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.
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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.
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