Balancing Act: Keystone Policy Center’s Model for Public, Stakeholder, and Technical Engagement in Gray Wolf Restoration

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) released five gray wolves in Grand County, Colorado Dec. 18, a voter-mandated requirement of a ballot initiative passed in 2020. The release of the wolves is the kickoff of a restoration and management plan that is the culmination of a remarkable two-year public, stakeholder, and technical engagement effort spearheaded by CPW and Keystone Policy Center that can serve as a model for bringing people with different perspectives together to develop substantive, long lasting recommendations and solutions.   

“This process convened by CPW and shepherded by Keystone illustrates that we can move people from conflict to collaboration on even the most contentious of issues,” said Julie Shapiro, director of the Center for Natural Resources at Keystone Policy Center. 

In November 2020, Colorado voters passed Proposition 114 directing the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado no later than December 31, 2023. In Spring 2021, Keystone was selected by CPW to implement a robust public involvement effort that would provide a variety of opportunities for Coloradans to engage, learn, and provide substantive input and feedback on the wolf restoration and management planning process.  

Keystone and CPW engaged more than 3,400 participants through 47 meetings and an online comment form in the summer of 2021. The meetings included 16 in-person public open houses throughout the state, 17 in-person Western Colorado geographic focus groups, 10 virtual interest-based focus groups, two in-person Tribal consultations, and two virtual town halls. Keystone prepared a Summer 2021 Public Engagement Report to share the insight from these meetings, which is available here 

CPW also convened a Technical Working Group (TWG) and a Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG) to serve as advisory bodies to the agency as the Commission and CPW staff developed the final plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado. Keystone facilitated each of these groups. The TWG contributed expertise towards the development of restoration logistics, conservation objectives, management strategies, and damage prevention and compensation planning. The Technical Working Group released its final recommendations report in August 2022. 

“The Technical Working Group brought together experts with experience in wolf restoration, management, and biology along with other technical and experiential expertise from many states across the West,” said Shapiro. “This group was invaluable in offering insights and lessons learned to help inform Colorado’s decisions. The TWG’s insights also helped inform the SAG’s deliberations.” 

Julie Shapiro is joined by Keystone’s Ernest House, Jr. and Jonathan Tyrrell to lead a meeting of the Stakeholder Advisory Group on May 26, 2022.

The SAG provided a range of viewpoints from diverse geographic areas of the state and proposed recommendations for the final plan. All meetings of the SAG were open to in-person observation and public comment. The Stakeholder Advisory Group released its final recommendations report in September 2022. In an introduction for the report, the members of the SAG wrote: 

This charge may have seemed impossible in a world of often polarized opinions. Over the course of 15 months of relationship-building, difficult conversations, and information gathering, the SAG ultimately reached consensus on a wide range of important issues that will guide CPW as wolves are returned to the state. Throughout, the SAG fostered civil discussion and understanding across differences, often resulting in strong convergence even on the most contentious issues. 

In the SAG’s attempts to reach consensus, members recognized that there are areas where interests and beliefs remained disparate and there was disagreement, as will be the case with the public. However, for Colorado’s wolf program to be successful, there is a need to realize that there are real people affected by any decisions and recognize people have more in common than apart. Everything will have unintended consequences that need to be considered and can be lessened by having early conversations that lead to effective actions. Room needs to be made for individual perspectives and locally-based solutions that help resolve challenges and reduce divisions. 

“The SAG set out to find consensus where it could, and it really did a remarkable job of achieving consensus on a number of tough topics, including on restoration logistics; principles for livestock compensation and livestock conflict minimization; impact-based management principles; and a number of challenging management-related issues, such as the need for funding, the importance of outreach, and the need to address concerns regarding ungulate populations,” Shapiro said.   

Keystone and CPW also met several times throughout the process with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Tribes to identify and address issues wolf reintroduction and management would bring to Tribal and Indigenous communities. Keystone guided the consultations through direct knowledge and experience in developing government-to-government guidance between state and federal agencies and sovereign tribal governments.  

“Respecting both state and Tribal lands was, and continues to be, an important cultural lesson in this endeavor,” said Ernest House, Jr., director of Keystone’s Center for Tribal and Indigenous Engagement.   

Keystone and CPW appeared before the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission throughout the process, updating the Commission on the public engagement effort, convening of the advisory groups, Tribal consultations, and the overall planning effort. An overview of each appearance as well as the presentations offered by CPW and Keystone is available here.  

CPW drafted a plan that was informed considerably by the recommendations from the SAG and TWG recommendations reports. Keystone analyzed and synthesized 4,000 comments on the draft plan for the Commission, which were considered throughout the Commission’s own deliberation process on the draft.  

On May 3, 2023, the Commission unanimously approved the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management plan, which reflects the important consensus-building and input of the SAG, TWG, and public. The final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management plan is available here. 

Keystone Policy Center is a trusted, independent leader that for nearly 50 years has given communities an active voice in policy discussions that have the most direct impact on them. This endeavor highlighted that ability and showcased how we propel conflicted groups, coalitions, and divergent leaders beyond entrenched positions to common higher ground.     

“Throughout this process, particularly with the engagement with the SAG and TWG, we saw a willingness to work with each other and listen to each other,” added Shapiro. “That meant that whether they agreed or disagreed, they moved the needle on deepening understanding for each other’s perspectives, on being collaborative, and respecting the diverse opinions on this topic. They saw each other as people that had a lot in common and recognized the need to consider different perspectives as well as local contexts—and we are incredibly proud of the role we played in making that happen.”