Amanda Pampuro

(CN) — In the coming months, Colorado biologists will release a pack of wolves onto the western slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The apex predator was hunted into local extinction eight decades ago clearing the way for another animal to settle and thrive: livestock.

In anticipation of inevitable wolf conflicts, Governor Jared Polis signed into a bill into law late Tuesday night that allocates funding to compensate livestock owners for wolf predation and harassment.

Introduced with bipartisan support, the SB23-255 Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund appropriates $525,000 over the next two years to cover livestock losses.

Under the state’s final plan, ranchers will be compensated for vet bills to treat injured animals, including herding dogs, with up to $15,000 for animal deaths.

While wolves kill less than 1% of livestock annually, that risk threatens ranchers' livelihoods. Successful reintroduction of the keystone species therefore hinges on a successful compensation program for landowners who have unwittingly found themselves living in future wolf country.

A slim 50.91% of Centennial State voters in 2020 supported the measure to reintroduce wolves. The proposition backed by conservationists received strong criticism from residents and ranchers along the rural Western Slope, which happens to be ideal wolf habitat.

The gray wolf, Canis lupus, was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Wolves were then delisted in October 2020 by the Trump administration until a federal judge in the Northern District of California restored the wild canine’s protected status last year.

Because wolves are a protected species, the state must move in sync with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency proposed complementary rules in February that include lethal management under certain conditions.

With wolves once again protected under the Endangered Species Act, Erin Karney, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association is advocating for the federal government to categorize wolves as a 10(j) experimental species, allowing for lethal takes.

“When our producers are faced with this apex predator coming onto their lands, the least we could do is offer them that certainty that they could have management flexibility,” Karney told Courthouse News.

“As a sign of respect on what's to come, we should listen and act on their concerns to help livestock producers and Western folk communities to ensure that they're there in the future to ensure a successful reintroduction process,” Karney added.

Polis vetoed a measure on May 16 that would have paused the state reintroduction plan until the federal government signed off on the 10(j) rule. Polis argued that all the pieces would fall into place so there was no need to wait.

"SB23-256, however, is unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent and the hard work of the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the expertise of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff, the extensive stakeholding undertaken by the Technical Working Group and the Stakeholder Advisory Group, and the ongoing collaborative work with our Federal partners, and could actually interfere with successfully receiving experimental population designation, which is the purported purpose of the bill,” Polis explained in a letter.

“The management of the reintroduction of gray wolves into Colorado is best left to the Parks and Wildlife Commission as the voters explicitly mandated,” Polis concluded.

The state Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a plan on May 3 hammering out the wolves’ travel plans after receiving input from more than 4,000 comments submitted online, through the mail and during 18 public meetings.