Wolves win in Colorado after vote for reintroduction by 2023

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Wolves were hunted and trapped to extinction in state in the 1940s

Wolves were first listed as endangered 45 years ago, when the population dropped to 1,000 individuals in the continental 48 states.
Wolves were first listed as endangered 45 years ago, when the population dropped to 1,000 individuals in the continental 48 states. Photograph: blickwinkel / Alamy/Alamy
Wolves were first listed as endangered 45 years ago, when the population dropped to 1,000 individuals in the continental 48 states. Photograph: blickwinkel / Alamy/Alamy
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Rasha Aridi

Last modified on Fri 6 Nov 2020 13.07 EST

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Coloradans have voted to reintroduce wolves, which were hunted and trapped to extinction in the 1940s, to the state by 2023.

The proposition squeaked by with 50.4% of the total votes as of Thursday night. This is the first time American voters have ever weighed in on reintroducing a wildlife species, as that decision is usually left up to a state’s team of wildlife biologists.

Gray wolves once roamed across two-thirds of the continental US. Without wolves at the top of the food chain, the whole ecosystem is out of balance, says Eric Washburn, a campaign manager at the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the advocacy group behind the proposition.

Yellowstone national park reintroduced gray wolves to the park in 1995, and Washburn looks to it as a living laboratory and model for Colorado’s reintroduction plans. The return of the region’s apex predators set off a cascade of natural events that ultimately restored Yellowstone’s “ecological integrity”, says Washburn, and the reintroduction is hailed as one of the world’s greatest rewilding stories.

Wolves were first listed as endangered 45 years ago, when the population dropped to 1,000 individuals in the continental 48 states. Now it sits at about 6,000.

Colorado’s decision is complicated by the fact that just last week, the Trump administration delisted gray wolves from the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) after announcing the species’ “successful recovery”. Hundreds of biologists dispute this, in part because wolves still only occupy a sliver of their historic range.

States will now decide if wolves can be hunted or trapped. And since wildlife cannot recognize state lines, wolves can move in and out of states where they can be killed, thwarting conservation efforts. For example, the gray wolf is endangered in Colorado but only threatened in Wyoming, where wolves can be killed on sight in 85% of the state. Last year, at least three wolves from north-west Colorado were killed when they moved into Wyoming.

“We do worry about that, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about that because wolves will go where they see habitat,” said Washburn. “But the good news is, there’s 17m acres of public land habitat in western Colorado.”

Washburn also hopes that the decision to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act will be overturned by a federal court.