Federal Judge Upholds Gray Wolf’s Reintroduction in Colorado Despite Legal Challenge

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Federal Judge Clears the Way for Gray Wolf Reintroduction in Colorado Despite Ranching Opposition

The long-contested reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado is poised to proceed this weekend following a decisive ruling by a federal judge on Friday.

The judge, Regina Rodriguez, denied a motion from ranching organizations seeking to prevent the release, clearing the way for the anticipated return of this species that formerly roamed freely in the Centennial State.

Expressing empathy for the concerns raised by long-time land occupants, Judge Rodriguez acknowledged the potential impacts of wolf reintroduction. She determined that these issues did not call for the extraordinary relief that the petitioning ranching groups sought.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials, now armed with the green light, have outlined plans to commence the capture of up to 10 wolves in Oregon on Sunday, with the release slated for Monday.

The ruling comes after a week of intense legal clashes between Colorado ranching groups and wildlife officials, reflecting broader disputes over the voter-mandated reintroduction initiative.

Two prominent ranching organizations, the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association, and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, had filed a complaint seeking to halt the reintroduction efforts, citing perceived harm to livestock and the economy.

The ranching groups contended that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by neglecting to conduct a sufficient environmental review. In response, they urged the court to stop Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) from releasing the wolves until the federal agency complied with NEPA regulations.

Objections to the wolf reintroduction plan date back to its emergence as the Proposition 114 ballot initiative in the 2020 elections. Despite earning 50.91 percent voter support, the proposition, now State Statute 33-2-105.8, faced legal challenges with a narrow margin of only 56,986 individual votes.

Judge Rodriguez emphasized that halting the release would contradict the will of Colorado voters and go against the public interest. The statute, enacted in February 2022, overturned a Trump administration rule delisting gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

This restoration of authority over the wolves to the FWS directed CPW to develop a reintroduction and management plan by December 31, 2023.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife approved its Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan in May 2023, anticipating the transfer of approximately 30 to 50 wolves over a three- to five-year timeframe.

Gray wolves disappeared from Colorado in the 1940s, leading to their designation as an “extirpated species.” Alongside state efforts, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service designated a gray wolf “experimental population” in Colorado on Nov. 7.

The release, permitted under the section 10(j) provision of the Endangered Species Act, aims to minimize legal ramifications for landowners, reducing potential repercussions for inadvertent harm to experimental population members.

Judge Rodriguez underscored CPW’s years of preparation for wolf reintroduction and emphasized the substantial public resources invested in the effort. Discrediting financial claims made by the ranching groups, she highlighted CPW’s commitment to compensating for potential losses by offering up to $15,000 per animal harmed.

The judge rejected the NEPA compliance complaint, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s partnership with CPW was a mandatory duty, not discretionary. During the hearing, all parties acknowledged that FWS had never completed an analysis under NEPA for past renewals or cooperative agreements in Colorado or any of the other 49 states, according to Rodriguez’s written ruling.

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