Glimmers of Hope for Wildlife in Colorado

Gray Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Colorado, like most western states, was once a haven for an incredible array of wildlife including native carnivores like wolves, grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and wolverines. The government-sanctioned and funded war on wildlife over the last two centuries rendered many of these species either extinct in the Centennial State or barely hanging on. But, the past year has provided a glimmer of hope that times are changing as Colorado voters and decision-makers have begun to create a (hopefully) more hospitable place for wildlife.

The biggest sign of change—and a real reason for wildlife enthusiasts to be excited—is of course the passing of Proposition 114 in November of 2020. The ballot measure directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to bring the gray wolf back to Colorado, where it has been largely absent since the 1940s. How and where exactly reintroduction will happen is still up for much input and debate. And we can be sure that anti-wildlife interests will be fervent in advocating that wolves be hunted, trapped, lethally “managed,” and otherwise persecuted. Guardians will be there howling for wolves to be safe, protected, and bountiful enough to work their ecosystem magic across the state.

Another win for wildlife in Colorado that may have flown under the public radar, but that is critical for conservation: Governor Polis recently signed three bills into law to provide much-needed funding for CPW to protect the state’s diverse wildlife, habitat and park system. What’s particularly noteworthy about these new laws is that they will allow the general public to provide funding for wildlife conservation, not just hunters and anglers, who have historically paid for and directed state wildlife agencies.

The Keep Colorado Wild Pass InitiativeWolf Reintroduction Funding With No License Fees, and Colorado State Parks and Public Lands Colorado Comeback Stimulus will all put public money into wildlife conservation efforts. These three pieces of legislation don’t wholly breakup the unholy grip that sportsmen have on CPW. But they are a start toward a wildlife agency that should be more accountable to the public—most of whom believe in the intrinsic value of wildlife and coexistence with wildlife—rather than a small subset of Coloradans.

Finally, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission appears to be getting more diverse both in terms of demographic representation and backgrounds and ideologies. Most wildlife and game commissions in the western U.S. are dominated by males, white people, hunters, and agricultural representatives. This dynamic is a symptom of broader history and, of course, funding. Since his election, Governor Polis has done well to change the status quo, appointing commissioners who might be considered outsiders and who better represent Colorado as a whole.

But it’s not all good news—it rarely is on the wildlife front! The amount of pushback that Commissioner Jay Tuchton—a seasoned and outspoken wildlife advocate—received during senate confirmation was a stark reminder that parts of Colorado are still stuck in a time when wildlife was the enemy and only hunters, trappers, and ranchers had a say in how CPW should deal with animals.

And a recent scandal helped illuminate how much of that antipathy towards wildlife, especially wolves, exists among CPW staff. JT Romatzke is a high-ranking agency official who was caught trying to undermine the wolf reintroduction effort and managed to keep his job—while a whistelblower lost his. Audio recordings of Romatzke outlining his subversion also indicate that he and other staffers are not ready for a new, modern CPW Commission. He is heard calling Commissioner Tutchton and Commissioner Taishya Adams “these people,” insinuating that they don’t belong making decisions for CPW. Commissioner Adams is a black woman and Commissioner Tutchton used to represent WildEarth Guardians to protect wildlife.

Leadership is changing, but CPW clearly still has a culture problem that will likely act as a roadblock for real wildlife progress. Mountain lions can now be hunted with the aid of electronic calls in certain parts of the state, a clear regression in policy. Colorado’s vaunted trapping ban is filled with loopholes. And transparency is a major issue as groups and journalists often face unreasonable hurdles to obtaining information that should publicly available.

There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that Colorado continues to become more hospitable for once-persecuted native carnivores. But there are reasons to be optimistic thanks to Governor Polis and the current roster of CPW Commissioners. Together with you and our allies, WildEarth Guardians will continue working to ensure that wildlife is protected—and respected—in Colorado and throughout the American West.

Chris Smith is the Southern Rockies Wildlife Advocate with WildEarth Guardians