Why It Matters: State fish and wildlife agencies have long been recognized as the primary and most respected managers of fish and wildlife in the United States. These agencies are staffed by trained professionals with backgrounds in a wide variety of expertise including law enforcement, land management, wildlife biology, human dimensions, and numerous other disciplines. These agencies carry out on-the-ground conservation efforts and possess a thorough and science-based understanding of their state’s conservation priorities as well as the biological and social carrying capacities of specific species – including the gray wolves that will soon be reintroduced to the state.
- Spearheaded by Colorado Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chairs Senator Perry Will (R) and Senator Dylan Roberts (D), SB23-256 – Management Of Gray Wolves Reintroduction was vetoed by Governor Polis.
- SB23-256 would have required that the USFWS grant a 10(j) designation to Colorado’s wolf introduction effort before wolves could be released in the state.
- The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), along with several other in-state and national outdoor sporting conservation organizations through the Colorado Wildlife Conservation Project, supported SB23-256 throughout the legislative process and are disheartened by the Governor’s veto decision.
With the passage of Proposition 114 in November of 2020, Colorado voters directed the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Commission to develop a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves in Colorado no later than December 31, 2023, on designated lands west of the Continental Divide.
At the time of the passage of Proposition 114, the gray wolf was classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, in February of 2022, a federal court order overturned the previous ruling which resulted in the gray wolf once again being listed as an “endangered” species under the ESA in most of the lower 48 states, including Colorado. With that court ruling, the management of gray wolves in Colorado is now solely under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), unless the state is granted a 10(j) rule by the USFWS for its ballot-mandated wolf reintroduction effort.
The 10(j) rule is a provision of the ESA that allows for the reintroduction of federally listed endangered species into suitable habitat outside of the species’ current range as a “nonessential experimental population.” When an endangered species is reintroduced into an area under the 10(j) rule, the prohibitions and consultation requirements that exist for that species under the ESA are relaxed. Under the 10(j) rule that CPW is pursuing, gray wolves would be regulated as a “threatened” species which allows for greater management flexibility by the state agency, as well as providing more nuanced management prescriptions.
Spearheaded by Colorado Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chairs Senator Perry Will (R) and Senator Dylan Roberts (D), SB23-256 – Management Of Gray Wolves Reintroduction aimed to ensure that CPW had the necessary tools in place to successfully manage the species long-term when implementing Proposition 114. SB23-256 would have required that the USFWS grant a 10(j) designation to Colorado’s wolf introduction effort before wolves could be released in the state. This would ensure that CPW was granted greater management authority and provided with a wide range of tools and management prescriptions that are necessary to ensure a successful reintroduction effort, to manage the species relative to cultural carrying capacity, and to ensure that gray wolves are managed in concert with all the other species across the state.
Despite strong bi-partisan and constituency support, Governor Polis made the decision to veto SB23-256, making it the first bill of 2023 to face the Governor’s red pen. In his veto letter, Governor Polis stated that SB23-256 would prevent Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission from authorizing the release of gray wolves until after the effective date of the 10(j) rule. He called the bill unnecessary, that it undermined voters’ intent, as well as the commission’s work, and suggested it could interfere with the state “successfully receiving experimental population designation.”
The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation strongly disagrees with Governor Polis’s reasoning behind his veto decision and argues that SB23-256 was an elegant solution to a complicated problem. SB23-256 would have level-set the expectations of Coloradans who voted for a reintroduction during a time when the gray wolf was not listed as an endangered species. Furthermore, the bill would have ensured that CPW could continue its work to responsibly reintroduce gray wolves into Colorado under a process that provides them with the necessary tools and flexibility to ensure its long-term success. Now, the fate of Colorado’s wolf management plan lies in the hands of the USFWS and if they are able to complete their 10(j) designation process before December 31, 2023 when wolves will be putting paws to ground.