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Polis vetoes 10(j) wolf bill, setting up reintroduction with or without experimental status

In veto letter, Polis argue the bipartisan legislation was unnecessary and undermined the will of Colorado voters when they narrowly approved returning wolves to the Western Slope.

Colorado gray wolf reintroduction
Senate Bill 256 would have required a federal rule that allows greater management tactics be in place prior to reintroduction. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis vetoed a bill Tuesday that would have required Colorado wolves to be designated an experimental population prior to reintroduction later this year, saying he believes the legislation was unnecessary and undermined the will of voters when they narrowly approved reintroduction in 2020.

The bill, sponsored by local legislators Sen. Dylan Roberts and Rep. Meghan Lukens, would have required a 10(j) rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be in place prior to paws on the ground.

This rule, which Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials say is expected to be granted prior to the Dec. 31 reintroduction deadline, would allow more management tools not available now as wolves are an endangered species such as killing problematic wolves. No reintroduction effort has ever taken place without such a rule in place.

“The Governor shares the desire for Colorado wolves to receive a 10(j) designation to allow for maximum state management flexibility,” said spokesperson Conor Cahill in a statement to The Yampa Valley Bugle on Tuesday. “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.”

Following Polis’ veto on Tuesday, Roberts and Lukens each expressed their disappointment that the bipartisan legislation crafted with Western Slope ranchers in mind would not become law.

“I have heard from ranchers and farmers consistently that it is absolutely imperative we have the 10(j) rule in place prior to state-orchestrated wolf reintroduction, and this bill was a direct request from Western Slope constituents who will be impacted most by wolf reintroduction,” Lukens said in a statement.

“It is discouraging to see a bill that passed the legislature with such large bipartisan margins (29-6 in the Senate and 44-21 in the House) not become law,” Roberts said in a separate statement. “[The bill] was not a delay tactic nor an attempt to alter the public’s wishes but, instead, a safeguard to ensure we introduce wolves responsibly.”

Reintroduction is slated to happen in a broad area that includes part of South Routt County before the end of the year. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the reintroduction plan at a meeting in Glenwood Springs earlier this month, ending an effort that saw dozens of meetings across the state and generated more than 4,000 public comments — the majority of which came from the Front Range and out of state.

In his statement, Roberts urged Polis to delay reintroduction if it appears the 10(j) rule would not be granted in time.

“While I sincerely hope that the 10(j) rule is issued to Colorado before wolves are reintroduced, I fear for the consequences my community may face if this does not happen,” Roberts said. “Should the rule not be issued by December 31, 2023, I urge the Governor and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to consider alternative measures that ensure we implement wolf reintroduction correctly and with deep consideration for the impacts on our agriculture community.”

In testimony before the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee last month, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Dan Gibbs expressed his opposition to the legislation. While he insisted the 10(j) rule was on track, he did not give a yes or no answer to repeated questions about whether his agency would forge ahead with reintroduction without a 10(j). While not entirely clear, his answers indicated reintroduction would likely happen as scheduled with or without the 10(j) rule.

In a letter to Gibbs on Tuesday, Polis noted the state has invested a million dollars into getting the 10(j) rule from its federal partner prior to Dec. 31.

“I’m directing you to continue to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the [CPW] Commission in taking all steps possible to obtain a 10(j) rule prior to the release of gray wolves in Colorado,” Polis wrote.

In a letter explaining his veto, Polis said he believed the bill, Senate Bill 256, could actually interfere with obtaining the experimental population designation, adding that he believed the bill would impede coordination between state and federal wildlife officials.

“This could lead to unnecessary delays and revisions to the rule,” Polis wrote.

The veto did not come as a surprise, as Polis and Gibbs had signaled opposition to the legislation as it worked its way through the legislature. After the session ended, Polis hinted in a news conference that he didn’t intend to sign the bill.

"This legislation would have provided the time necessary to ensure that the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado happens under a 10(j) rule, which is essential for the state to have co-management authority of the reintroduced population to protect our agricultural producers across the state,” Lukens said. “I call on our colleagues in the federal government and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to ensure that we are granted the 10(j) rule prior to wolf reintroduction.”

Another bill sponsored by Roberts that sets up a fund to compensate ranchers for wolf depredations is awaiting Polis’ signature. That bill passed both chambers of the legislature without opposition.

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