A bipartisan group of Colorado lawmakers introduced a trio of bills Tuesday to help Western Slope residents handle the impacts of wolf reintroduction.
The new legislation comes nine months before Colorado wildlife managers must reintroduce wolves under a statewide ballot initiative narrowly approved by voters in 2020. If successful, it would be the first time any state has led an effort to restore the predators.
State Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat who represents Avon and Steamboat Springs, said he never supported the idea but hopes the new legislation will help rural communities adjust to a self-sustaining wolf population decades after hunters and trappers eradicated the species.
“It's simply doing what we can at the legislative level to protect as many people as possible while still honoring voters' intent,” Roberts said.
Roberts is a lead sponsor of one bill to create a dedicated fund to compensate livestock owners if a wolf kills or injures an animal. While Colorado already has a program to cover the market value of any livestock lost to wildlife, state wildlife managers are currently considering rules to offer additional payment if ranchers can show wolves caused an incident.
The legislation is designed to ensure there are adequate resources for the effort, Roberts said.
It would provide $350,000 a year from the state general fund rather than pull money from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which relies on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses for most of its operations.
“It’s a commitment not to take away from the things the department does to support the sportsmen community,” Roberts said.
Another bill clarifies the state could only move ahead with wolf reintroduction after winning special permission for the project under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The topic has become a point of frustration for rural Coloradans after a federal judge restored endangered species protections last year. Under the decision, state wildlife managers no longer have jurisdiction over wolves living in Colorado. Any effort to kill or disturb a wolf is also strictly prohibited.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does allow special designations for "experimental populations" under the Endangered Species Act. Colorado has applied for the designation through what’s called a 10(j) permit. If it’s granted as expected, the state would likely have the authority to kill or trap wolves so long as those actions are part of a larger plan to conserve the species.
“Having a 10(j) allows Colorado to manage wolves in our state in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said State Senator Perry Will, a Republican who represents New Castle. “This management flexibility is critical to the success of the wolf reintroduction plan.”
Roberts added the legislation is necessary due to the tight timeline around the reintroduction process. While the ballot initiative requires “paws on the ground” by the end of 2023, he said the state might not win the 10(j) permit until weeks before the deadline. The bill ensures Colorado Parks and Wildlife won’t proceed without the special permission in place.
A final piece of legislation would create a new “Born to Be Wild” specialty license plate vehicle owners could purchase for a $100 fee. Colorado Parks and Wildlife would receive half of the money to fund non-lethal projects to prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock.
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