Polis vetoes bipartisan bill that could have delayed wolf reintroduction on Colorado’s Western Slope | PostIndependent.com

Polis vetoes bipartisan bill that could have delayed wolf reintroduction on Colorado’s Western Slope

Nate Peterson
The Vail Daily
Wolf pack in winter.
Getty Images

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday vetoed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Western Slope legislators that could have delayed the reintroduction of wolves, which is set to begin before the end of the year.

The prime sponsors of Senate Bill 256 are Sens. Perry Will and Dylan Roberts and Reps. Meghan Lukens and Matt Soper. Roberts, of Avon, and Lukens, of Steamboat Springs, are both Democrats who represent Eagle County at the state Capitol.

Roberts and Will, a Republican from New Castle, drafted the legislation to give ranchers on Colorado’s Western Slope the ability to lethally manage wolves. The bill would have prevented reintroduction until the federal government designated gray wolves as a “nonessential experimental population.”

Roberts, in a statement, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the governor’s veto.

“It is discouraging to see a bill that passed the legislature with such large bipartisan margins (29-6 in the Senate and 44-21 in the House) not become law,” he said. “Sen. Perry Will and I wrote, introduced, and passed SB23-256 to do one simple thing: ensure that a 10(j) rule is in place before wolves are reintroduced in Western Colorado. A 10(j) designation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows states to treat wolves as ‘experimental’ rather than ‘endangered,’ which offers the state and livestock owners greater flexibility in managing the species. Without a 10(j) designation, any farmer or rancher who interacts with a wolf (even for purposes of legitimate mitigation) could be charged with a federal felony and face prison time.”

Polis wrote in a letter that the bill was “unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent” and said it could actually interfere with wolves being named as an experimental population.

“If signed into law, this bill impedes the coordination that has been underway for over two years by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, (Colorado) Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that includes a $1 million commitment from the state of Colorado to complete the 10(j) draft rule and draft environmental impacts statement,” the letter said. “The management of the reintroduction of gray wolves into Colorado is best left to the Parks and Wildlife Commission, as the voters explicitly mandated.” 

Proposition 114 was narrowly approved by voters in 2020, despite being unpopular among the state’s rural districts on the Western Slope where wolves would be reintroduced. The legislation required the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan to reintroduce gray wolves in the state.

After a process of more than two years, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan on May 3, clearing the way for biologists to introduce wolves this winter.

The I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail, along with the Highway 82 corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, is likely to be the first area where wolves are introduced as CPW has concluded that large, contiguous areas of public lands with a high abundance of prey and low livestock densities will be the best sites for reintroduction.

CPW plans to release wolves during winter months, from November to March, as cold temperatures create less stress for the reintroduced wolves, and fall presents conflicts with hunting season.

Wolves will be released on state or private lands, not federal lands, because CPW does not have the staffing or financial resources to undertake the required National Environmental Policy Act analysis prior to any federal land management agency authorizing releases on federal lands, according to the plan approved Wednesday.

“Specific release locations will not be made public in this Plan in order to protect private landowner information and sensitive species locations, but targeted outreach will occur with potentially affected stakeholders prior to release,” according to the approved plan.

Roberts said the bipartisan bill “was not a delay tactic nor an attempt to alter the public’s wishes but, instead, a safeguard to ensure we introduce wolves responsibly.”

“As a legislator, I have rarely witnessed as broad grassroots support from a variety of communities and groups as we did with SB23-256,” he said. “The constituents that I, my co-sponsors, and the governor represent deserve leadership that hears and responds to their legitimate concerns. That is why this bill had the co-sponsorship of every legislator from Western Colorado, where the wolves will soon be introduced.”

Lukens, in a statement, said she was “extremely disappointed” by the veto.

“I have heard from ranchers and farmers consistently that it is absolutely imperative we have the 10(j) rule in place prior to state-orchestrated wolf reintroduction, and this bill was a direct request from Western Slope constituents who will be impacted most by wolf reintroduction,” she said. “This legislation would have provided the time necessary to ensure that the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado happens under a 10(j) rule, which is essential for the state to have co-management authority of the reintroduced population to protect our agricultural producers across the state.”

— Vail Daily reporter John LaConte contributed reporting

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