Colorado Voters Bring Back Wolves

By: - November 5, 2020 12:00 am

A wolf is released into Isle Royale National Park in Michigan in this 2019 photo. Colorado voters have instructed their wildlife officials to bring wolves back by 2023. Daniel Conjanu/The National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation via The Associated Press

Wolves are coming back to Colorado, following a narrow vote that took the long-contested issue directly to the public. 

With 90% of votes counted, the wolf ballot measure held a 50.3% to 49.7% lead, though that margin is likely to increase as more urban votes are tallied.

The ballot measure appears to be the first time reintroduction of an animal was brought to a popular vote.

“Now we get on with the hard work of putting a wolf population back in place here,” said Rob Edward, a longtime wolf proponent who has led the campaign in Colorado with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund. “Regardless of the margin on this vote, it signals a sea change in Western wildlife management. This is historic, and one day will be looked on as a profound conservation victory.”

Coloradoans Protecting Wildlife, a group that opposed the wolf measure, argued the close outcome showed the public remains divided on wolves — and the issue should never have been determined at the ballot box.

“[T]he forced introduction of wolves into Colorado is bad policy and should not have been decided by the voters,” the group said in a statement. “The election results demonstrate that nearly half of Coloradoans agree with us. We hope these election results show proponents, lawmakers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that next steps must be taken in a measured, responsible way.”

The ballot measure instructs the state wildlife agency to come up with a plan to reintroduce wolves by 2023, after officials spent years blocking similar efforts. Backers of the measure say that wolves play an important role in the ecosystem, and state wildlife officials were too beholden to livestock and hunting interests to bring them back without a public mandate.

The vote was far from the landslide that some advocates projected, cutting into the narrative of widespread statewide support for the predators. Results showed a strong urban-rural divide — as predicted by wolf opponents — with counties that voted for President Donald Trump mostly registering strong objection to wolf reintroduction. 

Edward said the pandemic prevented wolf backers from running a traditional campaign and connecting with rural voters at county fairs and other venues. He also said the opponents outspent supporters 2-to-1 over the last six weeks of the campaign.

“There will always be work to do to help people coexist with wolves,” he said. “The fact is that we wouldn’t be having this conversation today if it weren’t for a significant portion of the people in Western Colorado voting in favor of wolves.”

Wolf reintroduction will face many more complications in the days ahead, as Endangered Species Act protections likely will be the subject of ongoing court battles and state lawmakers and officials work through various agreements needed to complete the plan.

Even before the vote, wildlife advocates said it was unlikely to start a trend. They said efforts would be better focused on reforming state wildlife agencies to focus on creating healthy ecosystems instead of serving consumptive industries. Many such agencies are led by commissions with heavy representation from livestock and hunting interests. 

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.