BROOMFIELD, Colo. — An environmental group that successfully campaigned for the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has petitioned the federal government to reintroduce the predator to the southern Rockies.
The area, encompassing western Colorado and parts of Utah, southern Wyoming, northern New Mexico and Arizona, would be ideal because it contains large expanses of public land and sparse population, said Bob Ferris, vice president of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C.
In addition, the reintroduction would provide one of the crucial links needed for wolf recovery nationwide, Ferris said Monday during a news conference at Defenders of Wildlife's Carnivores 2000 convention.
"Gray wolves have an important role to play in the biological health and wholeness of the southern Rockies, and it's time for the federal government to get serious about restoring the species here," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen.
The petition comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to reduce federal protection for gray wolves, now classified as endangered. In the West, the predators exist in the northern Rockies and Arizona.
If the agency's proposal were approved, it would fall to states to manage wolves, including any reintroduction programs. Only Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf released in Arizona, would remain endangered at the federal level.
Wolves were eliminated from most of their range in the lower 48 states by the early 1900s as a result of widespread slaughter by settlers and organized extermination efforts by the government. It is believed the last wolf was killed in Colorado in 1945.
After years of political and legal wrangling, the Fish and Wildlife Service released Canadian wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995.
Agency officials say wolves are flourishing in Yellowstone, Idaho and Montana, where they have migrated from Canada, and federal protection won't be needed once those populations maintain certain levels. There are now more than 300 in the northern Rockies, where 66 were released initially.
The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't foresee having to release any more wolves to bolster their numbers in the West.
Defenders of Wildlife and other environmentalist groups say there is little hope of restoring the gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf, throughout the West without more releases and continued federal protection.
"The southern Rockies represents perhaps the best example of where the service has ignored science and ecological need and the will of the people," Ferris said. "We stand here today to take the first step in correcting that deficiency."