Colorado cattle industry sues over wolf reintroduction on the cusp of the animals’ release

· Dec. 13, 2023, 9:51 am
Western Gray Wolf 25 YearsWestern Gray Wolf 25 YearsJacob W. Frank/National Park Service via AP
This Nov. 7, 2017, photo released by the National Park Service shows a wolf in the road near Artist Paintpots in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

By Jesse Bedayn/AP and Report for America

Just weeks before the deadline for Colorado to reintroduce gray wolves under a voter-approved initiative, representatives of the cattle industry association are suing state and federal agencies in the hopes of delaying the predators' release.

The Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association say in the lawsuit filed Monday that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services failed to adequately review the effects of reintroducing up to 50 wolves over the next several years.

The carnivores' planned release in Colorado, voted for in a 2020 ballot measure, has already stirred controversy and sharpened divides between rural and urban residents. City dwellers largely voted to reintroduce the apex predators into the rural areas where prey can include livestock that help drive local economies.

Erin Karney, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, said they will also be requesting a temporary restraining order to halt the impending release, which will happen in the coming weeks once the wolves are caught in Oregon.

“A lot of our concerns that we brought up through the wolf management plan hearings were not adequately addressed,” Karney said. “Our members are putting our foot down and saying we can’t rush these processes. We need to take time.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services did perform an environmental review in part on what is called the 10(j) rule, which would permit the killing of wolves in Colorado under certain scenarios — particularly in the defense of livestock — even though the animals are protected as endangered species.

Still, the lawsuit alleges that the review doesn't satisfy federal environmental law and failed to grasp the consequences of wolf reintroduction.

“Impacts of wolf reintroduction... need to be properly reviewed to avoid unintended negative consequences to the natural environment, wildlife, and people of the impacted communities," said Andy Spann, a fifth-generation rancher and president of the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, in a statement.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokesperson Joe Szuszwalak declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Travis Duncan said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit and also declined to comment.

An analysis of state and federal data by The Associated Press found that, in 2022, gray wolves attacked domesticated animals hundreds of times across 10 states in the contiguous U.S., including Colorado.

Data showed that attacks killed or injured at least 425 cattle and calves, 313 sheep and lambs, 40 dogs, 10 chickens, five horses and four goats.

While those losses can be devastating to individual ranchers or pet owners, the industry-wide impact is minimal. The number of cattle killed or injured in the documented cases equals 0.002% of herds in the affected states, according to a comparison of depredation data with state livestock inventories.

Ranchers can be reimbursed by the state for confirmed wolf kills, but they say merely financial compensation doesn't assuage the problem of empty-handed customers and the work of installing wolf deterrents.

Gray wolves were exterminated across most of the U.S. by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns. They received endangered-species protections in 1975, when there were about 1,000 left, in northern Minnesota.

Since then, there has been no turning back for other states where gray wolves have become reestablished.

An estimated 7,500 wolves in about 1,400 packs now roam parts of the contiguous U.S.

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Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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