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CO: Federal government quietly establishes wolf conservation area that includes Grand County

Acting interior secretary announces plans to remove gray wolf from endangered species list

Lance Maggart

Since at least 2004, a small number of solitary gray wolves have migrated into Colorado.

While sightings of the apex predator remain few and far between, the ongoing presence of the endangered species within the state’s borders prompted the federal government to establish a wolf conservation area in north-central Colorado, including Grand County in late 2016.

The significance of the conservation area, however, only really impacts the federal agencies that manage wildlife and wildlife conflicts by restricting the methods they can use to mitigate conflicts. Other federal protections remain in place that prohibit anybody from endangering or killing wolves in the United States, with the exception of in Alaska and Hawaii.

Throughout Grand County, few local officials were aware of the existence of the wolf conservation area. Local government officials said they were still searching for any correspondence they had received from the federal government regarding the establishment of the conservation area as of Monday afternoon.

Grand County Commissioner Rich Cimino said he was not personally aware of the existence of the conservation area. A regional spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said he also was not directly aware of the conservation area, though Brad Petch, senior wildlife biologist for the state’s northwest region, confirmed that he and other state officials were aware of the conversations surrounding the establishment of the conservation area by the federal government.

The wolf conservation area, which formally went into effect in November 2016, is most significant to the Wildlife Services unit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, which is part of the larger U.S. Department of Agriculture. Members of the Wildlife Services unit of APHIS are the federal employees primarily tasked with the protection of resources, such as agricultural resources, when they are negatively impacted by wildlife conflicts.

“We have a history of wolves entering Colorado throughout this area,” explained Martin Lowney, state director for APHIS’s Wildlife Services in Colorado. “That is why they created this wolf conservation area. They are going the extra mile to protect any wolves that do enter Colorado.”

According to Lowney, the establishment of the wolf conservation area pertains to the Wildlife Services only.

Wildlife Services employees resolve wildlife conflicts, such as wildlife attacking or killing livestock, through a variety of means. To resolve such conflicts, Wildlife Services can and often does rely on lethal measures, such as aerial gunning or the use of neck snares or cyanide traps.

However, the establishment of the wolf conservation area officially restricts the methods Wildlife Services employees can use in the area because of the possibility that those methods could harm or kill a wolf.

Federal employees, and the general public, are already restricted from killing, trapping or harming wolves in Colorado due to their designation as an endangered species.

The establishment of the wolf conservation area in north-central Colorado is an acknowledgement by the federal government that wolves have recently been found in the area. And that additional steps should be taken to ensure that federal employees do not violate the Endangered Species Act while attempting to mitigate conflicts between livestock and other predators, such as coyotes.

The wolf conservation area prohibits Wildlife Services personnel from using cyanide traps or neck snares when mitigating predator and livestock conflicts within the specified area. It further requires that all foot-hold traps and snares be checked at least once a day in areas known to be occupied by gray wolves. The conservation area does allow for the use of break-away snares, though, and allows for the continued use of aerial shooting of predators by specialists who receive additional training to ensure they can distinguish between wolves and coyotes.

Lowney said Wildlife Services has historically not used cyanide traps within the conservation area.

“This says we are not to use any methods that would outright kill a wolf,” he said. “But we don’t use them there, anyhow.”

The few available methods for mitigating wildlife and livestock conflicts include the use of guard dogs, a heavier human presence around livestock to deter wolf attacks or the use of fladery, which is erecting a temporary perimeter fence that has brightly colored plastic flags, according to Lowney. It’s also recommended to move livestock away from areas where wolves are known to exist.

The wolf conservation area occupies a significant swath of land, stretching from Interstate 25 on the east side of the state, to Craig on the west and from the Wyoming border on the north to Interstate 70 on the south.

Jennifer Strickland, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages endangered species for the federal government, said the conservation area matches an easily defined area where wolves have been observed in previous years. It includes all of Grand, Jackson, Gilpin and Boulder counties and portions of Moffat, Routt, Eagle, Summit, Clear Creek, Jefferson, Adams and Larimer counties.

Wolves are currently listed as an endangered species throughout the Lower 48 states, but are considered threatened in Minnesota. Though that could change as the Trump administration looks to remove the species from the endangered species list, according to an announcement made March 6 by Acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.