Federal judge to rule Friday on Colorado gray wolf reintroduction

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The fate of a contentious plan to reintroduce a gray wolf population into Colorado will be decided on Friday, a federal district court judge declared at a Thursday hearing in Denver. 

The forthcoming decision follows a week of litigative clashes between Colorado ranching groups and wildlife officials regarding the upcoming release, which was mandated under a voter-approved ballot initiative.

If they do receive the green light, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials said they could bring in wolves from Oregon on Sunday and start releasing them on Monday, according to The Summit Daily News. 

But that release depends upon Judge Regina Rodriguez’s Friday ruling, which will follow Thursday’s extensive oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by two ranching groups, according to Colorado Politics. 

The Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association filed a complaint on Monday, seeking to halt an effort that they believe could endanger both livestock and the state’s economy.  

The plaintiffs argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to prepare a formal environmental impact statement. In addition to demanding federal compliance with NEPA, the groups asked that state officials be barred from releasing wolves during the intervening period.

“We regard this path of litigation not out of a desire for conflict, but rather as a testament to our unwavering commitment to supporting Colorado’s agriculture community,” Robert Farnam, president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, said in a statement

After the groups asked Rodriguez for a restraining order to stop the releases earlier this week, Lisa Reynolds, Colorado first assistant attorney general, requested the Thursday hearing. 

The ranching organizations have voiced objections to the plan since its appearance on a 2020 ballot initiative.

Proposition 114 — now State Statute 33-2-105.8 — received 50.91 percent of voter support in the 2020 general elections, with a margin of only 56,986 individual votes. 

Under the statute, which became law in February 2022, USFWS vacated a rule from the Trump administration that had delisted gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act. 

Management authority over gray wolves in Colorado returned to the USFWS, which has been working in with CPW on restoration and reintroduction programs, per the state agency. 

The statute directed CPW to develop a reintroduction and management plan no later than Dec. 31, 2023, on designated lands west of the Continental Divide, the agency explained. 

CPW finalized and approved its Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan in May 2023, anticipating that the reintroduction would require the transfer about 30 to 50 wolves over a three- to five-year time frame. 

The overall goal, per the plan, is “to recover and maintain a viable, self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado, while concurrently working to minimize wolf-related conflicts with domestic animals, other wildlife and people.”

The USFWS announced on Nov. 7 that it had finalized the designation of a gray wolf experimental population in Colorado — enabling the reintroduction to begin on or after Dec. 8.  

That designation occurred through a special provision in the Endangered Species Act, known as section 10(j), which facilitates the release of threatened or endangered species into habitats outside their current range, according to FWS. Aimed at relieving pressure on area landowners, this flexible classification reduces the legal consequences associated with inadvertently harming experimental population members.

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