As Colorado Parks and Wildlife continues its meetings and process to reintroduce grey wolves back to the Western Slope, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning its process to introduce a 10(j) rule at the request of the state. On Wednesday, leadership from Parks and Wildlife and the Fish and Wildlife Service met in Silverthorne to continue public engagement about the process.
Under a 10(j) rule in the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service may designate a population of a listed species as “experimental” if it will be released into suitable natural habitat outside the species’ current range.
“A 10(j) rule provides special management considerations and enhances management flexibility for species relative to a fully listed species, for example, one that’s listed as fully endangered, which grey wolves are right now in Colorado,” John Hughes, wildlife biologist with the service, said. “This management flexibility is needed for reducing potential conflicts for livestock producers, other stakeholders and increasing the likelihood that the overall reintroduction effort being put forth by (Parks and Wildlife) will be successful.”
Hughes said that the endangerment status of wolves has gone back and forth over the past several decades. Active wolf reintroduction efforts began in 1995 in the north Rocky Mountains, with introductions to central Idaho, western Montana and in northwestern Wyoming. Because wolves have far ranges when it comes to territory, it’s not uncommon for them to show up miles from where they were introduced. This, he said, is potentially why wolves have been documented in the northern part of Colorado, like in Moffat County and in Walden. However, this doesn’t mean they constitute a population, which is two animals producing at least two offspring for two consecutive years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has three alternatives to consider. The first is what was requested by Parks and Wildlife, the 10(j) rule. The service would determine if a population is essential or non-essential through an internal rulemaking process, and it would establish a boundary for this population, which is currently anticipated to be the entire state of Colorado. If there is an experimental population, then the rule would establish management provisions for experimental groups that may or may not be different from the protected group.
The second alternative would be more of a hybrid one, Hughes said. It addresses the possibility that there is an identified population of wolves in the state. If that happens, the service would issue a Safe Harbor Agreement for the population, and a separate 10(j) rule would exist for any experimental population of reintroduced wolves. It would also create a separate boundary for experimental groups.
The third option is no action. This would mean that the state would introduce wolves, and they would remain endangered and would not have the flexibility that the other alternatives have, Hughes added.
“The key is, (a 10(j) rule) allows us to define when ‘take’ is going to be allowed, under certain situations, and take means harass, injure or kill,” Scott Becker, regional wolf coordinator, said. “When we talk about endangered versus experimental population, it’s really a difference between — under endangered, all you can do is non-injurious harassment, but under experimental populations, or even threatened status, you can conduct some injurious harassment as well. This will just define exactly when those situations might be allowed.”
In recent weeks, Parks and Wildlife has continued its process to reintroduce wolves on the Western Slope after voters approved the initiative in 2020. The department has faced criticism from environmental groups for not being transparent enough in its processes, and a group has created its own wolf plan as a response.
Those interested in making public comment during Fish and Wildlife Service’s process can visit https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100-0001 to submit an online comment. There will also be a virtual webinar on Aug. 10 from 6-8 p.m., and attendees can register at https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/FWS-R6-ES-2022-0100-0001.