In 2020, Colorado voters narrowly approved a state-wide referendum that mandated the release of gray wolves back onto the Centennial State landscape. Two years later, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) unveiled a 293-page draft plan describing its plans to achieve that goal. Then, this April, lawmakers passed a bi-partisan bill that could have delayed the process by multiple years. On Tuesday, May 16, Governor Jared Polis vetoed that bill, ensuring that wolf reintroduction efforts will continue on as planned.

Most of bill SB23-256‘s sponsors come from communities along the Western Slope, where state and federal wildlife officials are gearing up to release anywhere from 30 to 50 gray wolves captured from existing populations in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. According to the bill’s supporters, the state’s reintroduction plan doesn’t grant ranchers and other rural landowners along the Western Slope adequate authority to kill an introduced wolf, should the animal be caught preying on livestock or pets. Their bill would have pumped the brakes on reintroduction long enough for the Feds to sort out that problem, they say.

“It is discouraging to see a bill that passed the legislature with such large bipartisan margins not become law,” said bill author and State Senator Dylan Roberts of Avon in a prepared statement. “Sen. Perry Will and I wrote, introduced, and passed SB23-256 to ensure that a 10(j) rule is in place before wolves are reintroduced in Western Colorado.”

Because wolves are still listed under the Endangered Species Act in Colorado, they cannot be killed unless human life is threatened. A federal 10(j) ruling would loosen these restrictions, keeping wolves on the ‘threatened’ list while still allowing farmers and ranchers to kill a wolf that preys on livestock or pets—without fear of federal prosecution.

“A 10(j) designation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…offers the state and livestock owners greater flexibility in managing the species,” Roberts said. “Without [it], any farmer or rancher who interacts with a wolf (even for purposes of legitimate mitigation) could be charged with a federal felony and face prison time.”

In a letter, Gov. Polis called the bill unnecessary and said it undermines the will of the voters. “[SB 23-256] impedes the coordination that has been underway for over two years by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, (Colorado) Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that includes a $1 million commitment from the state of Colorado to complete the 10(j) draft rule and draft environmental impacts statement,” he wrote. “The management of the reintroduction of gray wolves into Colorado is best left to the Parks and Wildlife Commission, as the voters explicitly mandated.” 

When Proposition 114, also known as the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative, passed by an ultra-thin margin in November 2020, it was widely opposed by rural residents of the state. “It is one thing if wolves naturally return to Colorado,” said Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) President and CEO Kyle Weaver at the time. “It is something completely different if they are artificially placed on the landscape to complicate a system that is already complicated by human population and development.” Other critics decried Prop 114 as “ballot box biology”, saying that it bypassed science-based wildlife management in favor of emotionally-driven public sentiment.

Related: Colorado Announces Plans to Release “30 to 50” Gray Wolves Along the State’s Western Slope

Supporters of the referendum said that wolves were a missing piece of an ecological web that’s become badly imbalanced since the species was exterminated from the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Gov. Jared Polis remained neutral in the run-up to the vote, but just before the ballot initiative, his press secretary said that “if voters decide to pass wolf reintroduction then Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be ready to implement their will.”