Counties push for more input in wolf reintro

Western counties have proposed a special local government advisory group to the Colorado Wildlife Commission regarding gray wolf reintroduction, saying that's necessary to ensure the places the wolves will be going have a meaningful voice in the process. (Courtesy image/CPW)

Gray wolves are being reintroduced to Colorado, but the counties affected have a slim chance of winning a seat at the table of the stakeholder advisory group being established to help guide restoration efforts, members of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado said in a letter requesting a specialized local government advisory group to be established to provide more of a voice.

The Associated Governments group (AGNC) submitted a letter Friday to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, making the case for the additional advisory committee that could potentially function as a cooperating agency.

The group, made up of Montrose, Delta, Mesa, Garfield, Moffat, Rio Blanco,Grand and other counties, contends the current stakeholder advisory group (SAG) being put in place does not afford counties sufficient input to adequately address concerns such as county land use, private land provisions and socio-economic pressures of the ballot measure.

Proposition 114 authorized the reintroduction of gray wolves on designated lands in Colorado west of the Continental Divide beginning no later than Dec. 31, 2023. The development plan outlined by the Wildlife Commission provides for convening a technical advisory group (TAG) and a SAG. The SAG is expected to consist of 12-16 members to represent 13 different interests.

In the Friday letter signed by attorney Cody B. Doig, the AGNC said it expects under a best case scenario, only one or two seats would be awarded to Western Slope elected officials and that the SAG would likely include a maximum of two elected officials, one of whom would be from the Front Range, despite the fact that only 20 counties of the state’s 64 include designated lands for wolf reintroduction. That would mean one Western Slope elected official would be representing all 20 of those counties.

“Of course, each of the Western Slope counties is different in fundamental respects,” the letter states. “For example, each county has its own land use plan and policy that describes a county’s planning priorities, custom and culture, public land policies, wildlife management positions and other important information.

“ … The landscape is as varied as the people on the Western Slope and a single SAG representative cannot credibly represent all of these different positions and interests to the other members on the SAG and (Wildlife) Commission. Nor can the Commission expect to substantially benefit from the perspective of a single elected official, given the breadth and depth of the issues on the Western Slope.”

The AGNC asked for a “more thorough approach” to wolf restoration and proposed the an advisory group solely of local government officials, who would operate on similar principles and in capacities as a cooperating agency in the context of the National Environmental Policy Act. This would allow some priority to be given to counties that stand to be most affected by the reintroduction of wolves.

Counties are responsible to their constituents for the health, safety, and welfare of their communities, making them “substantially dissimilar” to other stakeholders in state or federal planning processes. When state or federal agencies need assistance, the counties are responsible for providing that support. Counties are expected to develop land use and resource management plans which need to be considered when it comes to decisions being made by state and federal entities.

“It is not the intent of AGNC members to subvert the purpose or intent of Proposition 114, but rather, these members seek to ensure that Western Slope counties are provided an equal opportunity to assist the Commission in developing a prudent gray wolf reintroduction plan,” Doig wrote, going on to detail benefits of AGNC’s proposal.

These include the technical expertise and staff support in developing data for the Wildlife Commission, which should in turn view local officials as active participants who are helping foster a comprehensive understanding of issues, per the letter.

Also, county officials are a direct link between their residents and the Wildlife Commission; they are familiar with collaborative processes under NEPA; can provide intimate working knowledge of important social, historical, economic and cultural implications of the initiative and therefore, will be able to see how it could be integrated into existing local planning documents.

Per the letter, such an advisory group would not usurp other advisory or technical working groups. But it should be given additional privileges, putting it on similar footing with a cooperating agency that has authority to review plans before decisions.

“These are just a few benefits that the (Wildlife) Commission should expect when creating a new advisory group,” Doig wrote on behalf of the group. Seven AGNC members have applied to be on the SAG, but hopes are dim: “By the number of seats available, limited by the types of interest areas the Commission requires, it appears that AGNC members may not even be awarded a single seat at the table when planning for gray wolf restoration.”

Yet, the AGNC members have a vested interest in protecting livestock and wildlife, as well as a duty to do so. Because of that, the Wildlife Commission should consider giving the Western Slope a “more direct and relevant role,” the letter says.

“Voters in our counties understand the significant economic impact wolves will have on our wildlife and ag producers,” AGNC Chairman and Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson said in a provided statement.

“Our members recognize that the state has an obligation to follow through with introduction of wolves in our communities; the counties and the state also have obligations to those who live, work, and play in those counties. It is critical that our members be included in the planning process in a meaningful way.”

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