Summary: Sometimes, the aisle lawmakers work across isn’t the one that separates the two parties. It’s the divide between rural and urban. That’s what happened in Colorado when urban voters narrowly passed a plan to reintroduce the endangered gray wolf. Lawmakers from both parties representing the rural part of the state—where ranchers and hunting outfitters feared livestock and business losses with wolves on the prowl—teamed up to minimize any economic impact.
This is Across the Aisle, a podcast on bipartisanship from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
I’m Kelley Griffin.
Today’s story, set in Colorado, isn’t actually about working across the proverbial aisle - Democrats working with Republicans. This story is about working across a different divide. Rural and Urban. It’s something plenty of lawmakers have to navigate.
The source of division in Colorado is the gray wolf. Wolves were killed off in the state in the 1940s. In 2020, voters supported a ballot measure to reintroduce the endangered species to the state. Support for the idea came almost exclusively from urban areas. Most rural voters said no.
The city folk won—with just over 51 percent of the vote.
The state has until the end of this year, December 31st 2023, to have wolves on the ground. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission developed a wolf reintroduction plan and heard the two sides square off over and over in hearings held around around the state.
Citizen 1: I’m in the sheep biz I’m approach my 8th decade. I have been chased by bears stocked by mtn lions and surrounded by coyotes in my life. There needs to be protection for my herders that they have a lethal means because they’re out there before daylight and after dark by themselves and on foot and they need to be legal protected to kill wolves it attacking them, and my grandkids as well.
Citizen 2: Wolves have their role and a place here and a chance to rebalance what has been missing in the 78 years or so they have been missing this is a chance for all of us to coexist - ranchers included, It will take extra vigilance on their part. But it is only fair to the wolf and those of us that want them here.
Citizen 3: I’m a rancher and I’m worried about my livestock and all the wildlife. My main concern is the number of wolves they will turn loose. And if they do turn the first ones loose and they start killing and raising havoc everywhere I would like them to be able to stop the release of wolves.
Citizen 4 I voted to reintroduce wolves based on biological data, based from data out of the reintroduction in Yellowstone, and I do live in a place where wolves will be in my backyard. I go out skiing and hiking by myself, I have dogs with me who I love and I know they can stick their noses in the wrong place get in trouble . And I voted for this. I believe that one of the top predators can do wonders for the environment,
Republican Senator Perry Will has been a wildlife manager with the state Division of Wildlife for 40 years. This approach didn’t make sense to him.
“And I felt all along///it wasn't fair to the species to introduce 'em into a state like Colorado with nearly 6 million people in the state because they will be in constant conflict. And I've said it so many times, we're not Wyoming, we're not Idaho, we're not Montana. I wish we were. The city of Lakewood has more people than the state of Wyoming. And then to do it via ballot box is the absolute worst way to manage the wildlife resource of this state. Let the professionals do it.”
The professionals had actually advised against wolf reintroduction a few times over the years, most recently in 2016. That eventually led wolf proponents to put it before voters.
Senator Will’s rural district includes many cattle ranchers who fought the measure. There are outfitters who fear wolves will decimate elk herds that draw in hunters and help small town economies. His district also includes Pitkin County, home of Aspen, which voted for wolf reintroduction.
Will says rural people were simply outnumbered, even though they are the ones most affected by the measure.
“ I think people on the West Slope, I'd pretty much share my opinion that this got crammed down our throats.”
But he was determined to make the best of what he considers a bad situation. For starters, he and his rural colleagues wanted to give the state adequate control over the federally protected gray wolf.
Because they are listed as an endangered species, killing a wolf is punishable by up to a year in jail and fine up to 100-thousand-dollars. That’s even if a rancher catches one in the act of killing their livestock.
There is a way around that. The state could get what’s called a 10J to designate the wolf population in Colorado as an experimental species. That allows state wildlife managers to designate situations when wolves could be killed to protect livestock and farm dogs. But it takes time to get that designation. If wolves were introduced in Colorado before that was approved, they would likely be forever protected by the strict federal rules.
Will teamed up with a fellow rural Republican, Representative Matt Soper and rural Democrats Senator Dylan Roberts and Representative Meghan Lukens. They teamed up on a bill to block reintroduction until the state was approved for the 10J.
“We just didn't want a wolf on the ground without that in place.”
It caused an uproar. Wolf advocates saw it as a way to delay the reintroduction, perhaps for years. Supporters insisted that wasn’t their intent.
Sen. Roberts says it was meant as an insurance policy against onerous federal rules.
“Because having wolves on the ground without a 10 J could put a lot of our livestock owners in Coloradans in a really difficult situation.”
Roberts and other rural Democrats had to win over the urban members of their own party, which controls the statehouse.
“It was actually us having to bring along some of our more progressive democratic colleagues to make sure we had the votes to pass these bills/// So it was kind of flipped the normal political calculus on its head with these bills.”
And Senator Will says he had to work across the urban/rural divide too.
“ I mean, if you're an urban Republican and don't know livestock production or Western heritage and the way of life over here and all that, I mean, there's an education component with all that.”
And they did gain enough support - the bill passed nearly unanimously in the house and the senate.
Governor Jared Polis vetoed the measure because he considered it unnecessary. And in the end, it appears the federal government will grant the 10J before reintroduction. So the state will have more control over wolves as an “experimental population.”
Rural lawmakers also worked on another front: how to compensate ranchers for loss of livestock.
Roberts sponsored a bill to create a fund of $350,000 each year to reimburse for loss of livestock and working dogs. He easily found bipartisan support among rural lawmakers, and it took some convincing to get urban lawmakers to understand how big the wolf threat could be.
“Frankly, when wolves have been reintroduced in other states, that has happened, and it's already happening with wolves that have come down from Wyoming into parts of my district in Jackson County. They have killed several cows and people's dogs working dogs on ranches, and so the impacts are real and clear.”
Don Gittleson is the Colorado rancher doing battle with the wolves from Wyoming, where they were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park about 30 years ago. They attacked his herd for the first time in 2021. Gittleson says wolf predation is unmistakable, and not pretty.
“So it was in the wintertime, so you can see the footprints. It's not, when you come up on it, it's not, ‘I wonder what happened.’ You absolutely know what it is. There were wolf tracks all over the place.”
He keeps his cattle on pasture in a high valley of federal public lands that he leases, and once the wolves struck he got permission from wildlife officials to try all kinds of things to keep them at bay – it’s called hazing.
There were the bright flashing lights designed to be about eye level with wolves, though they are called Fox lights.
“The first night that we deployed the Fox lights, the wolves came in. We had wolves come in and we lost a calf to that”
There’s something called “fladry” - a wire strung around the pasture with flapping strips of material hanging off it.
Other ranchers seemed to have luck using mules to chase away dogs, so Gittleson decided to try a cheaper alternative—wild donkeys – to go after wolves. He says tthey range all over, so he’s not sure they’re helping.
Then there’s an old standby – people. Gittleson and his family couldn’t spend all their nights with the herd, so they worked with volunteers from a pro-wolf group. But one time wolves attacked while the night patrols were there; Gittleson was surprised they didn’t see anything.
“When the wolves kill something, it's not like ‘sneak in, grab it and get out.’ I mean, there's a fight that goes on for a while.
For all of this, and with financial help from the federal and state government and the wolf advocates, he still lost several cattle worth thousands of dollars. That’s why Senator Roberts wanted to secure the fund to cover the losses.
“It's a commitment that we want to make to our agriculture industry and our producers who will feel the impacts of this directly and guarantee that no matter what happens with the state budget, even if we go into an extreme recession and there's not a lot of money, that there will be money for this because we are taking the deliberate act of putting wolves back into their backyards and want to make sure that they're compensated for any loss that they have.”
Sen. Will cosponsored the depredation compensation bill and he says he’ll do everything he can to make sure the money is readily available to ranchers.
“There has to be some burden of proof that it was Wolf depredation, but we have wildlife professionals that definitely know what that is. And I spent a good part of my career doing depredation online. I'm embarrassed, and I know how that works and how the process works. And so that's not a huge hurdle in my opinion.”
Will also sponsored a bill to create a special wolf license plate to raise money starting next year. The money will be used to research and implement non-lethal wolf controls. It’s called “Born to Be Wild” and the license plate shows a wolf against mountains and the Milky Way. That too got bipartisan support.
“Obviously the best goal for the wildlife and the livestock producer is prevent the depredation.”
Will says he has some modifications he’ll be bringing up in the next legislative session, like financial support for ranchers efforts to ward off wolves.
“The livestock producers should be compensated for that extra cost of what they're doing to prevent wolf depredation. And that's not completely spelled out in that bill. So I think that we need some clarification there.”
Senator Roberts says that’s to be expected. He says through all the wolf discussions he has reminded his colleagues that a ballot measure needs this kind of follow up from legislators. He notes voters legalized recreational marijuana by ballot in 2012 and lawmakers have introduced bills every session to refined that law.
Colorado officials recently found their source of wolves—the state of Oregon. They plan to introduce five to 15 wolves each year until they establish a sustainable population required by the ballot measure. The pack that moved down from Wyoming doesn’t count, but they are thriving.
Senator Will still doesn’t think wolf reintroduction is a good idea, but he says the key now is to try to limit the harm it does to ranchers, and he thinks this round in the legislature did a lot to bridge the divide.
“I keep telling people they want to stop 'em, like that ship sailed, we'll learn to deal with it and whatever measures we need to take to deal with this, what we're going to do. “
I’m Kelley Griffin. Thanks for listening to Across the Aisle. Remember, we’d love to hear about an important bipartisan bill in your state. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can learn lots more about what is going on in state legislatures if you check out our podcast “Our American States,” where host Ed Smith interviews policy experts about the big issues lawmakers are grappling with. There more on the podcast Legislatures, the Inside Storey. NCSL’s CEO Tim Storey explores the big ideas at the heart of governing. You can find those wherever you get your podcasts.