Federal judge allows wolf reintroduction in Colorado to proceed

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is expected to reintroduce wolves to Colorado by the end of the year.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be allowed to move forward with its plan to begin the process of reintroducing wolves in the state this weekend after a federal judge on Friday denied a motion made by a group of ranchers to delay the process.

The Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ and The Colorado Cattlemen’s associations filed a lawsuit Monday, accusing the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of not completing the required environmental impact studies on the reintroduction.   

In her ruling posted just after 7 p.m., Judge Regina Rodriguez said that while the ranchers’ concerns are understandable, their complaints aren’t sufficient “for this court to grant the extraordinary relief they seek.” She added that a pause to the reintroduction process would be against the public interest because of the voter approval of Proposition 114 in 2020.

The ruling came one day after a three-hour hearing at a federal court in Denver where representatives from both sides of the lawsuit made arguments in front of the judge. 

An attorney for the state told the court Thursday the state planned to begin the process of transporting wolves to Colorado from Oregon on Sunday, with a possible release date as early as Monday. 

The wolves are set to be released on private or state lands somewhere in Eagle, Grand, or Summit counties.

The ranchers’ lawsuit claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have conducted environmental impact statement reviews beyond what has already been completed. 

For the reintroduction process to have been delayed, the attorneys for the ranchers needed to prove they would be likely to win the overall case. In her ruling, Rodriguez said theyhad failed to do that. She also said they failed to show there would be irreparable harm if she allowed the reintroduction process to proceed. 

“CPW has devoted substantial public resources to this effort, and presented evidence that some of those would be lost if it were forced to delay its efforts,” according to the ruling. 

Advocates for wolf reintroduction celebrated the ruling Friday evening, calling it “excellent news.” A spokesperson for the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association said the group would continue to look closely at the impacts wolf reintroduction will have on its members.

“A serious effort to resolve those conflicts remains to be undertaken,” according to a written statement.

A spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the agency won’t comment on the ongoing litigation.  

CPW plans to put tracking collars on the wolves before releasing them in the state. In her order, the judge noted this means the wolves could be recaptured if ordered by the court. 

On Thursday, lawyers for the state called the filing an “11th-hour” attempt to delay a process that has been underway for years. Under Proposition 114, which was approved in 2020 by a narrow margin of 57,000 votes, wolves are required to be reintroduced in the state before the end of this year.

Ranchers across the Western Slope have protested the decision by voters, citing concerns over their livestock being killed and their way of life irreparably damaged. In response, the state has created a fund to provide $15,000 for any livestock killed by wolves. The federal government also issued a 10(j) ruling, changing the way wolves are classified in Colorado and allowing ranchers to kill the animals if they attack their livestock. 

State officials in Oregon agreed to provide wolves for Colorado’s reintroduction after several other states – including Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho – declined to do so. Colorado officials plan to capture five wolves in Oregon, tranquilize them, and then transport them to Colorado. Only five wolves can fit into the transport airplane at one time, Reynolds said. It’s also possible they will need to be driven to the state, which takes at least two days. 

Another suit filed

The Colorado Conservation Alliance filed a separate case against the reintroduction on Thursday. That filing has similar allegations about the requirements for an environmental impact study. Both cases cite requirements under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act as arguments against the process. 

The new lawsuit focuses on concerns about how the gray wolves, which are set to be introduced in Colorado before the end of the year, could interact with Mexican wolves, which exist in Arizona and New Mexico. The lawsuit includes several other hypothetical concerns as well, including the possible spread of diseases and the impacts of many wolves eventually settling in the state. 

While the initial lawsuit asked for an immediate, temporary restraining order to halt the reintroduction, a similar ask has not yet been made in the latest lawsuit. That may give the state beyond its set timeline — which could be as early as Monday — to respond.

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