DENVER — The Colorado governor has vetoed a bill that would have prohibited restoring gray wolves to the landscape unless the state has greater flexibility with management of the animals through a rule in the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), though he said he expects — and supports — that the rule will be in place by the end of the year.
The rule, called section 10(j) in the ESA, allows the federal government to designate a population of a listed species — like gray wolves — as experimental if they are set to be released into natural habitat outside their current range, like Colorado.
If the 10(j) rule is adopted — which is still anticipated by the end of the year as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) continues to work to issue it — Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) would have increased management flexibility for the Colorado wolves.
Senate Bill 23-256, titled Management of Gray Wolves Reintroduction, would have prohibited CPW from restoring these wolves before this rule is adopted. Because the 10(j) rule is not yet in effect for Colorado wolves, management tools — which may include aversive conditioning and lethal take to protect people and livestock, especially following reintroduction — are limited, as gray wolves are still listed as an endangered species in Colorado.
Had it passed, it could have delayed the state's plan to begin releasing gray wolves in the state.
The bill was introduced on March 27 and sent to Gov. Jared Polis' desk on May 10.
Polis vetoed the bill on Tuesday around 1:30 p.m. According to Denver7's news partners at The Denver Post, he had indicated previously that he would veto any potential delays, saying he wanted to honor the will of the voters, who passed Proposition 114 in November 2020 mandating 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.
“The Governor shares the desire for Colorado wolves to receive a 10-J designation to allow for maximum state management flexibility," a statement reads from Conor Cahall, press secretary with Colorado's Office of the Governor. "Unfortunately, the legal analysis of this bill is that it would likely delay or even prevent successful 10-J designation, which is why he is vetoing it.”
In his veto letter, Polis said he is supportive of reintroducing the wolves under the 10(j) rule.
"SB 23-256, however, is unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent and the hard work of the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the expertise of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff, the extensive stakeholding undertaken by the Technical Working Group and the Stakeholder Advisory Group, and the ongoing collaborative work with our Federal partners, and could actually interfere with successfully receiving experimental population designation, which is the purported purpose of the bill," the letter reads.
He continued, saying that the Department of Natural Resources, CPW and the CPW Commission are working with USFWS to move toward issuance of the 10(j).
"If signed into law, this bill impedes the coordination that has been underway for over two years by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that includes a one million dollar commitment from the State of Colorado to complete the 10J draft rule and draft environmental impact statement (DEIS)," the letter continues.
He concluded by saying that Colorado is on track to secure the 10(j) by the end of the year.
The 10(j) rule was a common topic during discussions ahead of the approval of the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. Many people, from members of the public to county commissioners, asked that SB 23-256 pass so the state could have proper management power over the state's wolves.
The CPW Commission officially approved the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan on May 3. The approval means CPW biologists can officially use the plan to introduce wolves west of the Continental Divide before the end of 2023. This approval came in the wake of years of intense meetings, public comment and outreach.
CPW Commission approves final Wolf Restoration and Management Plan
During that May 3 meeting, Carrie Besnette Hauser, the chair of the CPW Commission, said that Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, had been pushing hard to ensure the 10(j) rule is in place before December 2023.
On Tuesday, Polis released a letter to Gibbs, asking him to continue to work with the USFWS to obtain a 10(j) rule.
During the CPW Commission meeting on May 3, Eric Odell, species conservation program manager with CPW, said that the USFWS has become an important partner in gray wolf reintroduction and immediately after wolves were relisted, 10(j) was recognized as a tool that would be critical to provide flexibility when it came to managing the animals. The 10(j) rule has been used in all other wolf reintroductions in the United States.
Odell said having the 10(j) rule in place ahead of restoring wolves to Colorado is important as it allows CPW to take an impact-based management approach, which was recommended by the Stakeholder Advisory Group, which helped mold the wolf plan.