The senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, running a public hearing at the Paramount Theater in Denver, said reintroduction projects succeeded and gray wolves are no longer endangered.
But more than 350 wolf advocates, who paraded from a nearby hotel and dominated the hearing, oppose the federal push to lift protection. They favor continued federal protection so that wolves that wander beyond their current stronghold in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will have a better chance of survival.
"How can the job be done when only 8 percent of wolves' historic habitat is occupied?" Defenders of Wildlife regional director Jonathan Proctor said. "We want wolves in the southern Rockies, which is tremendous habitat that is suffering because of the lack of wolves."
If federal authorities remove gray wolves from the endangered species list as proposed, it would be up to state authorities in Colorado, California, Utah and elsewhere to decide whether hunters and landowners could kill wolves. Hunting wolves already is allowed in the northern Rockies, and about 56 were killed in Wyoming this year.
"You don't want a situation where you backslide," said John Kostyack, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, which opposes delisting gray wolves and includes hunters among 4 million members and supporters. "You want to have fully recovered wolf populations that no longer require help of the federal government. How do you get to that point? You try to have multiple populations, well distributed, at different locations."
Ranching groups, worried about losing livestock, strongly back the federal push to end federal endangered-species protection for wolves. "The gray wolf recovery effort has already been successful, and we don't believe Colorado is appropriate habitat for wolves," said Terry Fankhauser, vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "As for the Mexican wolf, we've got strong evidence that this is not part of its historic range."
Wolves are "very voracious," said Dick Ray, a cattle rancher, farmer and outfitter from Pagosa Springs.
"Delist everything," including Mexican wolves, Ray said. "Let the states manage them. There are places that some would work. The question is how many are too many."
Ray was among several ranchers who attended the public hearing but were aced out of testifying orally because 151 opponents of delisting signed up first. Federal officials said written testimony submitted by the ranchers would carry equal weight.
If federal protection ends, Colorado officials said this week that any wolf that wanders into the state must be allowed to live.
However, "wolves kill livestock," Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said, and current state policy also directs state biologists to work with ranchers to remove such wolves.
The overall gray wolf population in the Lower 48 has reached more than 5,000 since reintroductions began in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, said Mike Jimenez, the federal biologist coordinating wolf science and management in the northern Rockies.
Yet, after federal protection was lifted in reintroduction states, state authorities allowed wolf hunting, starting in 2011. Federal data show wolf populations in the northern Rockies have decreased by 7 percent to 1,674 from 1,750, Jimenez said.
Public hearings, like the one held in Denver, are planned for New Mexico, Arizona and California. A decision on delisting gray wolves and on ramping up protection for Mexican wolves is expected next year.
Public sentiment, on all sides, is proving intense. "Wolves are beautiful animals and have an incredible social structure. Predators always have had a special significance in our culture," said Gary Frazer, assistant director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who led the Denver hearing.
What the federal proposals are really about is shifting attention away from one subspecies, the gray wolf, to another, the Mexican wolf — which is immediately imperiled and could vanish, Frazer said in an interview. "We need to focus our limited resources on that sub-species."