For Immediate Release – September 15, 2023
Media Contact : Michael Saul, Western Watersheds Project, 303-915-8308; email@example.com
DENVER – Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) announced a proposed rule that would loosen existing Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Colorado. Under the proposed “Nonessential Experimental Population Rule,” USFWS would issue an unprecedented authorization for both private individuals and state agents to kill threatened wolves under a variety of circumstances, including on public lands, a management approach that runs counter to the best available science about the species.
In addition, the proposed USFWS rule fails to provide for the opportunity for recovery of critically-endangered Mexican wolves in southern Colorado. USFWS’s accompanying environmental analysis acknowledges that “[i]nterbreeding between gray wolves and Mexican wolves could result in genetic swamping (gene flow from gray wolves to Mexican wolves, resulting in hybridization) of the Mexican wolf population, potentially threatening the genetic integrity of the Mexican wolf population.” The proposed rule, however, fails to plan for the much-needed expansion of Mexican wolf range into southern Colorado, instead relying on vague promises that some future agreement will “minimize interaction.”
“Mexican wolves have too long languished on the edge of extinction,” said Saul. “It’s a missed opportunity for the Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to ensure that the gray wolf restoration project makes room for a sorely-needed additional recovery zone for Mexican wolves in suitable southern Colorado habitat.”
Colorado’s 2020 citizen-initiated Proposition 114, which requires Colorado Parks and Wildlife (“CPW”) to bring back the native predator. The voter initiative, as subsequently codified into state law, requires that CPW develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado, “using the best scientific data available.” “Restoration” is defined as reintroduction of wolves plus “post-release management of the gray wolf in a manner that fosters the species’ capacity to sustain itself successfully.”
Because gray wolves in Colorado are currently classified as federally threatened – “likely to become in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range” – it is currently unlawful to kill or capture the native carnivore except under extremely narrow circumstances. A federal “nonessential experimental designation” would greatly expand legal wolf killing, including, under the proposed rule, private ranchers’ killing of wolves alleged to be “harassing” livestock on not just private but also public land.
“Allowing private ranchers to slaughter threatened wolves on public land is unprecedented, scientifically unjustified, and fundamentally unwise policy,” said Michael Saul, Colorado Director with Western Watersheds Project. “The proposed nonessential experimental population rule creates perverse incentives for ranchers to forego established non-lethal tools for coexistence in favor of shooting first and asking questions later. Such an approach undermines the Colorado voters’ mandate for a science-based restoration program aimed at restoring ecological balance.”
The proposed Fish and Wildlife Service rule relies on the scientifically-refuted assumption that killing wolves will foster humans’ tolerance for wolves, and in adopting highly permissive guidelines for wolf killing, without consideration of the effects on pack and population viability.
One provision retroactively authorizes ranchers to kill wolves that “harass or molest” livestock on both private or public land. The second provision allows USFWS or CPW to issue permits, including to private individuals for the killing of wolves on both public and private lands, following a single allegation of wolf depredation on livestock or working dogs. The rules do not set any numerical limits on the number of wolves that can be killed, nor require consideration of the viability or stability of wolf packs prior to issuance of lethal take permits.
“Coloradans explicitly endorsed a constitutional amendment for science-based wolf restoration based on their determination that ‘gray wolves will restore a critical balance in nature.’ A rule that allows wolf killing without any science-based safeguards threatens to turn that restoration effort on its head. Colorado’s opportunity for a historic ecological restoration success will be squandered if the state instead becomes nothing more than a killing ground for wolves.”
Following a lengthy campaign of state-sponsored eradication, gray wolves were extirpated from Colorado in approximately 1944. The species has been federally listed as endangered in Colorado under the Endangered Species Act since 1976, and, apart from a brief interval of illegal delisting from 2021 to 2022, has remained so listed since.