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Wolves in Colorado

Wolves in Colorado

By John Sanderson

February 12, 2020

Wolves are in Colorado and more may be coming. After being extirpated in the 1940s, wolves began showing up in Colorado in the mid-2000s. In 2004, a wolf was killed by a vehicle on I-70. Last summer, a radio-collared wolf from Wyoming’s Snake River pack was found 90 miles northwest of Fort Collins. Initiative 107, slated for this fall’s ballot, would direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to re-establish wolves on Colorado’s West Slope. Recently a pack of wolves—the first in decades—was verified in northwest Colorado.  What does the future hold for wolves in Colorado?

One thing everyone can agree on about wolves: they stir passion. Reading articles in the mainstream media or perusing social media might suggest these passions are so strong that common ground does not exist, that Colorado faces a win/lose proposition. What isn’t clear in the media is how many people—including staff at the Center for Collaborative Conservation—want to find a path forward that includes voices representing diverse viewpoints and transforms conflict into sustainable solutions for nature and people.

Thirty-one individuals took a risk last week by attending a workshop that is a step toward that better path. The two day workshop, organized by CSU’s Dr. Rebecca Niemiec, focused on the question: “if wolf recovery occurs in Colorado, how can we develop and implement collaborative approaches to minimize stakeholder conflict and human-wolf conflict?” State government, a Tribal nation, ranchers, hunters, environmental NGOs, and academic institutions took part.

The power of a well-designed and facilitated process was on full display at the workshop. Facilitator Francine Madden from the Center for Conservation Peacebuilding began the workshop by having us jointly define “respect.” There was no disagreement that respect includes: acknowledging that we all have a right to our opinions; not talking too much, asking questions, and listening closely for understanding; caring for and empathizing with the other; and speaking truth to the best of our knowledge. Another area of strong agreement was clear when we filled in the blank, “Colorado is ________.” No one questioned that Colorado is jaw-droppingly beautiful, diverse, well-loved, and complicated. There was also a shared sentiment that Colorado is “loved to the brink of extinction.”

With so many fundamental areas of agreement, why is the better path so elusive? Building on notions of respect and our shared love of Colorado, we pivoted to a dialogue on sources of conflict. Some conflict is straight-forward, like a fender bender; annoying and inconvenient, but readily resolved. In many conflicts, however, are basic human needs for security, self-esteem, belonging, meaning, and freedom. Recognizing that we all have these needs opens opportunity for candor, listening, and empathy. In the space between the mundane and the deeply rooted are long-standing, unresolved issues in the West: how public lands are managed, cultural values about wildlife, stakeholder representation in wildlife decisions, and much more. These unresolved conflicts bleed into new conflicts.

At the end of day 1, not everyone felt like these fundamental discussions about respect and sources of conflict had accomplished much. Research and experience in the social dimensions of natural resource management suggest otherwise. These discussions set the stage for the frank discussion on day 2. By the end, several participants expressed the view that the workshop did much more than was thought possible. Many participants expressed interest in and hope that a collaborative process that facilitates dialogue and consensus-building will occur for the development of plans and policies governing the future of wolves in Colorado. One participant said in his closing comments that “this is hopefully the beginning of a considerate and concerted conversation that empowers and doesn’t leave people behind.” We share that hope.