Are Wolves an Experimental Population? The Answer Could Affect Reintroduction

Colorado Parks and Wildlife released the first draft of its long-anticipated Wolf Restoration and Management Plan in December 2022.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife released the first draft of its long-anticipated Wolf Restoration and Management Plan in December 2022. Getty Images
A section of Colorado’s draft wolf reintroduction plan proposes strategies for managing wolves that include potentially injurious hazing and lethal control — but that section can’t go forward unless the federal government designates wolves as a nonessential experimental population in Colorado under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act.

“With wolves being a federally endangered species, there's very limited flexibility in being able to deal with conflicts,” says Nicole Alt, Colorado ecological services project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has been working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop a 10(j) designation. “What adding in the nonessential experimental population allows us to do is provide additional flexibility to ourselves, to states, tribes and landowners for greater options for dealing with conflict.”

Currently, the only times actions are allowed that could injure or kill wolves are when human life is in imminent danger. This designation seeks to change that in order to help Colorado successfully reintroduce gray wolves by the end of the year, which it is required to do after voters approved Proposition 114 in 2020.

“Predators on the landscape get into trouble,” Alt points out. “Not every wolf will have an interaction with livestock. However, based on our years of experience of reintroducing wolves across the United States — really, in the Northern Rockies — having this management flexibility is critically important to conservation success.”

The proposed U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan would designate wolves as a nonessential experimental population because the animals that will be released in Colorado are not considered essential to the continued existence of the entire species. Under that designation, wolves would be treated the way a species that is proposed for the endangered species list is treated, rather than the way wolves are currently treated as an officially listed species.

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife fact sheet on 10(j) designations, “a nonessential experimental population provides additional flexibility because other federal agencies are not required to consult with us." Instead, other agencies need only “confer” with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, a less formal process that can result in optional conservation recommendations.

The full draft 10(j) plan for Colorado is eighty pages long, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife summarized it in a newsletter to make it more accessible to members of the public who want to comment on the proposal.

“The nonessential experimental designation that we're proposing for Colorado tracks with our previous models that we did for the northern Rockies in the ’90s,” Alt says. “We're looking at our previous experience, as well as collaborating with the State of Colorado on their needs and interests for management flexibility as we develop the draft rule.”

The draft proposes that the entire state of Colorado be included in the designation, so that even wolves that have wandered into the state on their own, as one pack has in North Park, would be covered by the designation.

That proposal is the preferred outcome presented in the 10(j) draft, which also specifies that it would allow the management activities considered in the state’s draft wolf plan.

A less preferable outcome would designate only wolves in a limited geographical area, with less management flexibility; for populations outside the area, a specific permit would be required. The least preferred outcome would be no designation at all.

“The proposed rule would allow the Service and its designated agents to take gray wolves under specific circumstances,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife newsletter explains; "take" is a term for those injurious or lethal control methods.

The plan would also allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife or CPW to authorize others to take wolves if there is confirmed wolf activity on private land, a public land grazing allotment, or a tribal reservation that necessitates harassment; if a wolf is actively depredating livestock on private or public land; if an incidental take occurs; and in other limited circumstances that would require written authorization.

The public has until April 18 to comment on the draft. People can do so on or by mailing a physical letter to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/3W, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

Because the state’s planning process and the federal designation planning process are separate activities happening at the same time, there can be confusion between the two. The legality of the state’s plan depends on the federal designation, but the federal designation does not do more than allow flexibility under the Endangered Species Act.

“For folks who are concerned about the reintroduction program, the logistics, the places where wolves are going to be released, that's all in the [state] plan,” Alt explains. “What our rule does is it provides a regulatory framework under the Endangered Species Act for the state to be able to implement their plan.”

From public comment on the 10(j) proposal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife hopes to determine whether the plan encompasses all the needs of stakeholders in Colorado and if people understand what is and isn’t allowed. In its newsletter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife suggests considering the proposed geographic boundary, the adequacy of the proposed regulations, and management flexibilities that could be added to the final rule.

“It's an important part of the process for us to be able to understand various perspectives and understand what the concerns of stakeholders in the public are related to the action that we're taking,” Alt says.

Once public comment closes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife will respond and possibly adjust the draft based on that feedback. It will also incorporate information that it gains from peer review of the draft by experts not involved in the Colorado wolf reintroduction process, as well as feedback from tribal entities in and near the state.

The goal is to have the plan in place by the end of the year so that Colorado can meet its requirement to have the first set of reintroduced wolves on the ground by then.

Still confused? U.S. Fish and Wildlife is hosting four informational sessions, starting March 14 in Grand Junction and concluding with a virtual meeting on March 22. All times and dates are available on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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