Editor's note: An article detailing the final outcome has been published.
Colorado voters are fiercely divided about whether to bring back wolves.
With 82% reporting, a ballot measure to restore the apex predator to the landscape held a narrow lead of 50.3% to 49.7%. The proposal, if it passes, will require state officials to come up with a plan to restore wolves to Colorado by 2023.
The vote appears to be the first attempt in the U.S. to reintroduce an animal by popular vote. It came after wolf advocates spent decades trying in vain to convince the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to carry out such a plan. Critics point out that six of the commission’s 11 voting members must represent agricultural, hunting or fishing interests.
While the agency did not endorse either side of the ballot measure, it could be required to come up with a wolf reintroduction plan after spending years blocking similar efforts. Wolves were eradicated in Colorado around 1940, and many wildlife groups say they play an important ecological role on the landscape.
Opponents of the measure complained that it would allow Denver and other heavily populated areas to decide for rural residents whether they would have to live with wolves. Wolves earned support in many of Colorado’s most populous counties but fared poorly in rural areas. The results correlated closely with the presidential race in many counties, with pro-Trump counties mostly opposing reintroduction.
If the measure remains ahead, what happens next is still complicated. Last week, federal officials opted to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf, a move that will likely be tied up in court battles for some time. If the animal is delisted, Colorado officials will assume management responsibilities that the federal government currently holds.
State lawmakers will also need to create a payment system to compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, and wildlife officials will need to reach agreements with outside state and federal agencies to relocate wolves.
It’s unlikely that other predators will be popping up on state ballots anytime soon. Wildlife advocates say such campaigns are better used as a last-ditch measure when all other options are exhausted. They would rather see political efforts focused on reforming state wildlife agencies, which they believe disproportionately favor ranching and hunting interests.