The gray wolf, a species that once bounded across much of the Rocky Mountain West, should be able to roam across Colorado, a state-sponsored working group decided last month.
But because the federal government runs two different wolf-protection programs in Colorado -- one for wolves north of I-70 and one for wolves south of the highway -- southern Colorado may find itself unprepared for the predators.
"That leaves a lot of livestock producers south of 1-70 really exposed," said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association and a member of the working group.
The boundary debate was thrown into uncertainty this week when U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Jones issued a ruling in Oregon that called into question the government's regional approach to gray wolf management. Environmentalists say the decision rescinds the regional divisions (including Interstate 70) and means all wolves in the continental 48 states should be fully protected as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs said the ruling's effect remains unclear, and the agency may challenge it.
Free to roam
Although no known wild gray wolves currently reside in Colorado, preparations for their arrival have been frantically made after a lone female from Yellowstone National Park ended up splattered against a median on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs, 30 miles west of Denver, last summer.
A 14-member Department of Wildlife-sponsored panel comprising of local officials, ranchers, environmentalists and hunters subsequently proposed a set of guidelines for how to deal with wolves in northern Colorado. They include allowing wildlife managers to kill problematic wolves, warning ranchers of wolf pack presence when possible and compensation for animals killed by wolves.
In southern Colorado, where gray wolves are considered endangered, wolves would be free to roam, but local communities would lack the same powers to deal with a species known to poach livestock. And if anyone kills a gray wolf here, they can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines in federal court and possibly jail time.
Grown to 700 strong
"It's a strange thing to have two sets of regulations for a nonexistent species," said John Stansfield, coordinator of the Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition and a supporter of wolves returning to Colorado.
The working group's proposal would not come into effect for northern Colorado until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes the Western population of gray wolves from its protected list. These wolves, reintroduced in the mid-1990s in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, have grown to a population of around 700, and, depending on the outcome of this week's court ruling, the government would like to remove them from its protected list.
But handing protection of these wolves over to the states may take awhile because Wyoming, unlike Idaho or Montana, has yet to present a wolf management plan the federal government will accept.
Southern Colorado, which falls under the Southwestern population associated with a smaller number of Mexican gray wolves, may need to wait even longer before any such de-listing due to slower species recovery.
Wolf is a wolf is a wolf?
Wolves do not need to be of the Mexican gray variety to be strictly protected south of I-70. "It doesn't matter where the wolf came from," said Gary Skiba, Colorado Department of Wildlife's wolf coordinator. "It's just where it's found."
Treating the northern and southern wolf populations as separate and then not caring where the wolf comes from makes Kline, of the Wool Grower's Association, furious. "Now they're saying a wolf is a wolf is a wolf," she said. "Well, then change the damn boundary line."