For wolf advocate Larry Wiess, the battle to bring wolves back to Colorado isn't just about ecology. It's about challenging more than a century of U.S. wildlife management.
Last summer, the retired animal rights lawyer spent days gathering signatures for an initiative set to appear on Colorado's November ballot. If successful, it could force the state to capture and release wolves in Western Colorado by 2024.
According to the coalition backing the plan, it'd also be the first time that voters — in any state — would decide whether to reintroduce an endangered species. Weiss is well aware of the historic nature of the initiative. For him, it's a chance to question the authority of government biologists to make big decisions about wildlife.
"That definitely should be decided by the people and not by the scientists," he said in his home in Denver. "Then we take it to the scientists to implement what the people feel about this major division of opinions."
Critics of the initiative have a name for the approach: "ballot box biology."
Sportsmen's groups and wildlife managers see the plan an assault on a tradition of North American conservation, which has long let bureaucrats manage wild animals based on science and public input. Proponents believe that the same model can't be trusted to help predators like wolves, which are often seen as a threat to hunters.
Weiss suspects that's why federal and state officials have refused to return wolves to Colorado for decades. He said going to the ballot was a way to sidestep their control.
"It's difficult to make any headway because the hunters and ranchers have such a powerful lobby on all the commissions in the states," he said.
Mark Holyoak, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the current wildlife management practices are based on the idea that wildlife belongs to the public. The principle dates back to early conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, who shaped a system that relies on experts to preserve game species.
"People in the know are being intentionally left out of the process," Holyoak said.
To ensure populations remain viable, state wildlife agencies manage wildlife and sell hunting and fishing licenses, which in turn fund science-based conservation work. The federal Pittman-Robertson Act provides additional funding to state agencies from a tax on firearm sales.
Federal plans to delist gray wolves as an endangered species have added an urgency for initiative backers. The Trump administration proposed the rule change last March. If it goes forward, states would make their own decisions about how to manage the predators. Gray wolves have already been delisted in the Northern Rocky Mountain states.
Supporters of the ballot plan hope to get ahead of a wider federal decision. By forcing wolves back to Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund — the partner groups behind the effort — hope to create a corridor linking existing populations from earlier federal reintroduction efforts.
Wolf packs currently roam the Northern Rockies from Washington to Wyoming. A separate population of Mexican gray wolves lives in Arizona and New Mexico.
"If we can provide this corridor to connect the Northern Populations and the Southern populations, then we have balance from Mexico to Canada," Weiss said.
Recent news has complicated the push for reintroduction, though. Earlier this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed a wolf pack was living in the Northwest corner of the state. While lone wolves have migrated to the state before, the announcement marked the first evidence of a pack living in Colorado in decades. Biologists believe hunters removed the last of the predators from the state in the 1940s.
Reintroduction supporters say a single pack is far cry from a self-sustaining population in Colorado.
Republican state Rep. Perry Will, a former state wildlife officer who represents northwest Colorado, said the news of a pack in the state lends support to Colorado's earlier position on wolves. While the Colorado wildlife commission has repeatedly opposed reintroduction, the state is open to wolves migrating to Colorado on their own.
"We have a wildlife agency in this state. Let's listen to them," Will said. "Why would we reintroduce them if they're already here?"
Will also fears the initiative lets urban areas make a decision that'd largely affect rural Colorado.
"They're not introducing them in open spaces along the Front Range. You're putting it on the back of sportsmen and ranchers and farmers. They're the ones that have real skin in the game," he said.
One of those people who would be affected is Jay Fetcher, who raises cattle in a valley outside Steamboat Springs, Colo., far from the population centers in Denver and its suburbs. He doesn't support the ballot initiative even though it includes plans to pay for any livestock lost to the wolves.
"I've got 60 years of breeding into this herd, so it's more than the market value of that animal," Fetcher said.
According to an estimate by state wildlife officials, the reintroduction and compensation programs could cost about $5.7 million over eight years. It's not clear where the state would get the money.
But Fetcher has already resigned himself to the initiative passing. Ranchers and hunters opposed to the ballot measure have formed the Stop The Wolf Coalition, which has pushed dozens of rural county commissions to declare their opposition. But so far, they haven't drawn any donations into their political action committee. Another group opposing the initiative has raised just over $10,000.
A recent online survey from Colorado State University showed 84 percent of Coloradans support the reintroduction effort. If it goes ahead, Fetcher worries other ranchers might adopt their own policy to deal with the predators.
"Shoot, shovel and shut up," he said. "It's just somebody seeing one — shoot it, bury it and don't say a word."
In Fetcher's mind, there's nothing democratic about that.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The presidential election aside, another big vote is coming to Colorado in November. The question of whether to bring back wolves will be on the ballot. It'll be the first time voters in any state may force the reintroduction of an endangered species. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.
SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: When wolf advocate Larry Wiess looks at a map of the U.S., he sees a missing puzzle piece. Thanks to federal reintroduction efforts, wolf packs now roam Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. There is another population in New Mexico and Arizona. The gap between the two is right where he lives - in Colorado.
LARRY WIESS: So if we can provide this corridor to connect the northern populations and the southern populations, then we have balance from Mexico to Canada.
BRASCH: That's why Wiess spent days on sidewalks around Denver gathering signatures for the initiative. The retired animal rights lawyer says that wasn't the first option. Reintroduction advocates spent years lobbying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the state.
WIESS: But it's difficult to make any headway because the hunters and ranchers have such a powerful lobby on all the commissions in the states.
BRASCH: By going to the ballot, Wiess says his group isn't just trying to bring back wolves. They're challenging the model for U.S. wildlife management. Rather than trusting biologists at state agencies, which are heavily funded by gun sales and hunting licenses, he says voters should make the big decisions.
WIESS: That definitely should be decided by the people, and then we take it to the scientists to implement what the people feel about this major division of opinions.
BRASCH: Opponents of wolf reintroduction have a name for that.
PERRY WILL: Ballot box biology just doesn't work.
BRASCH: This is State Representative Perry Will. He's a former wildlife officer who now represents rural northwest Colorado. He says there's a couple of problems with ballot box biology. It takes decisions away from state wildlife biologists.
WILL: They are the experts. Let's listen to them.
BRASCH: And it lets everyone decide something that'll only affect a small minority of Coloradans.
WILL: You're putting it on the back of sportsmen in this state and ranchers and farmers, and they're the ones with the real skin in the game.
JAY FETCHER: Come on, boys.
BRASCH: People like Jay Fetcher.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEED RUSTLING)
BRASCH: I meet Fetcher at his ranch in western Colorado, where he's feeding a group of young bulls. He doesn't support the ballot initiative even though it includes plans to pay for any livestock lost to wolves.
FETCHER: I've got 60 years of breeding into this herd, so it's more than the market value of that animal.
BRASCH: The state expects reintroduction and compensation programs would cost millions, and it's not clear where it'd get the money. Fetcher sees the measure's supporters as impatient. He grew up on the ranch, and as a kid, he says, there weren't nearly as many species as there are now.
FETCHER: We had no raccoons here. We had no antelope here, and they're now here through migration.
BRASCH: He thinks if wolves migrate to Colorado on their own, they'd have an easier time adapting to the state's human population, and it looks like that could be happening. Recently, state officials announced wolves are living near the Wyoming border. Lone wolves have shown up in the state before, but this is the first confirmed pack since the 1940s.
FETCHER: So that's the way it should come. It should come through nature, not through ballot.
BRASCH: But wolf proponents say one pack probably won't lead to a viable population. They're pushing ahead with the ballot initiative, which has wide support in recent polls. If it goes through, Colorado would have to introduce wolves by 2024. Then, Fetcher worries, other ranchers might adopt their own policy to deal with the predators.
FETCHER: Shoot, shovel and shut up. It's just somebody seeing one - shoot it, bury it and don't say a word.
BRASCH: And he says there's nothing democratic about that. For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver.
(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "AGEISPOLIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.