Amanda Pampuro

(CN) — A pack of gray wolves are expected to spend Christmas in Colorado for the first time in 80 years. The state's Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously voted on Wednesday to adopt a plan to reintroduce wolves to the Centennial State by the voter-created deadline at the end of the year.

“The Wolf Restoration and Management Plan is a huge accomplishment for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the citizens of Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in a statement. “In line with the will of Coloradans, we are on track to reestablish and restore wolves in Colorado by Dec. 31, 2023.”

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. 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.

The federal government also has the power to designate the wolves in a way that would relax enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to give the state flexibility in management and implement lethal wolf takes. That measure, referred to as the 10(j) rule, is supported by landowners who worry about wolves attacking cattle.

While wolves kill less than 1% of livestock annually, that risk threatens rancher’s livelihood.

“The 10(j) rule must be in place before wolves are brought in. This is not only common sense, it’s the right thing to do,” said Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson ahead of the vote. Nearly two-third of voters in Garfield County opposed reintroducing wolves.

The state Legislature is considering two bills supporting both wolf reintroduction and compensation for livestock owners whose domesticated animals are hunted by the apex predators.

Management of Gray Wolves Reintroduction, Senate Bill 23–256, is a bipartisan bill allocating $1.6 million for wolf management each year until the animals reach the state. Once wolves are on the ground, lawmakers estimate ongoing management to cost $500,000 annually.

The Legislature is additionally considering Senate Bill 23–255 to create the Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund and earmarks $350,000 annually to pay for livestock losses.

Under the final plan, ranchers will be compensated up to $15,000 for livestock predated by wolves. The state will also cover veterinary expense for herding animals injured by wolves.

The final wolf plan was criticized by both supporters and opponents of wolf reintroduction.

“Our most significant concern is that the conflict minimization program seems to be the least developed part of the plan,” Katie Snyder, the Colorado wolf representative for nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. “ This program should not only rely on physical tools like flangery and fencing but implement heard management practices that reduce vulnerability and address the root of the conflict.”

While they still hope to see changes implemented, many wildlife advocates are excited to see the wolves return to the landscape.

“It’s a historical achievement to restore native imperiled species to places where they were wrongly expatriated,” Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, told the commission. “We will be watching to defend coexistence.”

Still others say the divisions are superficial.

“While media coverage paints a picture of division, the truth is there isn’t actually that much disagreement about how to manage wolves among most stakeholders,” Matthew Collins, a programs manager for the Western Landowners Alliance. “The plan isn’t perfect and it won’t satisfy everyone, but it is enough.”