Federal judge rejects attempt to block reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado

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The reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado could move forward as soon as this weekend, after a federal judge on Friday rejected a motion from ranching groups to block their release. 

“The petitioners who have lived and worked on the land for many years are understandably concerned about possible impacts of this reintroduction,” Judge Regina Rodriguez stated. 

She ruled, however, that these impacts are not sufficient “to grant the extraordinary relief” sought by the petitioning parties. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials had indicated that if they did receive the greenlight, they could begin capturing up to 10 wolves in Oregon on Sunday and start releasing them in Colorado on Monday. 

Rodriguez’s Friday night ruling, which followed oral arguments on Thursday, arose after week of litigative clashes between Colorado ranching groups and wildlife officials regarding the voter-mandated reintroduction of a species that once roamed free in the Centennial State. 

Two ranching groups, the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, filed a complaint Monday, requesting to halt an effort that they perceived as harmful to both livestock and the economy.  

Arguing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to conduct a sufficient environmental review, the plaintiffs asked the court to stop Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) releasing the wolves until the federal agency complies with this rule.  

The ranching organizations have voiced objections to the plan since its appearance as the Proposition 114  ballot initiative in the 2020 elections. The proposition, now State Statute 33-2-105.8, earned 50.91 percent of voter support, with a margin of only 56,986 individual votes. 

“Petitioners now ask the Court to halt the release of wolves and enjoin CPW from carrying out the will of Colorado voters. Doing so would be contrary to the public interest,” Rodriguez stated in the ruling  

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

The statute thereby returned authority over the wolves to the FWS, while directing CPW to develop a reintroduction and management plan no later than Dec. 31, 2023, per the state agency.

The state parks agency approved its Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan in May 2023, anticipating a transfer of about 30 to 50 wolves over a three- to five-year time frame. 

Gray wolves largely disappeared from Colorado in the 1940s and have since been considered an “extirpated species” — an animal that no longer persists in its historical habitat but resides elsewhere, according to CPW.

Alongside state efforts, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service declared on Nov. 7 that it had finalized the designation of a gray wolf “experimental population” in Colorado — and that the release could begin 30 days later, on or after Dec. 8.  

The designation occurred through the section 10(j) provision of the Endangered Species Act, which enables the release of threatened or endangered species outside their current range, per the service. Aimed at minimizing the burden on area landowners, this classification reduces the legal ramifications associated with inadvertent harm to experimental population members.

“CPW has spent years preparing to reintroduce wolves into Colorado,” Rodriguez wrote in the ruling. “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.”

Discrediting claims that the plaintiffs would incur significant financial tolls if the wolves harmed their herds, Rodriguez stressed that CPW had offered up to $15,000 per animal lost. 

The judge also refuted the NEPA compliance complaint, arguing that the plaintiffs could not show that Fish and Wildlife’s partnership with CPW was discretionary — in which case the federal agency would be obliged to conduct an environmental review. She instead determined that the agreement was a mandatory duty. 

“In fact, during the hearing, all parties acknowledged that FWS has never completed an analysis under NEPA for any of the past renewals or for any cooperative agreements that FWS has in Colorado or any of the other 49 states,” Rodriguez wrote.

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