Ballot feature: Proposition 114

Sam Moccia

Among the multitude of propositions appearing in the Colorado ballot this election year, Proposition 114 focuses on a more rural-urban stance. 

If passed, Prop. 114, formally Proposition 107, would task the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission with developing a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves in lands west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 31, 2023. 

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The proposition marks the first time that voters anywhere in the United States, rather than state and federal government wildlife agencies, are responsible for choosing whether or not to reintroduce gray wolves, according to The Colorado Independent

Opponents of Prop. 114 argue that wolf reintroduction would damage Colorado’s small-scale cattle industry and could put human safety at risk, while also pointing to concerns of wolves damaging Colorado’s elk population, and fears of wolves possibly serving as disease vectors. 

“If private ranchers have another straw added to the back of their economic deal, we might go out of business.”-Bill Fales, Colorado rancher

Organizations opposing 114 include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Cattleman’s Association, along with the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado and more.  

“Once, the wolf was widespread across most of North America, but it was hunted ruthlessly and extirpated over most of its range,” according to The National Wildlife Federation. “The gray wolf plays a vital role in the health and proper functioning of ecosystems.”

In Colorado, the last grey wolf was reportedly hunted and killed in 1945, according to Defenders of Wildlife. 

Supporters see wolf reintroduction as an essential step for repairing Colorado’s unique ecosystem. Additionally, they see Prop. 114 as a way to restore the natural “keystone species.” 

Organizations backing 114 include the Global Indigenous Council and Colorado Sierra Club, with The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund leading the campaign for 114, according to Ballotpedia

Human safety concerns aren’t likely when it comes to the dangers of wolves said Kevin Crooks, director of The Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University.

According to Crooks, in the last 100 years, no human deaths due to wolves have been documented in the continental U.S. 

Addressing concerns of wolves becoming vectors for pathogens, Crooks explained that the likelihood of disease transmission is low, especially in the case of the neurological disease known as chronic wasting disease

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However, fears raised by the livestock industry have proven potent for many, with over half of the state’s county commissioners and numerous ranchers unions opposing the bill, according to Coloradans Protecting Wildlife.

“Of all the cattle in the Northern Rocky Mountains, wolves kill much fewer than 1%,” said Crooks. “But wolves do kill livestock, and when they do, those costs are unevenly distributed. Some ranchers are going to bear the brunt of wolf reintroduction.” 

Ranchers in Colorado include people like Bill Fales, who owns and runs a small family cattle operation along Colorado’s Crystal River. 

“You look at cattle numbers across the entire industry, a lot of them are in a feedlot,” Fales said. “Wolves aren’t gonna kill any cattle out in that feedlot.”

But small ranches like Fales’ and his neighbors’, situated on land in isolated wildland regions of Colorado, are particularly at risk of livestock losses, according to Fales. 

Fales explained his concern about what the losses could add up to. 

“If private ranchers have another straw added to the back of their economic deal, we might go out of business,” Fales said. 

And, despite the proposition’s legislation requiring the reintroduction plan include “fair compensation for livestock losses caused by gray wolves,” according to the State Ballot Information Booklet, many ranchers are skeptical of how secure that ballot language really is, Fales said. 

Added stress from wolves could easily impact cattle weight and health enough to impact a rancher’s income without the death of a cow, according to Fales. 

“Proponents, four times in the last 20 years, have tried to get (Colorado Parks and Wildlife) to approve bringing wolves in, and four times they’ve refused,” said Fales. “They keep getting turned down, so they said, ‘Hey, let’s just go to the voters.’” 

But many supporting the bill, like former animal rights lawyer Larry Wiess, see 114 as the start of a less bureaucratic, more democratized model for conservation policy.

It’s difficult to make any headway because the hunters and ranchers have such a powerful lobby on all the commissions in the states,” Wiess explained in an interview with National Public Radio. 

Rob Edwards, President of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund leading the proposition campaign, sees 114 as an essential shift for the future of wildlife management in Colorado.

“I see this bill as a harbinger of our ability to be good stewards of wildlife,” Edwards said. “If we do this right, it’ll have implications for the long-term resiliency of our western wildlands to climate change. I think it’s that important.” 

Crooks explained that the conflict is not about wolves.

“Wolves are just symbols about deeper, unresolved societal debates, and people need to be heard,” Crooks said. 

Sam Moccia can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samuelmoccia