Just before the 2020 election, the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the Endangered Species list. That led to a controversy in Colorado where, for the first time in U.S. history, the question of whether to artificially reintroduce the gray wolf to a state was put to a vote. Left in the wake: a debate over wolves, wildlife, and livestock.
The following is a transcript of a report from "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
A rare sighting of an apparent gray wolf in Colorado in 2007, captured on camera by wildlife managers. Under a voter-approved plan, this will soon become a more common sight.
The process began when the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the endangered species list saying there are now more than 6,000 in the lower 48 states “greatly exceeding the combined recovery goals” meaning the gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species.
John Murtaugh is representative in the Rockies and Plains with Defenders of Wildlife, which supports the comeback of wolves.
John Murtaugh: At one time, Colorado had a healthy population of wolves all throughout the state, but government eradication programs removed them by the 1930's.
Sharyl: Because they were attacking wildlife? Or...
Murtaugh: The belief was that wolves are a threat to human safety and to livestock, largely perpetuated by the stories we're all familiar with, your Big Bad Wolf stories. So by the mid 1900's, for the most part, wolves were considered extirpated in the United States. An extirpated, it's like extinction, it just means they're no longer living where they used to live. So in 2020, we helped put together a ballot proposal for the election to ask the people of Colorado, whether or not they would like to see Colorado Parks and Wildlife begin a reintroduction process. As it happens that passed and so...
Sharyl: Narrowly, right?
Murtaugh: Narrowly. It was, I think around one, 2% margin on that pass. And today we're seeing now Colorado Parks and Wildlife begin to put together the plan. The ballot gives us until the end of 2023 to begin reintroduction and Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Wildlife Commission outlined a plan that'll take us up until that deadline in 2023.
Wolf reintroductions have already proven contentious in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Colorado is no different. Supporters say returning wolves will restore a natural ecosystem balance. Opponents worry about what wolves might do to their livestock and pets.
Shawn Martini, with the Colorado Farm Bureau, is against bringing wolves back.
Sharyl: How would you summarize the argument that you would make against the reintroduction of wolves?
Shawn Martini: It's been a few months now, but really the biggest thing was, it was a political imposition on what should be a scientific question. We're sitting here in Denver, and Denver County voted for wolf introduction by about a 2:1 margin at least. Nobody here is ever going to have to deal with the impacts of that vote. It doesn't seem quite fair to folks on the Western slope to have the character of their communities dictated to them by folks here in Denver and other parts of Colorado that are never going to see, never going to interact with, and never have to deal with the consequences of that vote taking place. We don't have the same sorts of wide open spaces here in the state of Colorado that they do in the Northern Rockies. We've got ski areas, we've got pipelines, we've got interstate transmission lines, and housing developments. While there's wild land here in this state, it's not at the size that would be necessary to be able to support the kinds of populations that we see in Wyoming and Montana. That's not happening naturally, I think because of that very fact.
Sharyl: Is one of the biggest concerns the potential for them attacking livestock and even people?
Murtaugh: Yes, absolutely. There's a lot of fear based wolf phobia. And these tend to boil down in a couple places. So three, human safety or pet safety, livestock safety, and impacts to game herds. In terms of human safety, that's virtually non-existent. It is exceptionally rare. Wolves are people shy. You step on a twig, they're going to jump six feet in the air and run, contrary to what people might think. In terms of livestock safety, statistically, it's rare. Less than 1% of livestock are going to be lost to wolves. And this is only counting livestock that live in wolf country, but it does happen.
Sharyl: Looking ahead, 10 years, what do you hope to see? What would be the sign of success?
Murtaugh: Yeah, to me, a sign of success would be multiple packs reproducing every year, so creating new generations year after year, and ideally no conflicts. If we really do this right. I certainly would never promise zero, but I would like to see livestock losses as low as we possibly can get. And I really believe, Colorado with everything we can learn from 25 years of wolf reintroduction success in the Northern Rockies, we should be able to knock this out of the park and have the best wolf reintroduction the country's ever seen.
Sharyl: Looking down the road 10 years, what do you predict if this program moves forward the way proponents want it to move forward?
Martini: I would assume either the species is going to be introduced and continually having to replenish those individuals through the management of Colorado Parks and Wildlife because they're not going to be very successful here. Either that, or they're really successful in very concentrated places on the Western slope, Northwest Colorado, Southwest Colorado, places like that, and have really damaging impacts in that very narrow space where they're going to be introduced because they can't branch out. They can't range over the same amount of acres and the same area as they would in the Northern Rocky states where they do now. That's my best guess.
Sharyl (on-camera): The group Defenders of Wildlife supports developing a plan to compensate farmers and ranchers when wolves attack their livestock. The group says it’s also working to spread the word on tactics ranchers can use to keep losses from wolves to a minimum.