As Senate Bill 23-256 (SB 256) heads to the state House, wolf advocates raised concerns that the legislation will delay wolf restoration in Colorado, even in its amended form. Prior to the bill’s scheduled hearing in the House Agriculture, Water & Natural Resources Committee on Monday, environmental attorneys analyzed the amended bill and found that a number of problematic components remain, including at least one which could significantly delay wolf-reintroduction and cost Colorado more money.
Currently, in collaboration with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to write an Endangered Species Act Section 10(j) “nonessential experimental population” rule for gray wolves in Colorado which would allow significant flexibility in management of the federally listed species by the state agency. The federal 10(j) rule is scheduled to be finalized prior to legally mandated wolf releases by the end of the year.
However, if signed into law in its current form, SB 256 would throw a wrench into the multiple interlocking federal and state processes necessary for a smooth and timely release of wolves. The text of SB 256 threatens to undermine the legally required federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that’s currently underway and accompanying the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rulemaking. By changing the legal underpinnings of wolf reintroduction, SB 256 could compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to redo its environmental review process, in turn causing delay in its issuance of a 10(j) rule for Colorado to co-manage reintroduced wolves. NEPA requires federal agencies to analyze their decisions in the context of existing law, so by changing state law at the last minute, SB 256 has the potential to disrupt that analysis.
“The bill sponsors are concerned about releasing wolves without a 10(j) rule in place. But as written, the bill could restart or delay the 10(j) process,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians and an attorney. “The unintended consequence of SB-256, absent any timeframe for reintroduction, is that it creates new uncertainty about when a 10(j) rule will be completed. This is unacceptable.”
“Make no mistake: despite amendments to the text of this wolf-delaying bill, its text still contains legal poison pills that threaten to disrupt and delay federal-state cooperation around the voter-mandated return of wolves to Colorado,” said Michael Saul, Colorado Director for Western Watersheds Project and longtime environmental attorney. “We expect nothing less of our legislators than to respect the will of the voters in passing proposition 114, and work to make Colorado’s wolf reintroduction the historic conservation success it should be.”
“While the bill’s sponsors seem to have good intentions, the reality is that SB 256 will simply impede wolf reintroduction on the timeline approved by Colorado voters,” said Tom Delehanty, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “There’s broad agreement that the 10(j) rule is an important piece of reintroduction, but this bill would simply throw sand in the gears by changing the legal landscape at the 11th hour. It would disrupt a federal process that’s nearing completion and cause the very problem it’s designed to solve. Legislators who want to respect all the work that’s gone into the cooperative state-federal process — and respect the reintroduction timeline voters support — should reject this bill.”
Last week, SB 256 passed the Senate with several amendments. It is slated to be heard by the House Agriculture, Water & Natural Resources Committee on Monday.