EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous AP report cited here incorrectly said a federal judge ruled on this case on Friday morning. The judge ruled later in the day Friday.
DENVER — A federal judge has denied a request from two Colorado livestock operators who aimed to temporarily stop this month's gray wolf reintroduction process.
This week, the Gunnison County Stockgrowers' Association and Colorado Cattlemen's Association, both nonprofits, announced the lawsuit, which was filed against U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) and its director, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and its director and wolf conservation program manager, as well as the CPW Commission, in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
The 100-plus members of Gunnison County Stockgrowers' Association live in the area that was selected as a potential wolf release site. The Colorado Cattlemen's Association has roughly 6,000 direct and indirect members and owns or leases more than 25 million acres. Both participated in the development of the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, which was released in May, and expressed their concerns. They claimed the USFWS did not adequately review the state’s plan to release up to 50 wolves over the next few years.
In response to this lawsuit, conservation and animal welfare groups — Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society of the United States, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians — filed a motion on Wednesday to intervene in the federal lawsuit.
Ahead of the hearing, U.S. government attorneys said further environmental reviews were not needed and urged the judge to reject the industry's request, the Associated Press reported.
Federal Judge Regina M. Rodriguez heard the restraining order request at a federal courthouse in Denver on Thursday. She deferred her decision after hearing arguments from both sides.
On Friday, she sided with state and federal agencies – a ruling that means that Colorado can proceed with its current plan to search for, capture and relocate gray wolves.
"Having considered the arguments set forth by the parties, the Court finds that, while the Petitioners who have lived and worked on the land for many years are understandably concerned about possible impacts of this reintroduction, neither these possible impacts nor their assertions under the Administrative Procedures Act are sufficient for this Court to grant the extraordinary relief they seek. For the reasons set forth below, the Petitioners’ Motion for TRO is DENIED," the order reads.
Friday, Dec. 8 marked the first possible day that CPW can put gray wolves on the Colorado landscape, however, the department has until Dec. 31 to do so, per the deadline imposed under a 2020 ballot proposal. CPW said it is on track to release up to 10 wolves, which will come from Oregon, before then. The exact date and location for the initial wolf release is not publicly available, however CPW said it will likely be within the northern circle in the map below, which was published in the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit were seeking a declaratory judgment and a mandatory injunction requiring the defendants to comply with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to determine if their proposed actions — reintroducing wolves, in this case — will have a significant environment effect. NEPA was violated, the lawsuit says, when CPW and the USFWS renewed a cooperative agreement, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, for Oct. 1, 2023 through Sept. 30, 2024. This agreement was an approval of CPW Commission's plan to introduce and manage the wolves, and CPW's legal authority to procure and import them.
The lawsuit reads that the environmental impacts of the reintroductions of wolves in Colorado has not been the subject of any analysis under NEPA. It continues, saying that USFWS had conducted an environmental impact statement for similar efforts in Yellowstone National Park, central Idaho, and in Arizona and New Mexico for the Mexican wolf.
"The presence of wolves negatively impacts the livestock and other industries by increasing costs and decreasing local spending, impacting many businesses and communities," it reads. "Release of wolves in Colorado is likely to have other negative effects on the Plaintiffs and their members, including but not limited to impacts to GCSA’s efforts to protect the federal listed Gunnison Sage Grouse, impacts to range management and the use of grazing allotments, impacts to other uses of public lands, and more."
USFWS: 10(j) rule for Colorado wolf reintroduction becomes effective in December
The lawsuit also details the cost of mitigation measures and the stress livestock feel when living amid apex predators like wolves.
The effort to reintroduce gray wolves began in the summer of 2019, when the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Project began circulating petitions asking voters to put a question on the 2020 ballot asking if wolves should be reintroduced. This went on to become Proposition 114.
In the November 2020 state election, voters narrowly chose to pass Proposition 114, which mandated that CPW develop a plan to start reintroducing and managing gray wolves in western Colorado and to take steps to begin reintroductions by Dec. 31, 2023. Most rural areas voted against the proposition, while people in the city and suburbs of Denver voted for it.
CPW's website page titled "Living with Wildlife" lists ways to avoid conflict with several large animals, such as elk, goats, bear, moose, mountain lions and, now, gray wolves. A PDF brochure dated Nov. 21, 2023 is now available for those wanting to further educate themselves on the animals.
A small number of gray wolves have naturally traveled to Colorado from Wyoming ahead of CPW"s official reintroduction.
Attacks by wolves on humans are "exceedingly rare," the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan plan reads, and there are no documented accounts of a person killed by a wolf in North America between 1900 and 2000. The animals generally fear people.
Across the contiguous United States, about 7,500 wolves live in 1,400 packs, according to the AP.