Wolves win vote for reintroduction in Colorado

Paws on the ground by 2023, after ‘nail-biting’ public ballot

Harry Cockburn
Saturday 07 November 2020 17:12
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Wolves in the Rocky Mountains. Due to reintroduction programmes, over 1,700 wolves now live in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming
Wolves in the Rocky Mountains. Due to reintroduction programmes, over 1,700 wolves now live in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming

As US citizens finally get the results of the presidential election, another “nail biting” ballot has been underway: People in Colorado have voted in favour of the reintroduction of wolves to the US state, where the species was hunted to extinction by the 1940s.

Supporters of the reintroduction had suggested the legislation to bring the grey wolf back to the state would “sail to victory”, but in the end the vote was won by the slimmest of margins — just 0.5 per cent — emulating the race to the White House.

The legislation now requires Colorado Parks and Wildlife to create a plan based on the best science and reintroduce a sustainable number of wolves on designated public land west of the Continental Divide.

It is the first time a US state has voted to recover an imperiled species, according to the Denver Post.

Rob Edward, who led the ballot campaign for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, called the vote “a nail-biter” but said the result will stand.

“This is an up or down vote,” he told NPR. “If the people of Colorado say we want wolves, the next step is to lean into that reality and find a common path forward.”

The initiative hopes to have “paws on the ground” by late 2023.

Reintroducing wolves in the region will expand wolves comeback along the US’s Rocky Mountains. Over 1,700 wolves now live in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Campaigners backing the initiative said the reintroduction would be “a restoration of global significance”.

Speaking ahead of the final count, Jon Proctor, programme director of the Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains, told the Denver Post: “We’ve been compelled to go directly to voters and cut politicians out of the picture. Wildlife agencies work for us, in theory, but in the case of certain species, the people have not been listened to.

“If wolves are restored to Colorado and habitat connectivity is restored, we will have restored a large carnivore, the wolf, from Alaska to Mexico — a restoration of global significance.

Speaking about the huge rise in the rate of extinctions of species around the world, Mr Proctor added: “It means we’re willing to restore biodiversity that we’ve lost … it shows that people are willing to help reverse that trend where we can.”

But the reintroduction vote comes after the Trump administration removed wolves from the US’s endangered list, saying the species had made a “successful recovery”. The ruling means states will now decide whether wolves can be hunted or trapped. 

Previous reintroductions of wolves — most notably in Yellowstone National park, have been hailed as major success stories.

In Yellowstone, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the arrival of the species had a profound impact on biodiversity.

Wolves brought down the booming populations of deer and elk, allowing trees — whose shoots had previously been grazed — to flourish. The new growth provided greater opportunities for flora and fauna, attracting and providing new habitats for songbirds, beavers, and even in the newly shaded waters, for fish and other marine life. This powerful impact, due to addition or removal of one species is called a “trophic cascade”, and in the UK, the reintroduction of beavers has been similarly successful — and for similar reasons.

Despite  this success the initiative to return wolves to Colorado has been vehemently opposed, largely by farmers, ranchers and wider rural communities, who have noted the considerable differences between Yellowstone and parts of Colorado and have said they are concerned wolves will attack cattle and sheep and could come into conflict with people.

“Yellowstone doesn’t have big buildings, highways, industry, transmission lines, subdivisions and ski areas — things that make Colorado what it is,” Shawn Martini, spokesperson for Coloradans for Protecting Wildlife, told The Denver Post.

The group has support from ranchers, county commissioners and chambers of commerce.

“We have an established system for wildlife conservation. This wolf initiative does an end-run around that process. They’ve short-circuited it. They’re trying to get what experts in the state agency have told them they cannot have.”

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