ALAMOSA, Colo. -- Federal officials are considering using wolves to control the number of elk in Baca National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal that is drawing criticism from hunters and ranchers and support from environmentalists.
And a plan that is drawing comparisons to what has happened in Montana and Wyoming since wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planner Laurie Shannon says the use of wolves in Colorado is not the preferred alternative, but it's an option for controlling elk herds that have taken a heavy toll on the cottonwoods and willows lining stream banks.
"Right now, it's a question. You have a lot of elk, a lot of people would say you need a large predator. We may not move forward with it, but right now it's on the table," she said.
Federal officials have drafted four possible options for managing the Alamosa, Baca and Monte Vista national wildlife refuges as they develop a comprehensive conservation plan. The wolf proposal is one of four presented at public workshops this week, but wildlife officials don't expect to select one until 2014.
Other options include largely keeping things as they are now, allowing hunting to help control elk populations and maximizing public uses.
Researchers cite the 1996 reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park for scattering elk herds and allowing the recovery of park lands, but wolves outside the park's boundaries have aroused opposition from ranchers, hunters and other groups.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar reached an agreement last year on a plan that would turn wolf management over to the state. The plan, which has drawn criticism from environmentalists, would classify wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state.
Congress recently stripped language out of an Interior appropriations bill that would have blocked legal challenges to the Wyoming plan. The Wyoming Legislature is set to consider its adoption, nonetheless, in the session that starts next month.
Mead said this week that he's still hopeful that Congress will restore the no-lawsuit provision. Congress already has passed such language blocking legal challenges to delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana as an endangered species.
Environmental groups advocated releasing wolves in Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado. The National Park Service rejected that plan as a way to reduce the elk herd that is overgrazing the park and instead is using sharpshooters to help cut the number of elk.