It was not until Feb. 22 – the last possible day for the public to submit comments – that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission received a letter from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe about the draft wolf restoration and management plan.
The commission held five meetings about the proposal to hear community feedback. The bulk of comments came, primarily, from representatives of two factions: Wildlife advocates urged the commission to adopt more stringent language limiting any potential hunting of wolves, while ranchers voiced concerns about their perceived inability to defend stock from predators.
The tribe’s letter made known the concerns of a small but critical group of stakeholders. The points of contention, as outlined by Chairman Melvin Baker, are similar in spirit to those put forth by a litany of Western Slope ranchers.
But while ranchers are among CPW’s constituencies, the Southern Ute Tribe is a sovereign nation. And the tribe is asking the agency to consider its requests accordingly.
In 2020, Colorado voters approved Ballot Initiative 114. The measure set in motion a multiyear process to develop a plan for the reintroduction of gray wolves predicated on stakeholder engagement and scientific data. CPW must take the steps to reintroduce gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023.
The species is currently listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
CPW convened a Technical Working Group and a Stakeholder Advisory Group, both of which met over a dozen times from June 2021 through August 2022. The groups contributed nonbinding advisory input on the plans development.
On Dec. 9, the commission released a draft plan, which was the product of the working groups as well as about 47 public meetings involving several thousand Colorado residents. Five more public meetings followed to hear comment on the plan, the last of which was held on Feb. 22.
Commissioners gave CPW staff members direction on revisions to the plan at the meeting as a result of the comments they had heard, and approval of the final plan will begin at the April 6 commission meeting in Steamboat Springs.
The plan recommends the release of 10 to 15 wolves annually over the next three to five years.
Based on observations of wolves that have been reintroduced in other states and their likelihood to travel, CPW will release the animals a minimum of 60 miles from the border with New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands.
According to the plan, multiple studies have shown that Colorado’s Western Slope has the ecological capacity to support a wolf population. Using maps of the region that show ecological suitability and potential for human conflict, two zones were selected for consideration of wintertime releases.
The northern zone follows the I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail and extends down toward the Roaring Fork Valley. The southern zone is centered around Gunnison. Releases in the first year will occur in the northern zone only, while subsequent releases are likely to occur in or near both the northern and southern zones.
Western Slope ranchers aired grievances regarding the proposed cap on wolf-livestock depredation compensation, and voiced support for a section of the draft that opened the door for ranchers to use lethal force against wolves down the road.
In his letter to the commission, Chairman Baker echoed concerns that an $8,000 per animal cap on depredation was too low. The commission indicated support for raising that cap to $15,000 per animal.
But the bulk of his letter addressed the issue of tribal sovereignty and the retention of the tribe’s hunting rights.
Baker’s major request was that the commission limit wolf releases to the northern zone, along the I-70 corridor.
“The Tribe finds compelling reasons why releases of gray wolves should only occur in this area,” Baker wrote. “First, the area supports the state’s largest elk herd, the White River Herd, at over 40,000 animals. Elk calf recruitment is consistently higher in northern Colorado, which supports this robust herd and will help it naturally offset predation impacts by wolves.”
Baker, who did not respond to a request to comment for this story, pointed out that calf mortality has increased in Southwest Colorado in recent years. CPW wildlife biologists say this is a result, in large part, because of the ongoing drought. The agency has written herd management plans in the region to increase herd size.
Although the proposed plan for wolf reintroduction would ensure that releases take place at least 60 miles from the border of tribal lands, Baker asked that the commission take another border into account: that of the Brunot Area, as established in the 1874 Brunot Agreement.
In that agreement, the confederated bands of Utes ceded about 3.7 million acres after the federal government convinced – or more likely, coerced – Ute leaders to sell the land. However, the agreement said the tribes retain hunting rights on the land “so long as the game lasts and the Indians are at peace with the white people.”
A 2008 memorandum of understanding with the state of Colorado, affirmed the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s ability to exercise the long-held fishing and hunting rights. Tribal members may hunt the land according to the rules and regulations established by the tribe – not the CPW regulations that apply to nontribal hunters on the land.
The southern zone outlined for wolf release bumps up against the northern border of the Brunot Area. Given the potential impact wolves may have on the already-imperiled elk population in the region – to which tribal members retain some dominion – Baker’s letter requested that CPW enshrine recognition of the tribe’s Brunot rights in writing.
“The Tribe is concerned that the Plan limits tribal deference only to tribal lands,” Baker wrote. “The Tribe requests that CPW adopt a broader recognition of tribal sovereignty by acknowledging the development of a Tribal Management Plan or MOU that will govern the management of gray wolves on the Southern Ute Indian reservation and within the Brunot Area.”
It is the “strong opinion” of the tribe that any limit on hunting licenses that becomes necessary as a result of ungulate population decrease be a burden shouldered by state-licensed hunters.
“This is the only approach that is consistent with the intent of the 1874 Brunot Agreement,” Baker wrote.
The concern that hunting rights could be disrespected and go unaccounted for holds water. As Baker told the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources in March 2022, proposed land swaps between the federal government and private entities often ignore the Brunot Agreement, resulting in the effective loss of hunting ground for tribal members when land in the area becomes private.
At the Jan. 25 commission meeting, CPW Senior Wildlife Biologist in the Southwest Region Jamin Grigg told the commission that “working in tandem with our tribal neighbors is of the utmost importance,” and specifically made note of the Brunot Area.
Other than the tribe’s designated representative on the Stakeholder Advisory Group, Baker’s Feb. 21 letter was the first time a representative of the tribe had voiced input on the draft plan.
The commission will proceed with approval of a revised plan in a two-step approval process at meetings to take place April 6 in Steamboat Springs and on May 3 and May 4 in Glenwood Springs.
Information about the meetings can be found on CPW’s public comment webpage.