Amanda Pampuro

(CN) — The same pen that invites the gray wolf back to Colorado is also likely to authorize lethal force against it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposed rule on Thursday honoring Colorado voters and supporting the state’s wolf reintroduction program. The federal proposal suggests placing wolves in the northwest corner of the state and outlines the variety of circumstances where it may be permissible for certain individuals to kill them.

The gray wolf, Canis lupus, was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974 after humans had largely hunted it out of its historical range spanning most of the country from Maine to California.

Wolves were even endemic to Colorado until the middle of the 20th century. A slim 50.91% of Centennial State voters supported a measure in 2020 backed by environmental groups to reintroduce wolves. The proposition received strong criticism from residents and ranchers along the rural Western Slope, which happens to be ideal wolf habitat.

The state law requires a 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.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission published a draft plan in December outlining how it will reintroduce 30 to 50 gray wolves to the state over three to five years. Since the animals 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.

"The best available data indicate that reintroduction of the gray wolf into Colorado is biologically feasible and will promote the conservation of the species,” said the 72-page proposed rule signed by Stephen Guertin, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal plan proposes releasing wolves in the northwest corner of the state, among a host of counties that voted against the ballot measure.

While wolves can adapt to a variety of terrains, their success depends on being near an abundant supply of prey and being far away from people.

"Although there are some places wolves are not likely to persist long term due to high human or livestock densities, the regulation of human-caused mortality has been a primary factor contributing to increased wolf abundance and distribution in the lower 48 States,” the federal document noted.

While endangered animals can only be legally killed in self-defense, the federal proposal suggests several situations where wolves may be taken. In addition to direct defense of people or animals, the rule would allow landowners to be given written authorization to “shoot-on-sight” a limited number of wolves if they experience regular depredation on livestock.

Many living in potential wolf country testified to Colorado Parks and Wildlife during public commentary in support of having lethal management as a tool to protect property and cattle.

“If wolf predation leads to deer and elk populations falling below objectives than active wolf population management must remain a viable response," argued Susanne Roller, lands project manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, during the state’s wolf planning meeting Thursday evening. "Lethal removal to address deprivation and conflict must remain in the plan."

Critics of lethal management say it is ineffective and unnecessary.

“This light-on-science proposal that lets ranchers shoot Colorado wolves before trying to prevent conflict needs to be sent back to the drawing board,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “It worries me that wolves would have no safe haven even in the national forests that we all cherish.”

Members of the public may submit comments to U.S. Fish and Wildlife rule through mid-April online by entering “FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100” into the search bar.