Science Friday: The Sierra Club, Science and Politics: Wolves in Colorado and Elk Feedgrounds in Wyoming

As some may have been following, we had an initiative in Colorado to reintroduce wolves. It was voted in; the vote was fairly close and mostly urban counties voted for wolves to be reintroduced on the Western Slope. Here’s the process, but the decision was made by initiative and the hearings and input are about “how” and not “if”. And Governor Polis recently challenged the commission to get the wolves here ahead of the schedule voted on in the initiative.

“I think next year is that sweet spot where you have plenty of time, you get a plan out this fall, you socialize it, we’ll be able to do in-person meetings this fall, the COVID thing will be out so you’ll be able to do listening sessions, there will be comments on the plan, it will be refined, amended probably early the following year,” Polis said. “We can get it done. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has risen to this challenge time and time again.”

Proposition 114 directs the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to:

Develop a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves in Colorado by December 31, 2023, on designated lands west of the Continental Divide;
Hold statewide hearings about scientific, economic, and social considerations;
Periodically obtain public input to update the plan; and
Use state funds to assist livestock owners in preventing conflicts with gray wolves and pay fair compensation for livestock losses.

According to RMEF (which I grant, is not an unbiased source, “CPW addressed wolf introduction in 1982, 1989, 2004 & 2016 and opposed an introduction each time.”). Note for those not following this: wolves are coming into Colorado on their own. In this case, the Sierra Club thought using an initiative process when the CPW (wildlife experts or not?) was against it was OK.

At the time, Greg Walcher, former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources wrote in an op-ed:

Savor the irony of the Sierra Club’s website boasting, “For the first time, Coloradans – not politicians, not bureaucrats – We, The People, may decide whether to reintroduce gray wolves to Colorado.”

In other words, one of the harshest groups that insists politics has no place in wildlife management, now dismisses wildlife professionals as nothing more than “bureaucrats,” whose flawed judgment must be overruled by the political process. Now, who is declaring war on scientists?

BUT in Wyoming, Angus Thuermer of WyoFile has an interesting story today on wildlife feedgrounds and a new legislative initiative.

The bill establishes a transparent process for what would be a high-impact decision affecting more than just wildlife, said lead sponsor and cattleman Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). “I want to make sure this is a discussion with all agencies that are involved,” he said

“Let’s call it a multi-species decision,” Sommers said, noting that feedground closures would impact stockgrowers. “That’s not just a Game and Fish issue.”

Wyoming’s Sierra Club chapter director called the measure “a pretty terrible idea.”

The bill is “a classic case of legislators trying to micromanage in areas where they have no expertise,” said Connie Wilbert, Wyoming chapter director of the group. “They’re not wildlife experts, they’re not wildlife disease experts — nor is the governor.”

Note that in this case, the decision making process will be open with affected parties weighing in.. arguably more democratic with more opportunities for the relevant sciences to be brought to bear, than a non-open initiative process.

Sidestepping science?
Any recommendation to close a feedground today would likely find its way to the governor’s desk in any case, Sommers said. The bill creates a process for “all to be heard” before “the big dog decision-maker makes the call,” he said.

“I think it rises to the level of having a more thorough process,” Sommers said of elk feedground closures. “It just increases public participation” and provides “a clear decision-making tree.”

For Wilbert, the measure sidesteps science.

“The Legislature doesn’t like the information they’re getting from the scientists and wildlife experts,” she said, “and they think they can do a better job. They’re politicizing an issue that shouldn’t be politicized.”

CWD has arrived in a feedground herd and urgent action is necessary, she said.

“I’m really disappointed in this approach,” she said. “We should leave wildlife management to wildlife management experts and it should be based on the best available science.”

I’d argue that the “best available science” can’t be known without an open process, without different disciplines (including social sciences) weighing in, and without practitioner,Tribal and local on-the-ground knowledge also being taken into consideration.

4 thoughts on “Science Friday: The Sierra Club, Science and Politics: Wolves in Colorado and Elk Feedgrounds in Wyoming”

  1. The decisions discussed here should be influenced by the available science. However, in the end, the decisions are political decisions – more involving “what” to do than “how” to do it. (Do we want wolves in west Colorado, with all that science, among other sources, tells us is involved, or not? How do we balance the needs of, and threats to the current livestock industry, Jackson business interests, outfitters, against the looming disease threats, for one, with elk feeding at the federal Refuge? These are social, political decisions, not scientific decisions. That said, we cannot accept the poor science, hidden science, and suppression of science that has occurred when one side of an issue controls a government agency, and among other things, places non-scientists in agency positions where they pretend to be objective scientists. In my 60+ years with wildlife biology and management, I have seen agency science staffings eroded with increased numbers, or proportions, of administrators who ignore or do not understand the science, and increased numbers of public relations specialists who all to often see their roles only as promoting the current political drifts of the agencies. More, some of the proponents of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, admonish agency biologists that they have NO trustee responsibilities to the public, only a responsibility to do, and say, what a few top, politically motivated, often appointed, administrators direct. I believe this trend and especially recent situation, has produced the unfair disdain often directed at agency biologists.

  2. James, I think you raise an interesting question of what is an “objective scientist.” At least in the FS, they are asked to be (? don’t know how this works exactly) “advocates for the resource.” I’ve worked with a number of wildlife biologists who also care passionately but at the end of the day follow the bureaucratic processes and assess the information fairly. Note that “fairly” is a value judgment also, in this case, by me.

    My point being not that I disagree with your points about non-experts being in charge of experts, and when is that appropriate in a bureaucracy? Take a state, the Gov is elected, the head of DNR is her/his pick (can’t be knowledgeable about everything). In Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the same organization, so the head of wildlife should be a wildlifer. At the end of the day, though, the DNR Director is likely to make the calls on contentious issues, and our role as experts would be to give her or him the best briefing possible on the technical pros and cons as well as the social and political as we understand them. Interesting side note.. how many States have had female DNR directors?

    I just think that it’s more complicated and full of gray areas (and different personalities).


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