Colorado reveals wolf map while lawmakers grill wildlife director

The 12 collared wolves being monitored by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 10 of which were released in December, are ranging in drainages in Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Summit and Routt counties, according to a map the agency released Wednesday.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Jan. 24 published a map showing where 12 collared wolves in Colorado have roamed in the last month. The collars on the 10 Oregon wolves that CPW released in Grand and Summit counties in December and two wolves in North Park record a location every four hours. The map shows watersheds where the collars recorded a location between Dec. 18, 2023 and Jan. 22, 2024. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

The map surfaced as Department of Natural Resources and wildlife officials faced tough questions from members of the Joint Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources in a legislative hearing led by Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat representing Summit and Grand counties, where wolves from Oregon were released last month. 

Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, gave the committee a rundown of actions CPW has taken since wolves were reintroduced, as directed by Colorado voters.

He highlighted outreach the agency did to communities that could be impacted by the release but acknowledged it failed to meet the expectations of a number of the lawmakers gathered. He also apologized for failures and announced an after-action review the agency will soon complete “to learn from our mistakes and do better as we align with expectations and the cadence of notifications” of future wolf releases. Wildlife officials this week announced they had reached an agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington to capture 15 gray wolves next winter.

But the committee mainly kept the focus on problems with the initial round of releases. 

a large gray wolf runs from a cage
Colorado Parks and Wildlife released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. Pictured is wolf 2303-OR, a juvenile male from the Five Points pack in Oregon, weighing 76 pounds. The agency released five additional wolves in Colorado on December 10. (Jerry Neal, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Among other things, they wondered why wolves captured in Oregon had a history of depredation, and where the “disconnect between what was promised” to their constituents “and what happened” came from. They wanted to know where money to address mental health problems ranchers are facing after watching wolves “spill the blood” of their livestock would originate. And they wanted to know if and when the agency was going to define “chronic depredation.” 

CPW Director Jeff Davis, Gibbs and Reid DeWalt, the agency’s assistant director of aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources, carefully fielded the questions. 

“Sometimes people forget that wolves are carnivores,” Davis said. “There’s a fallacy that if we were to go get wolves from a place like a wilderness, that have never seen livestock, they would never depredate on livestock.” 

But the Oregon wolves, some of which had preyed on cattle before, didn’t have a history of chronic depredation, “and that’s the piece where we were following our (wolf management) plan,” he added. 

Roberts asked the officials if CPW intentionally withheld information about the wolves’ release from impacted communities, including Grand County. DeWalt said the Grand County commissioners were notified during meetings outside of the county but not directly on the day they were going to be released. 

Roberts said because of the way reintroduction was handled, “there seems to be an extreme loss of trust and collaboration that used to exist between residents and CPW.” Constituents across his district “say they are going to close their gates and that they don’t want to work with CPW officers anymore,” he added. “That’s a concern. We need that local collaboration between private landowners, between outfitters, between our communities.”

“Do you agree there’s been a huge loss of trust as a result of what happened on Dec. 18? And if so, what is your department doing to fix that?” he asked Davis. 

Davis did agree, and added that many of his CPW staff “feel like they are breaking the law” by implementing Proposition 114, referring to the ballot initiative that directed wolves to be restored west of the Continental Divide

When his staff goes to the grocery store or the post office, “they feel like criminals,” he added. “So part of our strategy as we look at our after action review is to really help support our staff.” And he agreed with Roberts that landowners formerly willing to work with CPW on conservation efforts “are now telling our staff, ‘Hey, I don’t really want to work with you anymore.’ That’s painful because the majority of wildlife live on private lands, even though we have a lot of public lands in the Western Slope. So we recognize we have a lot of work to do to work with stakeholders to repair relationships.”

On chronic depredation, which has been a hotly contested issue since wolves wandered into North Park from Wyoming in 2021, Davis said ranchers in the area have had “lots of questions And my response, in particular to some of the chronic depredation requests, is our goal is to review all states that have wolves and what they put into their chronic depredation definition and figure out criteria.” 

Jackson County ranchers, who have reported the loss of 20 lambs, calves and working dogs, have been asking for the definition of chronic predation. The definition would help them to know when it is legal to kill a wolf. State law already authorizes ranchers to kill a wolf caught in the act of attacking livestock. But it is unclear how many animals a wolf would have to injure or kill to make lethally removing it when it isn’t depredating legal.  

Meanwhile, all 12 of the collared wolves — the two Jackson County animals, five released in Grand County on Dec. 18 and five released in Summit County a few days later — are confirmed to be alive and roaming terrain stretching from just below the Wyoming border to drainages adjacent to Interstate 70 in the Vail Valley.

CPW says watersheds are the appropriate mapping unit to display wolf activity information, “because wolves are far more likely to use geographic features to affect their distribution than they are political boundaries.” 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed GPS collars on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2, 2023. Male wolf 2101 has a gray coat and is in the foreground on the right. Male wolf 2301, believed to be the offspring of the gray colored wolf, has a black coat and is in the background on the left. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo)

The watershed scale also provides detailed information that can help inform agricultural producers of the wolves’ general whereabouts without being too general (as a county-level map would be) or too specific, which could put the wolves in danger from humans, the agency says. 

And information on the newly released map says “simply because a watershed indicates wolf activity, it does not mean that the wolf or wolves are present throughout the entire watershed. For example, a wolf has not yet been located south of I-70, even though the watershed in which the wolf was detected spans both north and south of the Interstate.”

The agency is tracking the wolves through collars programmed to record a position every four hours. Once four locations have been recorded, the combined “packet” is transmitted via satellite to biologists. 

The frequency of transmissions can be delayed by factors such as dense cloud cover or complex terrain, however. And the data only reveals where the wolves have been, not where they are when the data is received.  

To protect the wolves, GPS data will not be shared. And during denning, when wolves stay in one place for extended periods, the data will be “buffered” to protect pups as the state works toward population goals described in the wolf restoration plan. The plan calls for CPW to release 30 to 50 wolves over the next three to five years. 

Wolves are considered endangered in Colorado. Downlisting from state endangered to state threatened will occur when a minimum count of 50 wolves anywhere in the state for four successive years is met.

Delisting from threatened to nongame status will occur when a minimum count of at least 150 wolves anywhere in Colorado is observed for two successive years, or a minimum count of at least 200 wolves at any time with a geographical distribution component through a finding that the species “is present in a significant portion of its range.”

Davis emphasized that CPW has been slowing down, taking a “pause” and reviewing the reintroduction work it has completed so far. “We could have put five more wolves out this year, we could have done that,” he said. “But the concern I shared with Director Gibbs is the safety and health and well-being of our staff and of those animals we did release. It was important for us to catch our breath for a moment.” 

Now, he aims to continue rebuilding trust with the communities most impacted by reintroduction, he added. 

“I’m going to continue to go to the Livestock Association meetings,” Davis said. “I’m going to continue to listen to understand and do what we can to remove uncertainties and make sure that we’re doing the other part of this plan. It’s not just the restoration of wolves. It’s avoiding and minimizing conflicts with livestock. And we’re working on the definition (of chronic depredation) and the criteria to move forward.”

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