Here’s the release from Colorado State University:
Colorado residents will vote in November on a ballot initiative that calls for the proposed reintroduction of gray wolves to the state. Proposition 107, a citizen-initiated measure, would direct the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore wolves to the western part of the state.
To help ensure the public is informed on this topic, Colorado State University scientists have teamed up with Extension staff to produce and publish educational materials on the possible wolf restoration.
“As Colorado’s only land-grant institution, CSU is uniquely positioned to provide science-based information on the subject,” said Kevin Crooks, professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and director of the new Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence. “The educational materials have undergone extensive review by scientists within and outside CSU, including world experts on wolves.”
Crooks helped lead the development of these educational materials. The center he leads is focused on integrating science, education and outreach to minimize conflict and facilitate coexistence between people and predators.
The center’s team has developed projects in a variety of systems where human-carnivore coexistence is proving difficult. In addition to wolves, they are tracking growing conflicts with urban black bears and coyotes, polar bears in energy fields in Alaska, lions and cattle keepers in East Africa, and ranchers in systems with predators in the United States.
Wolves already spotted in Colorado
In early 2020, after the initiative was approved to be placed on the ballot, a pack of wolves was confirmed to be living in Moffat County in the northwestern part of the state. Another lone wolf was confirmed in North Park in summer 2019. These wolves likely migrated from a nearby state, perhaps Wyoming, where they were reintroduced 25 years ago.
“Science-based information provided from this team is critical to aid in policy development around wildlife and public lands,” said Ashley Stokes, associate vice president for Engagement and Extension at CSU.
Stokes said that these resources are also important for people who vote, so that they may better understand the issues surrounding potential reintroduction of wolves and the impacts on ecological systems, agricultural producers and local communities.
CSU researchers analyzing public response, media coverage
Rebecca Niemiec, assistant professor in the Department of Human Dimension of Natural Resources at CSU, recently led research studies on public perspectives and media coverage of the wolf restoration issue in Colorado.
“One thing we have found from our social science research is that the public has a diversity of beliefs about the potential positive and negative impacts of wolves,” explained Niemiec. “Some of these beliefs are supported by ecological and social science research, while some of them are not. Our hope is that with these educational materials, we can facilitate more productive, science-based discussions about wolf reintroduction and management.”
John Sanderson, who directs the Center for Collaborative Conservation at CSU, helped direct the scientific review process and worked with partners to produce the educational materials.
“The topic of wolves is uniquely contentious,” Sanderson said. “If wolves are part of Colorado’s future, we need an inclusive process of creating policy and making decisions that builds trust and identifies mutually acceptable solutions among people with different perspectives.”
Public surveys over the last few decades suggest support for wolf reintroduction from the majority of Colorado residents. Despite those survey results, restoring wolves in the state is a contentious topic that taps into diverse emotions and passions across various groups. And misinformation about wolves is widespread, on all sides of the issue.
The results of a survey to gauge voters’ attitudes about the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Western Slope water returned some good news for the district. But due to concerns about the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, River District officials are still mulling whether to push ahead with a plan to ask voters to restore part of its original mill levy.
River District general manager Andy Mueller said the overall results of the survey, which found that 65% of respondents would support a mill levy increase, were a ray of good news in an otherwise dark time. But at the board’s April quarterly meeting, Mueller recommended that it postpone making a decision about whether to move forward on a ballot initiative until at least its July meeting.
“Given the economic devastation that is occurring throughout the district, the question we have to ask ourselves in July is: Is it appropriate to go to the voters to ask for additional funding at this time when they are suffering such great economic hardship?” Mueller said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
The River District board is considering whether to ask voters to raise its property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from about $4 million to $8 million. That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. One mill is the equivalent of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
According to numbers provided by the River District, for the median home value in Pitkin County — the highest in the district at $1.13 million — the mill levy would increase from $18.93 to $40.28 per year.
For several days in mid-March, River District consultant Arvada-based New Bridge Strategy surveyed about 600 residents and voters via email and phone to assess the feasibility of a ballot question. The survey results found that residents trust that the River District manages taxpayer funds wisely, and three out of five people said they would support a tax increase if it were on the ballot measure in November.
“I think, overall, this is positive,” said Lori Weigel, principal of New Bridge Strategy. “It’s pretty rare to see something testing at 60 percent or higher in Colorado these days. It speaks to the primacy of water and people’s concern about water in this part of the state.”
Survey-takers said protecting western Colorado water for agriculture and preserving clean drinking water were the most compelling reasons to vote yes on a tax increase. Eighty-eight percent found these reasons convincing. The River District is not a direct provider of drinking water, but part of the organization’s mission is to keep water on the Western slope.
Women older than 55 years old made up the backbone of support for a tax measure — 73% said they would back it. Residents across the political spectrum supported a tax increase, but it found the most support from Democrats, with 75% saying they would vote “yes.” Fifty-six percent of Republicans were supportive.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans 15 counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache. The survey found broad geographic support overall, but the numbers were lowest in one key, populous county: Mesa. Only 59% of survey respondents there said they would support a tax increase.
“What it means to me is that we need to do better and make sure that if there are places that others perceive we are not speaking and advocating well for agriculture, then we need to do it more uniformly,” Mueller said.
Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County on the River District board, said probably only a small percentage of voters know what the River District does, and although the River District has ramped up its outreach to Western Slope communities this year, more is needed. Those efforts, however, have been sidelined by the pandemic. The River District had scheduled a series of State of the River meetings this spring, which were canceled.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Acquafresca said. “That’s a huge disadvantage of going forward with a question in 2020 if we can’t get out and do the campaigning.”
He also pointed out that the results of the survey may no longer be valid because of its timing.
“Although some of the results look pretty good, all of that was done before the pandemic really impacted our Western Slope communities,” Acquafresca said. “Nobody had any concept of the economic consequences of this pandemic on big cities and small towns alike.”
For the median home value in Mesa County, at $218,601, the mill levy would increase from $3.67 to $7.81 per year.
River District staffers also have unveiled a fiscal implementation plan for how that additional funding could be spent should voters pass a ballot measure. Of the projected $4.9 million in additional revenue, $4.2 million of that would be spent on projects identified as priorities by local communities and basin roundtables in five categories: productive agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality.
Some representative projects that River District revenue could help fund are the White River Storage Project, maintaining flows secured by the Shoshone call and the Windy Gap Reservoir connectivity channel.
The state engineer is opposing the water rights tied to the White River Storage Project in water court over concerns that the project is speculative and that the applicant, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, has not proven there is a need for the water. The project would include a 90,000-acre-foot conditional storage right, and a dam and reservoir on the White River between Rangely and Meeker. But Mueller said it’s too early to know what specific projects the River District’s tax money might fund.
“We can’t say we would fund any one of those in particular; those are examples,” Mueller said. “We are not making a commitment to funding any of those that are listed.”
Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, supported by its donors and funders, that covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the May 8 edition of The Aspen Times and the May 12 edition of the Vail Daily.
FromThe Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):
Now that a pack of wolves has been confirmed in Colorado for the first time in decades, could the state also have its first breeding pair?
Answering that question could have ramifications for a ballot initiative and legislative bill that calls for reintroducing wolves, predators that have been absent from the state since the 1940s (aside from sporadic reports of wandering lone individuals).
Both measures require the state to establish a sustainable wolf population. However, wording in the bill allows the state to cancel reintroduction efforts if the gray wolf already has a self-sustaining population.
“There is some trickiness and uncertainty for the ballot initiative and legislation (if the pack does produce young in Colorado), but you need a couple of packs successfully producing a couple of years to call it a population,” said Eric Odell, Colorado Parks and Wildlife species conservation program manager.
Now that a pack has been reported in the state for the first time in 80 years, the start of that self-sustaining population may already be happening.
Currently, neither Colorado Parks and Wildlife nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is actively monitoring the pack, which was discovered in the northwest corner of the state earlier this month…
If the pack was captured and tracking collars applied, it would identify if there is a breeding pair of adults, allow biologists to locate a possible den site and help determine if the pair produces young in the state this spring…
Carbondale rancher Bill Fales said he would like to see the pack more closely monitored.
“I think we need to know if they are breeding and what they are eating, and the sooner we know that information, the better,” said Fales, while checking calves at his ranch Friday.
Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which is spearheading the ballot initiative, said more closely monitoring the pack may not be needed until later.
“It is conceivable in the future that there will be a closer eye paid to them because it will play into discussions of what we do going forward with reintroduction or augmentation of the wolf population,” he said…
What biologists do know about the pack
Odell said district wildlife mangers used spotting scopes to locate six wolves from more than a mile away on March 4. The pack was spotted several miles south of where the animals were initially seen in January in Moffat County.
He said no tracking collars were seen on any of the wolves verified by CPW employees. He said genetic evidence collected from the pack’s scat samples near an elk kill indicated three females and one male and that the animals are siblings. Their age is unknown.
He said it is unknown if the other wolves in the pack are parents of the siblings. If that is the case, it would indicate a breeding pair but would still leave unanswered whether the parents produced the siblings in Colorado.
Wolves generally breed in January and February and give birth in April and May. Wolf packs are usually made up of parents and their pups from the previous several years.
“You can connect the dots and make an educated guess based on the genetics that there has been reproduction in the past, maybe even last spring,” he said. “But that could have taken place in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, who knows.”’
Edward said it is likely if there are adults in the pack and they do produce young in the state this spring, given the current monitoring of game cameras and the local’s interest in the wolves, they will be seen.
FromThe High Country News (Ethan Linck) [March 1, 2020]:
The last wolf resident in Colorado in the 20th century died in 1945 at the edge of the San Juan Mountains, where a high green country falls into dark timber near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. It was caught by its leg in the ragged jaws of a steel trap, set by federal authorities following reports that it had killed 10 sheep.
If the wolf was mourned, it wasn’t mourned by many. Contemporary newspaper articles reflected widespread support for ridding the West of wolves. “Wolves are like people in that they must have their choice morsel of meat,” wrote Colorado’s The Steamboat Pilot in an April 1935 story on the retirement of William Caywood, a government contract hunter with over 2,000 wolf skulls to his credit. “(Some would eat) nothing but the choice parts of an animal unless they were very hungry. Wolves are killers from the time they are a year old.”
Seventy-five years later, public perception has changed, and otherwise clear-eyed Westerners regularly wax poetic over Canis lupus. “Colorado will not truly be wild until we can hear the call of the wolf,” opined one writer in a recent editorial for Colorado Politics. “That mournful sound rekindles primordial memories of our ancestors, and to most of us, brings a state of calmness that nothing else can approach.”
Wolves, it turns out, may be a part of the world we want to live in after all.
This about-face is more than conjecture. According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wolves in Colorado,” echoing similar polls over the past 25 years. Yet state wildlife officials have been reluctant to comply, wary of the toxic politics surrounding reintroduction in the Northern Rockies.
In response, activists seized an unprecedented strategy. A coalition of nonprofit groups in Colorado, led by the recently formed Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, spent 2019 tirelessly gathering support to pose the question to voters directly through a 2020 ballot initiative. They succeeded, delivering more than 200,000 signatures to the Colorado secretary of State. Initiative 107 was officially ratified in January and will be voted on this November. (Meanwhile, neither politicians nor wolves have stayed still. In January, a state senator introduced a controversial bill to regain legislative control of the issue; in the same week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that a pack of at least six wolves was now resident in northwest Colorado, though it’s far from clear they represent the start of a comeback. For the moment, the future of wolves here still likely rests on the initiative.)
A new transplant to Colorado from the Pacific Northwest, I learned about the campaign from a canvasser outside Whole Foods in north Boulder on a sunny June day last year. In a parking lot filled with Teslas and Subarus, the tattooed volunteer stood opposite a wall-sized advertisement for the store, featuring the smiling faces of ranchers and farmers on the Western Slope.
It was a scene that would have done little to assuage fears that urban liberal voters were forcing reintroduction on rural residents. The canvasser caught my eye as I left the store. “Can I talk to you about reintroducing wolves to Colorado?” he asked, waving a pamphlet. I demurred and walked back to my bike. But the initiative and its backers — happy to use scientific justifications for their cause, paired curiously with populist rhetoric about its overwhelming public support — lingered in my head.
The initiative fascinated me, beyond its potential to transform the landscape of my adopted home. As an academic biologist, I tended to think science should be both privileged in debate and somehow above the fray. But my own environmental ethic operated on an independent track — drawing on the scientific literature when it supported my opinions, and claiming it was beside the point when it didn’t. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project reminded me uncomfortably of this contradiction.
If voters decide to reintroduce wolves to an increasingly crowded state from which they were effectively absent for over 70 years, Colorado’s ecosystems and rural communities may change rapidly, in unexpected ways. Yet unlike nearly all other major wildlife management decisions, the choice would rest not with a handful of experts, but with the public.
The case poses a thorny set of questions. What will happen if wolves return to Colorado? When, if ever, can science tell us what to do? And, in the face of empirical uncertainty, could direct democracy be the best solution?
I wondered: If I knew my own research could dramatically affect ecosystems and livelihoods, would I want it to play more of a role in public life — or less?
CONSERVATIONISTS OFTEN HESITATE to frame arguments in moral terms, leaning on the perceived authority of empiricism to buttress their positions. At the same time, many conservation debates are complicated by the collision of disparate worldviews, where evidence is almost beside the point. Large carnivores — intensively studied and politically controversial — fall squarely in the center of this push-and-pull between data and belief.
In 1995, federal biologists released eight gray wolves from Alberta, Canada, in Yellowstone National Park, seeding a population that eventually grew to as many 109 wolves in 11 packs. With the wolves came the unique opportunity to test the theory that their influence on elk numbers and behavior reduced grazing pressure on riparian vegetation, with consequences for the very structure of rivers themselves.
Preliminary data suggested that this process — known as a trophic cascade — was indeed in effect. Elk numbers were down, grazing patterns were different, tree growth was up, and at least some river channels appeared to recover. A tidy encapsulation of the idea that nature had balance, it had broad appeal: In a viral YouTube video from 2014, British environmentalist George Monbiot breathlessly described these changes over soaring New Age synthesizers and stock footage of an elysian-seeming Yellowstone, calling it “one of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century.”
Yet ecology is rarely simple, and as the mythology surrounding the return of wolves grew, so, too, did skepticism in the literature. Over the past 15 years, a cascade of papers has called into question most of the findings taken for granted in the popular account of Yellowstone’s transformation. Elk browsing might not be reduced in areas with wolves; streams and riparian communities had not returned to their original state; maybe beavers were more fundamentally important to these processes than wolves were. In sum, a 2014 review paper suggested that there are no “simple, precise, or definitive answers” to the question of whether wolves caused a trophic cascade in the park; another evocatively concluded that “(the wolf) is neither saint nor sinner except to those who want to make it so.”
Yellowstone represented a single experiment — one possible outcome among many. In a different corner of the West with more people, or different habitats, or more or fewer elk — in Colorado, for example — would wolves have had the same effect? Last June, a paper in the journal Biological Conservation attempted to answer this question indirectly by aggregating data on species reintroductions and introductions around the world and asking whether their removal or addition caused a reversion to historic conditions. Unsurprisingly, the answer was “it depends”: Restoring predators has unpredictable, complex consequences.
That paper’s lead author, Jesse Alston, was a graduate student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Wyoming. I met him on a bright fall day in Laramie, at a coffee shop in a strip mall on the east side of town. Driving up from Boulder the same morning, I marveled at the abrupt transition in landscape at the border between Colorado and Wyoming: In the span of only a few miles north of Fort Collins, the sprawl of the Front Range fades away, and the High Plains begin rolling up into a sepia-colored saucer from the flatter, hotter agricultural land of eastern Larimer County.
Alston spoke quietly and slowly, in the cautious manner of someone who anticipated a long future working with wildlife and wildlife-related controversies. Though he thought the evidence favored trophic cascades in Yellowstone, he was circumspect about predicting whether wolf reintroduction in Colorado would have the same effect. “(It) really hinges on the idea of there not being adequate predation currently. And there are a lot of hunters in Colorado.” But hunters are a minority of trail users, he added, and recreation of all kinds can influence elk behavior much the way fear of wolves does.
I asked him to elaborate on the role of science in justifying carnivore restoration and whether he thought it might backfire. He paused, thinking, then said: “I think the people who would be most turned off if you don’t see large-scale ecosystem effects are the people who are least inclined to listen to science anyway, so I don’t see that being that big of a deal. But I do think that — as scientists, particularly as good scientists — that we should be sure that our ideas are buttressed by empirical findings.”
Of course, there are empirical findings, and then there are the caveats that always accompany them — the reasons we can’t say for sure what will happen when wolves return. “I think really where the science-policy nexus is most problematic has been when there’s misunderstanding of uncertainty,” Alston continued. “I think it’s good to advocate for causes that we believe in, but we should be pretty straightforward about discussing the uncertainty that comes along with that.”
IF WOLVES ARE NOT an ecological magic bullet, it is not readily apparent in the literature of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which nonetheless aims to “disseminate science-based information” as part of its mission. On its website, a blog post suggests that since wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, “the ecosystem has balanced.” This isn’t wrong, necessarily. But it isn’t correct, either, and the simplification belied a willingness to use science as a political battering ram. I was on board with the group’s mission as a voter, a Coloradan. As a scientist, though, it made me uneasy.
Though the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is itself young — founded at the end of 2018 — its roots go back nearly to the release of wolves in Yellowstone, through its Boulder-based predecessor, Sinapu. In 2008, Sinapu — whose name was taken from the Ute word for wolves — was folded into Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, which also sought to restore large carnivore populations to the Southern Rockies. On an October evening at a brewery in South Boulder, I asked Rob Edward — founder and president of the board of the wolf fund, longtime Sinapu employee and the public face of wolf reintroduction in Colorado for decades — why the group had chosen to emphasize what might be described as the spiritual resonance of the effects of carnivore reintroduction on ecosystems and landscapes.
Edward was eloquent but blunt, a middle-aged man who dressed in a way that suggested he was as comfortable in the rural parts of the state as in Boulder. His wife, Anne Edward, also a longtime wolf advocate, joined us; she was quieter, with gray hair and eyes that lit up whenever wolves were mentioned. They had chosen their language based on polling data, Rob Edward said. “They use that term — ‘restoring the balance of nature.’ Now, is it an oversimplification of a tremendously complicated system? Absolutely. Do I care? Not really.” At the same time, he said, the connection to research and its perceived authority was important. “The public as a whole places a tremendous amount of stock in scientists.”
While it was clear the couple would support reintroduction even if they were the only two people on earth in favor of it, they nonetheless viewed public opinion as validating. A ballot initiative was a necessary last resort, a way to force the state and its slow-moving wildlife officials to comply with the will of the people of Colorado. “We’re not excluding experts, we’re simply telling them, get it done!” Rob Edward said, pounding the table in a gesture that passed unnoticed against the backdrop of his general animation. “Figure it out! Don’t keep machinating about it for another five decades. Get it done!”
As I listened to him, I again found myself deeply conflicted at the prospect of the ballot initiative, and at putting major wildlife management decisions up to a simple vote. On the one hand, I appreciated that it was a creative solution to an intractable political problem, on behalf of a natural system divorced from the political ebb and flow of Denver. On the other, it seemed to set a dangerous precedent. As the history of our complicated relationship with wolves shows, popular opinion can be capricious. Was it really right to pose complex questions — questions at the limit of expert understanding — to a largely naive public?
Laws that translate science to policy can give a voice to a nonhuman world that cannot advocate for itself. Yet in our society, democracy is haunted by the question of whose voices matter. Edward was clear that polling showed clear majorities of Coloradans support wolf reintroduction across the state, including groups that you might expect to oppose it: Rural residents on the Western Slope, hunters and Republicans all support it by a substantial majority. But Colorado is changing, becoming less white, and he was unable to refer me to data broken down along racial and ethnic lines — particularly among historically disadvantaged groups that remain underrepresented at the ballot box.
Nor have the views of Indigenous people — who have the longest history of cultural connection to wolves, and whose lands in Colorado will likely be among the first impacted by a rebounding wolf population — been highlighted in the debate. I was unable to reach wildlife officials with the Southern Ute Tribe by press time, but they are clearly watching the issue closely. In a statement on the initiative, the tribe clarified that it does not have an official position on wolf reintroduction and is “simply evaluating whether (to) support, oppose, or remain neutral on the subject.”
SCIENCE IS VERY GOOD at addressing the how, but often fails when confronted with the should — the biggest questions, which veer into the realm of values. There is no experiment we can conduct to say whether we should proceed with wolf introduction, no data that can tell us if it is the right thing to do. It comes down to how evidence is filtered through our worldview: whether we think of humans as a part of nature or separate from it, and whether we think changes in grazing habits and water channels — and the presence of wolves themselves — add up to a fundamental good worth fighting for.
But, like conservationists, scientists often shy away from such moral judgments, and for valid reasons: the fear of being perceived as not impartial, thereby undercutting the authority of their research; a sense of obligation to the politically diverse taxpayers who fund their work; an acute awareness of the limitations of their data, statistics and the scientific method itself. In the public sphere, however, this feigned objectivity can have the negative consequence of suggesting there are scientific solutions to philosophical questions.
That wolf reintroduction advocates lean on science rather than those weightier themes is understandable. Yet arguing that having wolves in Colorado is an intrinsic good — because they represent what we want Colorado to become, not because they will have a net benefit on aspen growth or stream hydrology — would be more honest, and might win people over in unexpected ways.
Back at the brewery in suburban Boulder, Rob Edward vacillated between polished language justifying reintroduction in scientific terms and moments of raw emotion: “They have wolves on the Gaza Strip. They have wolves in Italy. They have wolves in Northern-freaking-California. Why can’t we have wolves here?”
IF THE BALLOT INITIATIVE passes this November, a three-year planning process begins, followed by what Anne Edward described as “paws on the ground” — the release of the first few wolves — in 2023, almost certainly in the San Juan Mountains. Advocates anticipate that this process will be difficult, and they are prepared for a fight.
A successful reintroduction would be a remarkable accomplishment, given the fraught history of wolves in Colorado, as well as a landmark event in the gradual return of large carnivores to the 21st century West. It would also be a remarkable reflection of the blurring lines between science, belief and politics in the 21st century. As political gridlock becomes a feature of daily life, and environmental degradation — the cancerous rot of the Anthropocene — metastasizes, the impulse to circumvent collapsing institutions in response to crises is likely to become more common. In these circumstances, what role should scientists and science play? How much should uncertainty prevent action, and how much should empiricism determine our value system?
There are no easy answers here. If the basic question of whether or not to reintroduce wolves to Colorado is largely beyond the purview of science, then perhaps putting it to a vote is the most responsible option. The messiness of democracy can be terrifying. Still, there may not be a better way. After all, the language of values has been a part of the modern conservation movement since its birth — the Endangered Species Act of 1973, for example, states that endangered species provide “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation.”
Toward the end of my conversation with the Edwards, thinking of their many years of advocacy and of the curious arc of history, I asked them what it was like to see an end in sight. “Do you allow yourselves to get a little carried with the fantasy of it?” I asked. “Things are in your favor — have you started imagining ‘paws on the ground’?”
Both were quiet for a moment, and the noise of the bar washed over us. “I’ve been working on this for 25 years,” Rob said, his voice breaking into a sob as Anne reached out and gripped his arm. “I certainly do.”
Ethan Linck has previously written about recreation and conservation for High Country News, and about science and nature for Los Angeles Review of Books, Undark and Slate. He is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico, where he studies evolution and genetics in birds. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A member of the public spotted the wolves on Tuesday, March 3, providing a credible sighting report of seven wolves. District wildlife managers were able to investigate and visually verify six wolves in the reported area on Wednesday, March 4. The location of this sighting was several miles south of the January sighting location. Over the past few weeks, wildlife managers have heard from area residents about howling, carcasses, and tracks but actual sightings remain rare. Wolves travel over large distances, especially when establishing new home ranges, so the movement and new sightings are not surprising.
As a federally endangered species, wolves in Colorado remain under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Colorado Parks and Wildlife works closely with federal partners to monitor wolf presence in Colorado. The wolves migrating into Colorado are likely from larger populations in Wyoming, but could be from populations in Idaho and Montana.
CPW reminds members of the public that killing a wolf in Colorado can result in federal charges, including a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, per offense. Instead, the agency requests that the public give wolves space, and report any sightings to CPW as soon as possible. For more information, visit the CPW website.
Since Colorado’s last wild wolves were killed in the 1930s, a few lone animals have been spotted in the state. So, when a pack was spotted in northwest Colorado — several months before Colorado voters decide whether they’ll support a bill to reintroduce gray wolves to the state — it wasn’t a total surprise to Carbondale ecologist Delia Malone.
“It does give life to the idea that Colorado has ample suitable habitat for wolves,” said Malone, a member of the science advisory team for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which hopes to reestablish a sustainable population of wolves in Colorado.
Malone and Colorado wildlife officials agree that the rural northwest corner of the state is well-suited for wolves. CPW isn’t releasing the pack’s exact location, but agency spokesperson Lauren Truitt says there is plenty of prey and room to roam.
“With Colorado not having any wolf presence, there’s not a whole lot of competition for them, so it’s very likely that they’ll hang around,” Truitt said.
CPW biologists used DNA testing on four scat samples, which revealed there are at least three females and one male in the pack, and those wolves are all closely related, probably as full siblings.
“That does not mean there’s a sustainable population of wolves in Colorado,” Malone said. “A sustainable, recovered population is a population that is ecologically effective in their role to restore natural balance; they’re well-distributed throughout Colorado; they’re well-connected. And six little wolves is not that.”
Malone says her work as an ecologist gives her a clear view that Colorado needs wolves.
“Our ecosystems are not in great shape,” Malone said.
The combination of a warming climate and lack of predators has reduced the resilience of Colorado’s aspen forests and other habitats. Malone said the presence of wolves has tremendous benefits, including improving water availability in the driest months of the year.
“They (wolves) move the elk so that they don’t overgraze, so that there’s willow left for the beavers to build their dams, to store their water, to supply streamflows in the late-summer season,” Malone said.
Malone and others point to the ecological benefits seen after wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park as a model. The National Park Service says that without pressure from predators such as wolves, the elk population grew far beyond what was sustainable. The number of elk has since reached healthier levels.
While a pack sighting indicates the possibility of wolves returning to western Colorado on their own, there are also two potential paths to reintroduction.
In November, voters will decide on Initiative 107, which would require CPW to create a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves by the end of 2023. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project has been working for years on a plan that would fully restore wolves to Colorado.
“Vast areas that are rugged and remote without humans are the ideal reintroduction sites,” Malone said.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project identified several potential reintroduction sites, including the Flat Tops Wilderness north of Glenwood Springs; Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests; Weminuche Wilderness in San Juan National Forest; and Carson National Forest.
Gray wolves are currently listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, which gives management authority to the federal government. Last year, the federal government petitioned to remove those protections and declare wolves recovered. That would mean that CPW would be in charge of management.
If Initiative 107 passes and gray wolves remain listed under the ESA and, therefore, under federal management, Truitt says the next steps are unclear.
“The ballot initiative instructs the Commission to develop and implement a plan for reintroduction, but is silent as to what CPW is supposed to do if it has no authority to reintroduce or manage wolves,” she wrote in an email.
There is strong support across the state for wolf reintroduction. In an online survey conducted by Colorado State University professor Rebecca Niemiec, 84% of respondents intended to vote for wolf reintroduction.
Herd instinct and ranching changes
Jose Miranda raises water buffaloes, mostly for dairy, in Old Snowmass. He says it would be silly to think that wolves won’t change his operations, but he still plans to vote for reintroduction.
“My position is that morally, it’s the right thing to do,” Miranda said. “On the verge of so many species that are facing extinction, if we can do something to help some of them, we just have to.”
Miranda acknowledges that wolves would mean major changes for many ranchers, particularly those whose use permits to graze cattle on U.S. Forest Service land. Those permit areas tend to be large, with animals spread out across the landscape rather than gathered in herds.
Longtime Carbondale ranchers Bill Fales and Marj Perry use a Forest Service permit to graze up to 900 head of cattle each year in the summer and fall.
Perry has been researching ranchers’ experiences across the West, and she worries that wolf predation would be particularly severe during two times of the year: calving season, when wolves tend to hang out lower in the valleys and there are an abundance of calves available; and early fall, when wolf pups are learning to hunt.
“It’s a lot easier to learn to hunt a calf than a deer or elk,” Perry said, adding that their cattle are spread out on Forest Service lands during that time of year.
Researchers and ranchers have identified ways to minimize the loss of cattle to wolves and other predators. Matt Barnes, a rangeland and wildlife conservationist and a former rancher, says ranchers who use strategic grazing — a process in which cattle are moved from one pasture to another and work is done to encourage herd behavior — lose very few animals to predators.
“If they bunch up and stand their ground, the vast majority of the time, they all survive,” Barnes said. “A lone prey animal out there is kinda easy pickings.”
Wolves hunt by forcing their prey to run and attacking from the sides. That’s how they are able to kill animals that are four times their weight. But researchers think wolves are only successful about 15% of the time, and much of their success depends on how the prey behave — namely, if they gather in a herd.
“There is something magic about that herd effect,” Barnes said. “It’s prey animals’ primary anti-predator behavior.”
Cattle — indeed, all kinds of prey — can move the weakest members of the herd to the middle, and defend themselves using their hooves.
Miranda, who raises water buffaloes, thinks his animals stand a pretty good chance against wolves because of their herding behavior.
“I know that the water buffaloes that I have are probably going to have a better instinct protecting themselves and the younger animals as far as protecting themselves against a pack of wolves,” Miranda said.
But Perry and Fales say the landscape where their cattle graze make herding up very difficult. There aren’t many open fields on the Forest Service land where their permit is, and there’s also limited access to water.
“We try to not have the cattle in a big bunch in order not to hammer the riparian areas,” Perry said. “Our whole strategy has been to keep cattle strung out. And so far, it seems like it’ll be really hard to remedy that.”
Wolf advocates also say range riders can help minimize losses; a rider who is out with the cattle daily can watch for injured or weakened cows or calves that might become targets and keep an eye out for wolves. But Fales doesn’t think that would work, either, especially with the challenges of finding reliable labor.
“We do a lot of range riding. There’s never a day when there’s not someone out there,” he said. “But it would be totally insufficient to manage for wolves.”
The management strategy that Perry and Fales think would work in their situation is one that currently isn’t an option in Colorado: killing the problem wolves that prey on cattle.
“The only thing I would really advocate for would be lethal control,” Perry said. “You can’t have wolves without forevermore killing them.”
Killing wolves is illegal in Colorado because the species has federal protection under the ESA, but the future of that status is uncertain. Some ranchers, including Miranda, are hopeful that reintroduction would mean a larger voice in how wolves are managed than if the animals return to the state on their own.
“Some of these programs are very progressive,” Miranda said. “As long as there’s that kind of help and communication, that’s very fortunate.”
In fact, the CSU survey found that nearly 80% of people who identify as ranchers intend to vote for reintroduction. The online survey asked respondents a series of questions about how officials could manage wolves — including lethal control and compensation for ranchers for lost livestock — before asking whether people support the ballot initiative.
The initiative does not include any promise of lethal control, and management depends on a series of questions — namely, if wolves are removed from protections under the ESA. Even then, Barnes said control measures need to be carefully executed.
“For lethal control to make sense, it’s got to be targeted to the specific individuals that are involved in the conflict,” Barnes said. “Preemptive lethal control does not work.”
Also, he said, the number of cattle and sheep actually killed by wolves in states such as Montana and Wyoming is surprisingly low.
The numbers are similar in Wyoming, where wolves are considered “predatory animals” in most of the state, meaning they can be killed at will. In 2018, wolves were confirmed to have killed 71 head of livestock: 55 cattle, 15 sheep and 1 horse.
Wolves do kill livestock but not in big numbers.
“The rhetoric, the exaggeration, the myth is our biggest challenge,” Malone said. She said wolf advocates have work to do to assure ranchers that wolves won’t devastate their livelihood.
“We need to do work with the ranching community to be sure that they are whole and that they’re fairly treated,” Malone said. “But we can do that. We have good examples of it.”
Initiative 107 includes direction for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan to compensate
for livestock lost to wolves. Similar plans exist in other Western states, including Montana, where the state paid $82,959 to 40 livestock owners.
Funding for such a program in Colorado would come from an existing wildlife cash fund, and Malone says the goal is for public input to help shape policy on how to fairly compensate ranchers for their losses.
Still, Fales and Perry worry that wolves in Colorado would mean a significant economic hit — and an emotional one, too.
“There’s an emotional attachment (to the cattle), even though you’re selling them for a beef animal. You’re taking care of them, we’re with them just night and day when they’re calving,” Perry said. “And to go out and find them just shredded and eaten up is not something I would ever vote for.”
If Initiative 107 passes, Perry says she might quit. And her husband, Fales, thinks others might follow suit.
“I think a lot of people will quit, and certainly in this part of Colorado, there are a zillion developers ready to help you quit,” he said.
Coexistence amid conflict
Historically, conflicts between ranchers and wolves have not ended well for the predators.
“Because of their depredations of domestic animals, wolves in Colorado were systematically eradicated by shooting, trapping and poisoning,” reads the CPW informational website on wolves.
In recent years, CPW officials say there have been no reports or evidence of people killing wolves in the state, except for a widely publicized incident in 2015 where a hunter shot a wolf that he said he thought was a coyote.
While wolf advocates point to the ecological benefits of restoring wolves to their historic range, the social implications might be harder to pin down. Perry says she understands why people might be attracted to the idea of wolves, but she believes the implications on the ranching industry will be far-reaching.
“There could be unintended consequences (of wolf reintroduction),” Perry said. “Loss of ranchland, which means more fragmentation, more housing development, more decline for all animals, prey and predator.”
Barnes, who has experience in both wildlife conservation and raising livestock, says part of having domestic animals is the risk of predators.
“Very little in nature gets to live out its life without the risk of getting eaten,” Barnes said. “Coexistence is possible, but it’s probably not peaceful.”
River district Director Andy Mueller presented the commission with the possibility of asking taxpayers to double the existing mill levy for Garfield and 14 other counties. Currently, the River district levies about a quarter mill on properties, which has been enough since about 1992.
Under the 2019 assessment rate, the river district’s current quarter-mill levy comes out to $1.79 on a $100,000 home. If increased, the half-mill would cost the same home $3.58 in property taxes.
But with cost increases, decreasing revenues from oil and gas development, and several crises looming over the Western Slope’s water, the current tax is simply not enough, Mueller said…
Mueller said the river district has cut costs in recent years, but sustaining current operations requires an increase.
And the district wants to support important projects that are currently unfunded, like identifying and developing small high-mountain reservoirs.
Those reservoirs could play a role in keeping streams flowing, and supplementing water for agriculture and municipalities “during times of severe hot, dry summers that we’re having more and more of,” Mueller said.
“We can’t do it with the current revenue stream,” he added, which is why he again asked the district’s board to look into placing the tax increase on the November 2020 ballot.
The Garfield County commissioners expressed support for the mill levy ballot language…
If the river district’s board approves the ballot language, and voters approve the property tax in November, it would bring in an additional $4.9 million to the district.
Mueller suggests using most of that for the special water projects. One example is the Windy Gap bypass, which would reconstruct a channel around the reservoir to preserve fish habitats and river flows.
The river district’s mission is “to make sure we have water for all of our industries and economic activity, everything from recreation to agriculture,” Mueller said, but that’s impossible without sufficient funding.
Bruce Westerman, a Republican congressman from Arkansas, has a plan to help save the planet — one he thinks may also help save his party.
His proposal, which calls for planting a trillion trees to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, was warmly received last month when House Republicans gathered to discuss their policy agenda heading into the 2020 elections.
After years of denying that the planet was growing hotter because of human activity, an increasing number of Republicans say they need to acknowledge the problem and offer solutions if they have any hope of retaking the House.
In poll after poll, large numbers of young and suburban Republican voters are registering their desire for climate action and say the issue is a priority. And their concern about climate change is spreading to older GOP supporters, too.
Almost 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said that human activity is causing the climate to change, according to a poll last summer by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Republicans “can’t win the majority back [in the House] without winning suburban districts, and you can’t win suburban districts with a retro position on climate change,” said former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, a Republican who is pushing his party to craft a climate plan…
The GOP is still hammering out details, but some critics say the new Republican approach to climate change looks a lot like the old one. In addition to trees, senior Republicans are said to be considering tax breaks for research, curbs on plastic waste and big federally funded infrastructure projects in the name of adaptation or resilience…
The already well-worn buzzword “innovation” will be their rallying cry, and natural gas, despite its carbon emissions, will be embraced…
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told the news outlet Axios that a new set of policies would expand an existing tax credit to encourage carbon capture and storage, sharply increase research-and-development funding for “clean energy” technology, curb plastic pollution, and plant a whole lot of trees. Graves in an interview also said that U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas would be better for the climate than natural gas from Russia…
What’s missing? There are no taxes or tax revenue. There are no regulatory standards to boost automotive fuel efficiency or contain methane emissions. And there are no limits on fossil fuels. [ed. emphasis mine]
Moreover, Republicans have no taste for a proposal that leading economists say is the fastest, most powerful way to cut carbon emissions — a $40-per-ton carbon tax on polluters, promoted by George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and James A. Baker, Reagan’s treasury secretary and secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. Money raised by the tax would be returned to taxpayers in the form of dividends…
Younger voters’ concerns
As difficult as it may be to change the positions of GOP lawmakers, Trump makes matters even more complicated. Moments after rhapsodizing about trees at Davos, the president took aim at climate activists, calling them “perennial prophets of doom” and “the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortunetellers.”
Earlier, in response to efforts to ban plastic straws that end up in the ocean, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a super PAC, sold packs of 10 red plastic straws emblazoned with Trump’s name and said that “liberal paper straws don’t work.”
It is unclear whether Trump will refer to the changing climate in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, with the possible exception of the trillion-trees commitment, which echoes Bush’s unrealized 1990 proposal to plant 1 billion trees a year for a decade.
Among voters who approve of Trump’s overall job performance, his approval ratings on climate change — 73 percent — were the lowest out of six questions the Post-Kaiser poll asked his supporters. And 23 percent of all Republicans disapprove of his handling of the climate issue, substantially higher than the 9 percent of Republicans who disapprove of his job performance overall.
“You see among younger voters a higher concern,” said David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster who has been researching attitudes toward climate change. “Does it meet the levels of the economy and health care? No. But you are seeing it move up as a level of concern.”
Much of the impetus for a new Republican posture on climate change has come from McCarthy and Graves.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last year, Graves told McCarthy the party needed to change its position on climate change or risk being left behind by its voters and awash in a worsening series of floods and fires.
“My conversation with McCarthy was about hey, number one, I think the science is pretty good here and I don’t think the path forward has to be a hard right or a hard left turn,” said Graves, the ranking Republican on the climate committee.
McCarthy was receptive. In October, he told the Washington Examiner that the GOP would introduce several free-market-based bills in response to the Green New Deal, a sweeping set of policy proposals backed by some Democrats that would aim to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero over 10 years.
Before he ran for Congress, Graves worked as a congressional aide, then returned to Louisiana to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) put him in charge of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, where he learned about permanent changes to the coastline. In 2014, he won his first race for Congress.
Graves is no liberal. He has received a 3 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, based partly on his opposition to requirements that natural-gas producers control methane releases and his support for logging Alaskan national forests.
“I think that some climate advocates have made a fundamental error in identifying fossil fuels as the enemy as opposed to emissions,” Graves said.
Louisiana ranks as the nation’s third-largest producer of natural gas, and the biggest campaign contributions to Graves in the current electoral cycle come from the oil, gas and utility industries. His four biggest contributors are the ClearPath Foundation, which promotes nuclear energy, hydropower and increased energy research; Entergy, a New Orleans-based utility; Marathon Petroleum, a refiner; and NextEra Energy, a big Florida-based utility that relies heavily on wind, natural gas, nuclear and solar. Over Graves’s career, Koch Industries has also been a major contributor.
Graves and other Republicans paint a bright line between their approach to climate change and Democrats’. They have sharply attacked the Green New Deal…
Graves also opposes taking some measures when other countries are not acting in similar ways. “If you were to implement the Green New Deal, you would be playing into the hands of China,” he said.
Instead, Graves said, Congress ought to promote U.S. technology, which is “all about U.S. competitiveness.” And spending on resilience to prevent costlier climate damage is “an awesome conservative fiscal argument,” he said.
In the Senate, some lawmakers are seeking common ground, led by Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “There have been a lot of Republicans in the closet on climate,” Braun, a freshman senator, told The Post in December. Coons and Braun each recruited three colleagues to their Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has also managed to work with Republicans on specific parts of a climate policy. He joined with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a longtime climate denier, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who also represents a fossil-fuel-intensive state, to pass legislation that gives tax credits to companies that capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it.
Risky territory for GOP
Still, some Republicans have paid a political price for urging action on climate change. Consider the swift downfall of California state legislator Chad Mayes. In July 2017, Mayes, then the State Assembly’s Republican leader, joined Democrats in supporting a climate-change program called cap-and-trade.
“We lower taxes, we reduce costs, we reduce regulations, and at the same time we’re going to protect our environment,” Mayes said at a news conference. “I know for some they’re going to look at this and say: What in the world is going on? Why are Republicans talking about something like cap-and-trade? Well I’ll tell you. We believe that markets are better than Soviet-style command and control. We believe that markets are better than government coercing people into doing things that they don’t want to do. We believe that businesses in California want to do the right thing.”
A month later, Republican activists in the assembly’s 25-member caucus stripped Mayes of his leadership position.
He went on to form a group called “New Way California,” but that, too, was attacked. Two months ago, Mayes quit the Republican Party and filed to run as an independent.
Inglis, the former congressman from South Carolina, has followed a similar path. “For my first six years in Congress, I just said that climate change was nonsense,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was in favor of it.”
After going back to private life, Inglis decided to run again for Congress. His son insisted that he wise up on climate change.
Then Inglis went on a congressional trip to Antarctica and looked at bore samples of polar ice. “It is an amazing record of the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said. That convinced him that human activity since the Industrial Revolution was warming the planet.
Back in Washington, in 2009 he proposed a bill that would have imposed a carbon tax, adjusted the prices of imports from countries such as China and India that did not have such a tax, and return the revenue to taxpayers by cutting payroll taxes.
It was poorly timed during the Great Recession, he recalled. And unpopular.
He lost the Republican primary to Trey Gowdy by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent…
After Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, Republicans solidified their opposition to his entire agenda, including any climate plan.
“My party was against everything Obama was for,” Inglis said.
It took nearly a decade for any shift. On Feb. 12, 2018, Joseph Majkut, climate policy director at the libertarian Niskanen Center, became the first Republican witness before the House Science Committee in nearly 10 years to talk about tackling climate change, according to Inglis.
The former congressman is now traveling the country trying to change Republican minds about climate policy…
Democrats and middle-of-the-road politicians are wary about the GOP’s recent climate buzz.
“I think they’re caught on the politics,” said Ben Finzel, president of a public relations firm, RenewPR, and a former Hill staffer. “The challenge is they want to get stuff done but also want to beat up the Dems.”
Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he thinks there is meaningful change underway.
“The fact that Leader McCarthy is publicizing his intention to put out a Republican climate solution matters a lot,” Grumet said. “The details will be embraced and ridiculed like every other climate plan. But that gives tremendous license for the Republican Party to get in the game.”
The directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District are revisiting a recommendation to ask voters to restore part of the district’s original mill levy.
River District General Manager Andy Mueller recommended at the district’s quarterly board meeting this week asking voters in the November 2020 election to raise the district’s property tax rate from a quarter-mill to a half-mill, taking its budget from roughly $4 million to $8 million.
That works out to 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
According to a memo from Mueller, the River District has taken steps over the last year to reduce expenses — which have climbed at a rate of 3% per year — such as putting a grant program on hold, instituting an early retirement program to reduce the number of full time employees and reducing its fleet of vehicles by two. These efforts, however, are not a long-term fix to what Mueller called a structural deficit.
Mueller’s recommendation seeks to remedy a dwindling general fund caused by the bane of many Colorado taxing districts: the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and Gallagher Amendment, which restrain the growth of government by placing limits on the amount of taxes allowed to be collected. The River District gets 97% of its revenue from property taxes.
“It’s not with lack of thought that I’m recommending this board consider asking the voters, appropriately under TABOR, to support a tax increase,” Mueller told River District directors. “We want to see that money going to partners on the West Slope and projects that span the scope of our water improvement needs.”
Some directors said they supported the measure, which was first publicly discussed at a February 2019 meeting.
“I think it’s obvious this is a necessary step forward,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, who represents Summit County.
Others agreed about the need to increase the River District’s revenue but expressed doubt a tax measure could pass in western Colorado’s more conservative counties, such as Mesa, Montrose and Delta, especially in a presidential election year with high turnout.
“I think we face a really difficult battle,” said Tom Alvey, who represents Delta County. “There are a number of tax-averse areas on the Western Slope.”
The River District was created by the state Legislature in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in 15 Western Slope counties, including Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle. County commissioners appoint its directors to three-year terms. The Glenwood Springs-based organization works to shape Colorado water policy and advocates for keeping water on the Western Slope.
Even though the River District plays an important role in Colorado water planning, its financial might has lagged behind its political clout. A revenue increase would help remedy that, Mueller said.
“What we are trying to do is respond to the public’s concerns about (a secure water future) and be the leader at the table and not just with our skilled staff and political influence, but also with money,” he said.
But before the tax money can start rolling in, voters have to know what the River District is and what it does. To that end, staff has undertaken a rebranding of the River District to help voters connect what it does with its name. Staff has stepped up efforts with social media, a newsletter and video featuring Mueller and West Slope water users, and is also planning a series of webinars and workshops around the 15 counties.
“We are trying to help people realize there is an agency charged with protecting two-thirds of the West Slope and assist in the long-range planning for water supply and helping them realize while we may not touch their daily lives, how important that work is,” Mueller said.
In addition to Mueller, the River District employs attorneys, engineers, hydrologists, legislative lobbyists and communications specialists to protect the West Slope’s water interests.
Directors did not make a decision at this week’s meeting on whether to put the tax question on this year’s ballot. Instead, they agreed to continue to research the issue and discuss it with their constituents.
“I would need some time before I say yay or nay,” said Steve Acquafresca, who represents Mesa County. “I need some time to talk to people and consider the issue.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Jan. 24 edition of the Post-Independent, The Aspen Times and The Vail Daily.
From Conservation Colorado (Garrett Garner-Wells):
New polling released today highlighted climate change as the top issue in Colorado’s upcoming presidential primary, 10 points higher than health care and 15 points higher than preventing gun violence.
The survey of likely Democratic presidential primary voters conducted by Global Strategies Group found that nearly all likely primary voters think climate change is already impacting or will impact their families (91%), view climate change as a very serious problem or a crisis (84%), and want to see their leaders take action within the next year (85%). And by a nearly three-to-one margin, likely primary voters prefer a candidate with a plan to take action on climate change starting on Day One of their term over a candidate who has not pledged to act starting on Day One (74% – 26%).
Additionally, the survey found that among likely primary voters:
85% would be more likely to support a candidate who will move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy;
95% would be more likely to support a candidate who will combat climate change by protecting and restoring forests; and,
76% would be more likely to support a candidate who will phase out extraction of oil, gas, and goal on public lands by 2030.
These responses are unsurprising given that respondents believed that a plan to move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean energy economy will have a positive impact on future generations of their family (81%), the quality of the air we breathe (93%), and the health of families like theirs (88%).
Finally, likely primary voters heard a description of Colorado’s climate action plan to reduce pollution and the state’s next steps to achieve reductions of at least 50 percent by 2030 and at least 90 percent by 2050. Based on that statement, 91% of respondents agreed that the Air Quality Control Commission should take timely action to create rules that guarantee that the state will meet its carbon reduction targets.
Just as new research shows that aspen forests are a fountain of biodiversity, Aspen’s namesake trees in the Roaring Fork River watershed are battling warming temperatures, drier conditions, climate disruption, and unchecked herds of deer and elk. Although local aspen forests are currently faring OK, they face serious challenges.
There are a few small aspen groves in Pitkin County’s Sky Mountain Park, tucked in valleys where there’s more moisture than what the surrounding oak brush needs— and Elise Osenga, a researcher at the Aspen Global Change Institute, keeps a close eye on these groves. Osenga leads a program that monitors soil moisture as part of efforts to better understand climate conditions in the Roaring Fork River watershed. Two of the monitoring stations — one at Sky Mountain and the other at North Star Nature Preserve — are in aspen groves.
“We are interested in seeing,” Osenga said, “if soils are consistently drier over time, are the aspen able to survive?”
There is not yet a long history of local soil conditions, but Osenga recently completed an assessment of the health of aspens near the two research stations.
“The good news of what we found is we didn’t actually find many dead trees at this point,” she said. But Osenga noted that aspens can die off in sustained droughts or even after just one or two really dry years. Additionally, as temperatures rise with a changing climate, the rain that does fall evaporates more quickly, further drying out soils.
Aspens thrive on disruption
Other local experts have found that there are local aspen groves that are struggling.
“It’s really those south-facing, dry slopes where the aspen decline is pretty evident,” said Adam McCurdy, forest programs director at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
But overall, the local forests are faring pretty well, McCurdy said. In fact, aspens thrive on disruptions.
Dry conditions can mean increased risk of wildfire and bark-beetle infestations in evergreens, which thin forests and create openings for aspens to reproduce.
In the mountains around Aspen, avalanches have cleared paths for aspen trees to peek through evergreen forests, creating landscape-level diversity that benefits the local ecosystem.
“This really serves to break up the large stretches of what would otherwise be just spruce-fir forests and makes our forests more resilient to beetles and fire and all sorts of other disturbance,” McCurdy said.
Sunlight and moisture bring diverse life
Young aspens are already taking root in the paths cleared by last spring’s historic avalanche cycle — and creating space for all kinds of forest life.
Quaking aspen leaves let sunlight through the canopy, and the deep, rich soils under aspen communities hold more moisture than those in conifer forests. Such a combination of moisture and sunlight is the magic ticket for diverse life.
“Under aspen communities, there might be up to a hundred different plant species, and then some people have made tabulations of 50, 60 or more animals using aspen on a daily basis,” said Paul Rogers, director of Western Aspen Alliance, which coordinates research and management of aspen ecosystems across western North America.
Research shows biodiversity benefits of aspen forests
Rogers co-authored a recent review of aspen research that contends that conservation of aspen ecosystems can benefit global biodiversity. Rogers and more than a dozen fellow researchers argue for a “mega-conservation” strategy: By sustaining the keystone aspen forests, a wide range of species would also be protected.
But, in addition to drier soils, aspen forests across the world are under stress from human activities such as mining, logging and urban development — as well as from some of the very wildlife they help support. Young trees are particularly nutritious and attractive to elk and deer, and herds sometimes stay in one spot for days, eating all the new shoots.
This results in an aging forest, and when the old trees start to die off, “you have a real problem,” Rogers said. “And so, if you combine that with drought, which is happening throughout Colorado, throughout the Western states, that is the biggest threat to aspen ecosystems.”
Reintroducing predators, such as wolves, could help — especially because when predators are in the area, herbivores can’t stay in one place long enough to overeat young trees, Rogers said. The reintroduction of wolves in Colorado is a contentious issue that is likely to be on the ballot in the fall of 2020.
Rogers also noted that Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers have increased the targeted size of elk herds over decades. The population goal for the Avalanche Creek elk herd, for example, increased from 3,300 in 1988 to a range of 3,600-5,400 in 2013.
“We’ve taken away predators, for the most part, that are going to keep those populations in check, but we’ve also managed those big herbivore populations for economics, quite frankly,” Rogers said. “Every state sells hunting licenses, and so to keep those revenues up, they keep those populations high. And those high populations have an impact on ecosystems.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment. A version of this story aired on APR on Dec. 27 and this story ran in the Dec. 29 edition of The Aspen Times.
Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) board member Bill Trampe spoke to the county commissioners this past fall on behalf of the neighboring river district. Kathleen Curry, the chairman of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, also spoke with commissioners during that meeting.
Trampe reported that the transfer of ownership of Wolford Mountain reservoir near Kremmling in Grand County occurs on January 1, 2020. “So at that point in time Denver Water gets 40 percent of the ownership,” he said.
Trampe said demand management and drought contingency planning is always front and center for the board, and said the board is frustrated with the state process moving forward and its slowness putting the nine working groups involved in the state water planning process (Colorado’s Water Plan) to work…
Trampe described issues relating to water resource demand management, with “interests” on the Western Slope trying to make deals with Front Range entities.
Trampe said the district felt that individual groups making those deals could lead to a lot more “working the market and eventual condemnation rather than purchase—meaning condemnation by force rather than a deal between parties. If condemnation starts, I think that’s going to ruin everything.”
The solution, he said, is to work together with Western Slope entities and keep a strong base in the river district to negotiate more collectively. “If there’s one pot of money under state control to pay for demand management, then that’s the way it ought to be. There shouldn’t be individual groups out there doing their own thing.”
County commissioner John Messner asked if there’s been discussion among river districts about a de-Gallagherizing measure to open up current tax funding constraints. De-Gallagherizing refers to ballot measures that freeze the residential property tax rate as a way to stabilize budgets of rural governments.
Messner asked if the CRWCD has an opinion on whether a measure will address special districts such as this one.
“We considered a ballot issue for this fall, but didn’t think we were ready,” replied Trampe. He said the reason to wait was to start more outreach to the public in terms of what the districts are and what they do beforehand. He said the districts are hoping to do this in 2020.
“Whether it’s de-Gallagherization, or TABOR issues, we’re still trying to decide. But yes, we’re going to do something. We’ve got to do something,” he said.
Looking to support a water survey on the Crystal River basin
Commissioner Jonathan Houck reported that during a fall Gunnison Basin Roundtable meeting, members discussed the Upper Crystal River watershed at length.
That watershed has an application in with the state to conduct a water study, because the 2018 drought demonstrated that several subdivisions in that basin, some of which are in Gunnison County, had no water plan or storage without the Crystal River’s regular flow.
The Water Supply Reserve Fund (WSRF) is managing that application, and the Gunnison Roundtable considered and ultimately decided on drafting a letter of support…
Curry noted that a project in a different river basin asking an adjacent roundtable to write a letter is “a little out of the ordinary. So that threw our roundtable a little bit, wondering if that was even the right role. But I put it on our agenda since, if it involved looking at storage feasibility near Marble, in Gunnison County, I thought [commissioners] might be interested in that,” said Curry.
Houck responded that the county should send a message as well. “We want to see good, thoughtful water planning per all residents within the county. Due to the size and geography of our county we actually span two watersheds. And it’s important for us to advocate for that but understand that the funding needs to come from the appropriate basin,” he said…
Last, Curry said that the roundtable is preparing to submit a Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) in contribution to Colorado’s Water Plan, and that will include an updated project list. “This is our opportunity to change our project list,” she suggested, with additions or deletions as appropriate. The roundtable formed a subcommittee to begin the process, and its first meeting was this fall.
Here’s a guest column from Charles E. Schumer and Sheldon Whitehouse that’s running in The Boston Globe:
Pro-climate companies, shareholders, and board members should demand that business associations stop blocking climate action and instead support real action in Congress to address climate change.
The earth is spinning toward climate catastrophe. The international community has about a decade to take the steps necessary to avoid breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius safety zone that the scientific community has established. It will take American leadership to achieve that goal, which means not only bold action in Congress, but meaningful leadership from the president, our allies around the globe, and leadership from powerful forces like major corporations.
Unfortunately, much of corporate America so far failed to step up and sufficiently support policies that would begin to address the existential threat of climate change. Many individual corporations, perhaps out of conviction, perhaps out of the desire to keep and win over new customers, profess to be on the side of fighting climate change. But in an act of rank hypocrisy, they turn around and support business associations, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, which have been relentless adversaries of climate action.
Take the Chamber. The US Chamber is not the local chamber of commerce sponsoring your main street businesses. It runs a massive influence machine on behalf of big corporations, touching every part of the federal government.
In federal agencies, the Chamber is an 800-pound gorilla in virtually every room where climate policy comes up. It lobbies agency officials, files regulatory comments by the dozen, and deploys its public relations machine whenever regulators turn to matters affecting the fossil fuel industry.
In courts, the Chamber is in a league of its own. During a three-year period late in the Obama administration, the Chamber filed friend-of-the-court briefs in 476 cases and was a litigant in another 25. Environmental issues were its third most litigated subject, and its position always aligns with polluters.
In Congress, the Chamber is the largest lobbyist, spending roughly three times more than the next biggest group. Energy and environmental issues are a big part of that lobbying effort. Every year, the Chamber sends out dozens of letters and key vote alerts telling members which way it expects them to vote. Those letters and alerts inevitably support fossil fuel and oppose reducing emissions.
The Chamber aggressively attacks climate action with the last piece of its machine: election spending. The Chamber has spent almost $150 million on congressional races since the Citizens United decision of 2010. In most congressional election cycles, it is the biggest dark-money spender. The Chamber is known for having sharp political elbows. Cross them and you risk triggering an ad against you — like the one run against a US Senate candidate in Pennsylvania in 2016 suggesting her climate position was akin to stealing youthful energy from American children.
Some Chamber members who say they support climate action may well be funding the efforts to oppose climate action in Washington through the Chamber and other groups. This doubletalk needs to end.
To fight back, companies that care about climate ought to demand full disclosure of who funds climate obstruction at the Chamber, as well as at API and other big lobbying and influence groups. Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is . . . the best of disinfectants.” Send sunbeams into the dark-money corners where climate denial and obstruction fester.
Better yet, these “pro-climate” companies should demand that those organizations stop blocking climate action and instead support real action in Congress to address climate change. Corporate shareholders ought to know whether their company funds groups that block climate legislation. And corporations who are board members of these denial and obstruction groups have their own governance obligations to know if they’re throwing good money after bad, allowing their goals to be diluted by the influence of the fossil fuel industry.
The stakes are high: There are massive economic risks flowing from climate change. Don’t take our word for it; listen to the Bank of England, Freddie Mac, Nobel Prize laureate economists, and hundreds of our own government’s most knowledgeable experts.
Corporate America can still choose which side of the climate fight to be on. But the clock is running out.
US Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat from New York, is the Senate minority leader. US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island.
No corner of the globe is spared from the impacts of climate change, including the Southwest and Colorado River Basin.
Join us for Episode 22 of We Are Rivers, Climate Change Part 2: Climate Change is Water Change, where we build upon our knowledge of climate change science to explore changes affecting the already parched American Southwest.
2019 was a wild weather year around the globe with temperatures breaking records and extreme weather events like hurricanes, massive flooding and wildfires impacting communities, people, and ecosystems. No corner of the globe was spared from its impacts, including the Southwest and Colorado River Basin. Join us for Episode 22 of We Are Rivers, which builds on our understanding of the science behind climate change.
The Upper Colorado River Basin had record precipitation during the 2018 – 2019 winter, it was the second highest amount of precipitation recorded since 1900. At the annual Colorado River District Water Seminar, Jeff Lukas with the Western Water Assessment noted that not only did we experience a tremendous amount of precipitation but this winter was the coldest winter since 2010. The cold, wet winter built a significant snowpack in the mountains (130% of average snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin). Snowpack is essential for the region as the Colorado River and most other rivers in the region are primarily driven by runoff that melts throughout the spring and summer. Runoff provides rivers with flushing, peak flows and a firm baseline heading into fall. A wet, cold winter was welcome after one of the worst drought years in 2018, and this year’s snowpack pushed the state of Colorado out of a statewide drought conditions for the first time in 20 years.
However, winter wasn’t the only season in the record books this year. The Southwest experienced extreme heat and lack of precipitation in the later months of the summer. In his Colorado River District seminar presentation, Jeff Lukas noted that June – August 2019 was the 8th driest year since 1900, with July and August being the 6th warmest. Despite the significant snowpack, the hot summer temps coupled with dry soils and reduced late summer flows resulted in a smaller runoff that might have been anticipated. This year’s runoff was 118% of average at Lee’s Ferry versus the 130% of average snowpack for the Upper Colorado River Basin.
Warmer winter temperatures hold more moisture in the air – in turn, the warmer summer temperatures increase evaporation and dry the region out much faster than in the past. This not only reduces soil moisture but also river flows. Between 2000 and 2014, the Colorado River experienced a 20% reduction in flows when compared to the period of 1906-1999. According to Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, one-third of this reduction is linked to warming temperatures and it’s likely that flows will only continue to decline as temperatures continue to rise.
“Weather whiplash,” a term coined by climatologist Dan Swain, can best describe our new normal in the Colorado River Basin. The whiplash of temperatures, precipitation, and extreme weather attributed to climate change affects all corners of the globe. Regions like the Southwest that are already dry will experience increased vulnerability in the form of higher temperatures, variable precipitation, earlier runoff, more intense wildfires and punctuated flooding events. These events will only intensify over time and will vary depend on the specific location within the region – some areas will get hotter and drier while other will experience more precipitation in the winter months. As Brad Udall says in the podcast, in the Colorado River Basin, climate change is water change.
One thing everyone can do to address the climate crisis is to call your representative and let them know it’s time to take action on climate change! We must reduce greenhouse gases and make our communities and ecosystems more resilient to a changing climate. We need to use more renewable energy sources, improve renewable portfolio standards, ensure regulations are in place to reduce greenhouse gases, and develop new technologies utilizing renewable energies. Let your representatives know that along with slowing global warming (by reducing greenhouse gases), we must adapt to the changes we are already experiencing. This includes protecting and restoring the wetlands, forests, and riverside lands that slow floods and provide clean water is essential to help us adapt to the new normal. Together, we can use water more efficiently and install green infrastructure to decrease polluted runoff, improve air quality, and lower temperatures. Make your voice heard today – do your part.
More than 100 people carrying “Agree” and “Disagree” signs came to hear Senate hopefuls’ views on climate change and their solutions during the Planet in Peril forum.
Eight Democrats, Angela Williams, Trish Zornio, Andrew Romanoff, Diana Bray, Lorena Garcia, Michelle Ferrigno Warren, Alice Madden and Stephany Rose Spaulding, and two Unity Party candidates, Joshua Rodriguez and Gary Swing, shared their positions with the audience.
Attendees showed their displeasure with Hickenlooper, who entered the Senate race after dropping out of the Democratic scrum for president, by chanting, “Where is Hick?”
One sign read, “Hey Hiding Hick, our future is at stake!” The Sunrise Movement of Colorado, one of the forum sponsors, said in a tweet that it was disappointed Gardner chose not to attend.
The forum, sponsored by environmental and progressive organizations, focused on addressing climate change through eliminating fracking, reforestation, fostering biodiversity and renewable resources and protecting groundwater.
All of the candidates agreed on the need for immediate climate change action — most used their rebuttal minute to agree with previous speakers. Some rebuked the Trump administration for retreating on environmental protections…
Candidates discussed carbon sequestration, reducing greenhouse gases and training the American workforce to transition to renewable energy jobs.
So it’d be natural to assume I’d be happy today, the morning after CNN’s epic 7-hour Climate Crisis Town Hall, during which reporters and citizens probed the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates about the potential collapse of human civilization.
Well guess what.
I’m not happy.
HEATED! AWWWW YEAAAH THAT’S RIGHT!!! WELCOME TO THE FIRST ISSUE!! *airhorn sounds* (I am so sorry).
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis. This is a special pre-launch issue for all you wonderful nerds who signed up early. I can hardly believe it, but there are more than 8,000 of us already! Who says people don’t care about climate change??
Daily, Monday through Thursday coverage begins officially on September 9th. If you like it, please forward it a friend—it would mean the world to me…
Now let’s get to it!
It was not so bad, actually.
Maybe this is because I’m a cynical jerk, but I really thought CNN would mess this up.
I’m old enough to remember when the network’s president Jeff Zucker said he intentionally avoided climate coverage because of the public’s “lack of interest” in the subject. And when CNN did cover climate change, it invited deniers on so often that Media Matters deemed the network a “national platform for false balance” on climate. Two years later, Media Matters also reported that CNN aired advertisements for the fossil fuel industry five times more often than climate-related news. And in 2018, there was one week where three separate CNN guests claimed that climate change was a vast conspiracy to enrich climate scientists.
So I was shocked at how productive Wednesday night’s town hall was. The moderator’s questions, for the most part, were tough and in line with the science. The outside questioners the network brought in were youthful, diverse and engaging. Both moderators and candidates called out the fossil fuel industry repeatedly for delaying climate action and spreading misinformation.
And most importantly…
It was a climate accountability bonanza.
On Wednesday night, every single Democratic presidential candidate was asked at least one question that attempted to hold them accountable for controversial decisions they’ve made, or questionable positions they’ve taken regarding the most existential threat of our time.