Three years from now, wildlife officials in Colorado could be preparing to release the first pack of wolves into a landscape where they haven’t been seen since World War II. The fate of that plan rests with Colorado voters, who will decide today whether the howl of wolves will echo in their state’s mountains once more.
“This [vote] is the first of its kind,” said Rob Edward, a longtime wolf proponent who has led the campaign in Colorado with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund. “This ballot initiative represents a sea change in the relationship between the public and their wild places. Nobody asked the people of Colorado if they wanted wolves wiped out. Everybody gets a vote now, and we should celebrate that.”
Wolf supporters in Colorado acknowledge that a political campaign wasn’t their first choice for restoring the predator to the landscape. But after decades of failed efforts to sway state wildlife officials, they see the measure as a necessary end-run around an outdated wildlife management system — one that prioritizes narrow human interests over healthy ecosystems and imperiled species.
But opponents say that making wildlife decisions by popular vote sets a dangerous precedent.
Ted Harvey, a former Republican state legislator and campaign director for Stop the Wolf PAC, said voters in Denver and other population centers will essentially be deciding for rural Coloradans whether they have wolves in their backyard.
“Those who are going to be the most harmed are not going to be able to have any say,” Harvey said. “If they were going to put on the ballot, ‘Should we drop 140-pound apex predator, violent pack wolves in downtown Denver?’ the outcome of the election would be significantly different.”
Harvey argued that humans with guns have replaced wolves as the region’s top predator, and the state’s lucrative hunting industry would take a financial hit if it’s forced to coexist with wolves.
Supporters of the ballot measure say all other options had been exhausted and the clear will of the public was being ignored.
The Colorado measure directs wildlife officials to come up with a plan to bring wolves back, rather than prescribing how it will be done, noted John Murtaugh, a representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
“This was really the last shot available,” he said. “This could be dangerous if we were having those finer details decided by popular vote. I personally am a little reluctant to say, ‘Everybody do this, this is the way to do it.’ Only when it becomes clear that there's gridlock do you make a strategic play at the ballot.”
Even many conservationists don’t expect a host of new wildlife policy ballot measures nationwide, though many long-running conflicts over species could be ripe for such efforts. They’re more hopeful that the Colorado measure, if successful, will put other states on notice that predators have strong public support — and that citizens have a recourse if they don’t think officials are acting in the public interest.
“This is a really good example of how values informed by science can be translated into policy,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, who has long been involved in efforts to bring wolves back to Colorado. “A lot of people in our political sphere don't understand how compelling wildlife protection is for many of their constituents.”
Wildlife issues have been on the ballot before, including a 1990 vote in California that gave mountain lions “specially protected species” status. But Colorado appears to be the first case of voters directly deciding on the very existence of a species in their state.
The wolf campaign is not an indicator that supporters of grizzlies in Washington or cougars in New York would have an easy time mounting a political effort, said Adrian Treves, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and founder of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab.
“I don't think it's a harbinger for things to come, because the campaign to get something on the ballot is so time-consuming, expensive and has so many moving parts,” he said.
Ballot measures can also be vulnerable to political interference, he noted. After Michigan voters resoundingly passed a measure to ban wolf hunting in 2014, lawmakers responded two years later by giving the state’s wildlife agency the power to allow it. The bill’s sponsor said voters had been deluded by “propaganda” from wolf advocates.
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based nonprofit, has long pushed for the reintroduction of grizzlies in Washington. He said it was “heartbreaking” when the U.S Department of the Interior abandoned the proposal earlier this year, but he’s not looking to put the issue on the ballot.
“Direct democracy has its upsides, but I don't think it's the first recourse,” he said. “Conservation tends to have broad public support, but it can lend itself to demagoguery. Some critters are inherently more popular than others. Does that translate to the right priorities?”
In California, where some advocates have proposed bringing back grizzly bears, state officials don’t see a ballot measure as the best approach.
“The best way to make laws is through regulation and public input,” said Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The second-best way is through legislation and our state legislature. The third best way would be through ballot initiative. It's hard to get everything you want in a ballot initiative explained very well to voters.”
Traverso said the state is already dealing with enough human-animal conflicts without bringing grizzlies into the equation. Still, if California voters directed the agency to bring back the bears, officials would “fully respect” that decision.
Supporters of the Colorado measure say wolves pose little threat to humans, that polling shows support for wolves even in rural areas and that much of the region is composed of public lands — which are co-owned by all citizens, urban and rural alike.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, which will be tasked with reintroducing wolves by the end of 2023 if the measure passes, has not taken a stance on the campaign, despite rejecting wolf proposals in the past.
Rebecca Ferrell, a public information officer with the agency, said that wolf protections under the Endangered Species Act give the federal government the lead role in managing the species, leaving the state with little power over what happens once the wolf is back on the landscape.
“It's not necessarily the most logical to bring in a species that we don't have any management control over,” she said. “Now that we've rejected it a few times, some of the folks who are passionate about that issue are relying on that [ballot] mechanism to change the landscape.”
If the vote passes, Ferrell said, wildlife officials will work hard to bring wolves back successfully, but she sounded less than enthused about a popular vote wresting the decision from the agency’s hands.
“People have a lot of feelings, and those are going to trump a lot of the details,” she said.
Both proponents and opponents seem to think the ballot measure will succeed. What happens after that could prove complicated. The federal government’s decision last week to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act list is likely to be mired in court battles for some time, leaving long-term management responsibility for the animals an unsettled question.
The Colorado General Assembly will likely need to get involved to create a payment system to compensate ranchers whose livestock are killed by wolves. And the wildlife agency would need to come up with agreements with federal and state partners to relocate wolves from elsewhere.
Both sides of the wolf debate say they want the decision to be based on science. For opponents, that’s why the matter should not be left to a public vote.
“Utilizing public opinion to make these sorts of decisions isn't always in the best interest of the resources,” said Lia Biondo, director of policy and outreach at the United States Cattlemen’s Association. “Science really does need to play a more important role in this decision-making.”
But supporters of the measure say that leaving the decision up to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission won’t result in a science-based outcome either. The commission has 11 voting members, three of whom must be sportspersons (with at least one serving as a professional outfitter) and three of whom must be agricultural producers.
“The public may believe that they're getting commissioners with knowledge of the topic, but they're also getting hidden value judgments,” said the University of Wisconsin’s Treves. “I hope the commissioners take it to heart and realize they were listening to a super vocal minority, perhaps one they had an affinity towards. But I’m worried the commissioners will just tell themselves that the public made a mistake.”
Many wildlife agencies, especially in the West, have a makeup like Colorado’s, which environmentalists say slants the field toward a small set of resource-dependent industries rather than those who value nature for its own sake.
“We're talking about political appointees who traditionally have been vastly disproportionately representative of the livestock industry,” said Robinson, the Center for Biological Diversity advocate.
“We have had for decades a political blockade of something that makes ecological sense and is strongly supported by the public.”
Wisconsin’s seven-member board must have one agriculture representative and three hunters or anglers. North Dakota’s eight members must include four landowners and four sportspersons. At least three of Nebraska’s nine members must come from agriculture.
Nevada requires five sportspersons, one farmer and one rancher on its nine-member panel. Four of South Dakota’s eight members must be farmers. New Mexico’s agency must have one appointee representing agricultural interests, and Montana requires one member from the livestock industry.
Advocates say this has created a system in which the agencies in charge of managing wildlife are more interested in protecting livestock and maximizing hunting opportunities than restoring healthy ecosystems and the threatened apex predators they see as crucial.
The livestock industry says the makeup of such commissions gives a voice to those whose livelihood may be affected by wildlife decisions.
“Just because a certain portion of the commission is made up of one interest or another doesn't inherently mean that has affected the outcome or science has been precluded,” said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which advocates for livestock producers who hold public lands grazing permits. “What is bias and what is experience? Just because you don't like someone's experience doesn't mean they're inherently biased. If indeed the focus is to reform these wildlife commissions, I would like to hear an alternative.”
Those who are eager to see more species restored should focus their efforts on providing that alternative, said Murtaugh of the Defenders of Wildlife.
“I would prefer that the system was built in a way that we had those expert biologists and ecologists with at least an equal say to the economic interests,” Murtaugh said. “We should be working to improve how the commissions are composed.”