Amanda Pampuro

(CN) — Colorado has a plan to bring back the wolves. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission published a draft plan on Friday outlining how it will reintroduce gray wolves to the state, in accordance with a 2020 ballot initiative narrowly approved by voters.

The plan includes potential sources for wolves, livestock compensation and allows for lethal takes.

The gray wolf, Canis lupus, was endemic to Colorado until it was hunted to extinction in the middle of the 20th century. A slim 50.91% of voters supported a measure backed by environmental groups like the Sierra Club to reintroduce wolves. The proposition received strong criticism from residents and ranchers along the rural Western Slope, which is ideal wolf habitat.

The law requires the commission to "develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado, using the best scientific data available,” and sets a deadline of Dec. 31, 2023, to put paws on the ground.

Since wolves are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, the state plan cannot conflict with or replace the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s federal recovery plan.

According to the draft, Colorado will bring in 30 to 50 wolves over three to five years, most likely from the northern Rockies, Idaho, Montana or Wyoming. Since territory can span more than 50 miles, wolves will be released at least 60 miles from the borders of neighboring states Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, as well as from Southern Utes tribal land.

Newly introduced animals will be tracked with GPS radio collars. Subsequently CPW aims to have at least one collared animal in every pack.

The state will ask FWS to downgrade the wolves from endangered to threatened once 50 animals are established in the state. If the population reaches 200, the state may reclassify wolves as a game species.

Since the 1990s, Yellowstone National Park documented numerous ecological benefits from its wolf repopulation program. With wolves scaring elk away from open spaces, the park witnessed the restoration of riverbanks, the rebound of cottonwood willows and the return of songbirds.

The wolves of Yellowstone have become the textbook example of the trophic cascade that occurs when one keystone species is removed or returned, but wolf management remains controversial with the public.

While wolves feast on elk, deer and moose, many humans are quick to point out that beef is also on the menu. The state must therefore establish a program to compensate livestock losses.

"Providing fair compensation to livestock owners for economic losses when livestock are injured or killed by wolves is a legally required and critically important part of the plan,” the 293-document explained. “CPW will pursue a variety of funding sources to develop sustainable and robust wolf-livestock compensation and conflict minimization programs."

Owners will be compensated fair market value for livestock losses, up to $8,000, and reimbursement of vet bills for herding dogs.

The plan also allows lethal removal of problematic wolves after non-lethal methods have failed.

"Lethal management should not generally be the initial response to conflicts, however there may be certain conditions under which lethal removal of wolves may be used first to support effective conflict management,” the plan said.

With consulting group Keystone Policy Center, CPW held 57 meetings and considered feedback from 3,400 Coloradans throughout 2021.

“All Coloradans interested in wolf restoration should view the recording online at a time that is most convenient for you,” said CPW Acting Director Heather Dugan in a statement. “Please take a look at the draft plan and submit your input at a public meeting in January and February or through the online comment form.”

Members of the commission will meet with the public to collect feedback on the draft plan over the next three months. The final plan will be released in May.

A small number of wolves also began migrating into northern Moffat County from Wyoming in 2020.