled its proposed rule to designate the soon-to-be-reintroduced wolf population in Colorado as a “nonessential experimental” population under the Endangered Species Act. While conservationists applauded the Fish and Wildlife Service’s prompt engagement in the State of Colorado’s legally-mandated program to restore gray wolves to the state, the proposed rule goes too far in stripping endangered species protections from wolves, according to the groups, threatening to undermine the goal of restoring a self-sustaining population of wild wolves to the state. The proposed “nonessential experimental” status would strip Colorado’s wolves of federal Endangered Species Act protections they otherwise would have had, making it easier to kill wolves.
“Experimental nonessential’ status provides insufficient protection because it allows for wolves to be killed in response to livestock depredations, putting all the pressure on Colorado’s plan to protect wolves and achieve true recovery,” said Michael Saul, Colorado Director with Western Watersheds Project. “The federal government’s participation in Colorado’s wolf reintroduction program is essential and welcome, but the voters and wildlife of Colorado deserve a wolf reintroduction that respects both Colorado’s Proposition 114 and the Endangered Species Act – reliance on real science, emphasis on coexistence, and focus on reestablishing a healthy population of gray wolves in the Southern Rockies.”
Colorado holds over 12 million acres of suitable wolf habitat on the Western Slope alone, and a massive prey base of more than 280,000 elk as well as smaller wildlife that can easily support the return of a robust wolf population to the southern Rockies. In yesterday’s proposed Rule, USFWS cited science showing that Colorado habitats can support 1,307 wolves, mostly on public land. In 2020, the people of Colorado voted to restore wolves to the State, resulting in a state law requiring Colorado Parks and Wildlife to return a self-sustaining wolf population to their rightful ecological role in the Colorado mountains and valleys.
“Colorado has a once-in-more-than-a-generation chance to restore wolves and the healthy wildness they bring to our treasured landscapes,” said Michelle L. Lute, PhD in wolf conservation and carnivore conservation director for Project Coyote. “Colorado could be the model for enlightened, effective and ethical coexistence but not with a non-essential, experimental designation that allows for liberalized slaughter. Wolves are essential and so is their protection from anthropogenic mortality.”
The science is clear on several critical points. Wolf risks to human safety are negligible. Where wolves have been restored, their contribution to livestock losses is overshadowed by other causes (e.g. weather, disease, theft), and killing predators does not reduce livestock losses, while non-lethal alternatives are more effective. Killing wolves doesn’t improve hunting opportunities. Importantly, killing wolves, a highly social species, can destabilize the social structure of pack units. Finally, killing wolves does not create social tolerance, and instead leads only to increased illegal killing and increased potential for conflict.
“Individual wolves and packs have begun to return on their own to northern Colorado, but the indiscriminate slaughter of wolves currently allowed in Wyoming means that these spontaneous migrations can’t succeed on their own,” said Saul. “Meaningful wolf recovery requires human intervention to begin reversing the animals’ extermination. And the democratic process ensures that reintroduction should and will occur, guided by the best science available, and with provision for economic compensation to ranchers experiencing livestock losses.”
Wolves currently are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act throughout most of the United States, including Colorado, prohibiting the killing or harassment of these animals outside of very narrowly limited circumstances. The “nonessential experimental” designation would lift these protections, in this case, in the name of “management flexibility.” In particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule would allow state and federal agencies and private ranchers to “shoot on sight” multiple wolves under numerous circumstances, including to address claims of wolves killing private livestock on public land.
Wolf-killing authorizations in the proposed rule fail to place any burden on ranchers, including public land permittees, to take common-sense measures towards coexistence and conflict reduction prior to resorting to wolf killing.
“The Endangered Species Act provides multiple legal tools for the Fish and Wildlife Service to promote the State’s desired ‘management flexibility’ in reintroducing wolves, without stripping the species of critical protections against the sort of large-scale killing that wolves are currently facing in Idaho and Montana,” said Saul. “For Colorado’s historic wolf restoration project to succeed, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to provide a federal backstop to ensure that wolves are not returned to the State only to face senseless and counterproductive killing.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting public comment on the proposed rule for 60 days starting February 17. The proposed rule, supporting documents, and public comment opportunities can be viewed at https://www.fws.gov/coloradowolf; public meetings will be held in Grand Junction, Craig, Walden, and virtually in March 2023.