Amanda Pampuro

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (CN) — Preparing to build a new pack of wolves by the end of the year along the state’s Western Slope is no simple task for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

As part of a reintroduction project approved by voters in 2020, state biologists got collars, hired a data manager and stocked up on the visual deterrent known as fladry, a rope strung with flags that flap in the breeze — but part of the plan includes praying for snowfall.

“We really need that snow for helicopter capture,” said Reid DeWalt, assistant director of Aquatic, Terrestrial and Natural Resources for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, at the agency's meeting on Friday, which was held at the Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs.

December snow in the Northwest will make it easier to spot wolves from the air and capture them. Without snow, finding wolves might entail trapping or snaring, depending on the rules set by the state that decides to supply Colorado. The Centennial State is currently negotiating with Washington and Oregon for animals, while Idaho, Montana and Wyoming declined to participate.

The state is working to meet the voter-created deadline to reestablish wolves by Dec. 31.

Finding and shipping the animals is just part of the puzzle. 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.

The federal government also has the power to designate the wolves in a way that would relax enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to allow for 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 ranchers' livelihoods.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release a record of decision in the matter in mid-October and publish its final rule in November.

A slim 50.91% of Colorado 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.

Earlier this year, Democratic Governor Jared Polis signed into law Senate Bill 23–255 to create the Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund, which earmarks $350,000 annually to pay for livestock losses.

Under the state's final plan, ranchers will be compensated up to $15,000 for livestock killed by wolves. Colorado will also cover veterinary expenses for herding animals injured by wolves.

While the federal government is likely to approve lethal management of Colorado’s wolves, the state is also building up a stockpile of fladry and encouraging landowners to train in non-lethal techniques.

“Non-lethal methods aren’t going to be free, they’re not going to be easy, but it behooves everyone to help these livestock managers implement non-lethal controls,” said Dallas May, CPW’s chair. “That’s carcass management, fladry, range riding, everything it’s going to take to make this program a success. Because this is an adaptive program — we are going to make these decisions as we go — it’s important for the public to know we will continue to work on those issues.”

Since wolves do not observe state boundaries, Colorado is also in talks with New Mexico and Arizona, where another management plan is underway supporting the recovery of the Mexican wolf.

“The public perception is, now that the plan’s been approved, the work is over. Really, the work is just starting,” May said.