DENVER, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Voters in Colorado will decide this year whether to reintroduce gray wolves to the state now that a proposed ballot initiative with more than 200,000 signatures has been approved.
The last wolves in the state were eradicated in the 1940s after a federal government campaign on behalf of the livestock industry that involved poisonings and shootings.
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves in the 1990s in Yellowstone National Park and western Idaho, a wolf-reintroduction movement has advocated bringing gray wolves back to Colorado.
Wildlife agencies, ranchers, farmers and almost 30 Colorado counties have opposed the reintroduction of the predator, fearing attacks on pets, livestock and people in a state with 5.7 million people.
"We've worked on reintroducing wolves for 25 years, trying to get the federal and state government to engage," said Rob Edward, president of Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund. "Colorado needs wolves to restore the balance of nature. The eradication of wolves was a mistake that we can correct. Direct democracy is an awesome way to do that."
Edward's group submitted an adequate number of signatures for the "Restoration of Gray Wolves" initiative to the secretary of state. It will appear on the 2020 ballot.
About 70 percent of the land west of the Continental Divide in Colorado is federally controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management.
But residents who live on the state's western slope don't want Front Range and Denver voters on the other side of the Rockies to decide whether to bring in wolves that could attack people and pets, said Denny Behrens, co-chairman of the Grand Junction-based Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition.
"It's not fair to the wolf," Behrens, who is a big-game hunter, said. "Within two to three years, you're going to start shooting them. Why bring the gray wolf from Canada and think you're not going to have conflict from Day 1?"
Wolves can travel 30 miles a day to hunt and have territories that range from 50 square miles to more than 1,000 square miles, depending on the prey and the season, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gray wolves no longer are federally listed as an endangered species in the northern Rockies, but in Colorado they are classified as endangered and protected by both federal and state laws.
Including the smaller Mexican gray wolves that live in experimental packs in Arizona and New Mexico, restoring wolves to western Colorado would connect Rocky Mountain wolf territory from Canada to Mexico, conservationists say.
If passed, the new initiative would instruct the state wildlife agency to use public input to develop a "science-based plan" for reintroducing wolves to western Colorado by 2023, the organization said.
The initiative also directs the Colorado General Assembly to develop a means to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolves each year.
"We know that there will be a small amount of livestock depredation," Edward said, asserting that a majority of surveyed Colorado residents have consistently approved of the reintroduction of wolves.
Some Colorado wildlife officials have called reintroduction a terrible idea.
"Wildlife experts ought to manage wildlife in the state, not ballot initiatives," said Greg Walcher, former executive director of the state's department of natural resources who lives on the western slope.
Walcher said he's proud the state has reintroduced other endangered species such as the linx, moose, river otter and peregrine falcon. But reintroducing wolves has been discussed for years by Colorado wildlife experts who have nixed the plan, he said.
"Colorado has over 700 wildlife biologists on staff, and we ought to be proud of the expertise our state has and trust their judgment," Walcher said.
Just recently, he said, a pack of at least six wolves was reported near the Wyoming border by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The agency has a policy not to interfere with wolves who wander into the state.
"Wolves who migrate here naturally are in a different category than forced reintroduction by ballot initiative," Walcher said.
After the introduction of about 60 gray wolves in remote Idaho mountains in the 1990s, the gray wolf population in the state has exploded to about 1,000 animals today.
In neighboring Wyoming, where a culture of wolf hunting is aggressively practiced, about 80 wolves roam Yellowstone National Park and about 206 exist in the areas outside the park, including the Wind River Reservation, according to Wyoming Game and Fish's 2019 numbers.
Wolves also roam in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
Witnessing a lone black wolf in northwest Colorado when he was elk hunting was a life-changing moment for big-game hunter Eric Washburn, of Steamboat Springs.
"It was about 250 yards away in the middle of a field. I never felt scared. I just felt awed."
Washburn said he then became an advocate for wolves and was especially interested in how wolves could help reduce chronic wasting disease among deer and elk.
"Wolves go after injured and sick animals in herds, and they could be a part of the solution for chronic wasting disease, especially here in Colorado where [the disease] is in so many herds," he said.
Washburn said he hoped Colorado voters on both sides of the wolf issue would listen respectfully to each other.
"Fear of wolves goes back hundreds of years and is woven into the fabric of our culture and literature," Washburn said. "Look at the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. But 25 years of research from the northern Rockies can cut through that myth and show a much more scientifically grounded and accurate picture of the wolf."