Colorado Votes to Reintroduce Wolves to the Southern Rocky Mountains

In a historic decision, Colorado voters led the way to bring back the apex predator

A gray wolf sits in the snow looking back at the photographer
The first gray wolves reintroduced to the United States were brought in from Canada in the 1990s. Cole, Eric, USFWS / Public Domain

Colorado voters approved Proposition 114 calling for the state government to create a plan to reintroduce gray wolves to the Southern Rocky Mountains by 2023, Jason Blevins reports for the Colorado Sun.

The vote was very close, with about 50.4 percent of votes supporting the measure and 49.6 percent of votes cast against it, but opponents of the measure conceded the election on Thursday, Bruce Finley reports for the Denver Post. The decision marks the first time that voters have successfully pushed for a species’ reintroduction. The state does not yet know how many wolves will be introduced, but Proposition 114 calls for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to introduce enough wolves to ensure a sustainable population on former wolf habitat in the western part of the state.

If a wolf populations establishes there, North America may once again host “a connected population of wolves, from Canada down to Mexico,” says Colorado State University wildlife ecologist Joel Berger, who wasn’t involved with the ballot initiative, to National Geographic’s Douglas Main.

Wolves were hunted to extinction in Colorado by 1940, according to CPW. In the 1990s, wolves were caught in Canada and released in Yellowstone National Park, Frank Clifford wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2009. Since then, ongoing species management efforts have expanded the wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains to about 6,000 individuals. The federal government removed wolves from the U.S. Endangered Species List at the end of October. But there are still millions of acres of former wolf habitat in the Southern Rockies that could host hundreds more wolves with reintroduction, reports National Geographic.

“CPW is committed to developing a comprehensive plan and in order to do that, we will need input from Coloradans across our state,” says Dan Prenzlow, the agency’s director, in a statement, per the Denver Post. “We are evaluating the best path forward to ensure that all statewide interests are well represented.”

Proposition 114 had considerable support in urban areas and faced the most opposition in rural areas where people, particularly ranchers, are more likely to interact with wolves in their daily lives. For that reason, opponents of reintroduction characterized the split as unfair, says Shawn Martini, spokesperson of Coloradans for Protecting Wildlife, a group that opposes the proposition.

Jay Fletcher, a rancher who lives near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, told Colorado Public Radio’s Sam Brasch on Wednesday that he was “shocked” by how close the vote was, but that he and other ranchers were not enthusiastic about the measure.

Rob Edward of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which assisted with passing the measure, points to the western San Miguel, La Plata, San Juan, Summit and Pitkin counties that supported Proposition 114 as proof that the measure passed with rural support as well. The proposition also specifies that ranchers who lose livestock to wolves would be repaid for the loss.

“We would not be having this conversation today had it not been for people on the Western Slope voting for wolves,” says Edward to the Colorado Sun.

Gray wolves’ removal from the endangered species list means that Colorado’s wildlife managers will be able to make their reintroduction plan without needing permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it also means that they can’t apply for federal grants to cover the cost of wolf management, reports Colorado Public Radio. The reintroduction effort is estimated to cost $5 to $6 million, per the Denver Post.

In the 25 years since wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, only the occasional lone wolf and small packs have wandered south to Colorado. For example, a small pack was spotted in Colorado in January. But when they meandered back into Wyoming, several of them were shot, as it’s legal to kill wolves in 85 percent of the state, National Geographic reports.

Opponents of wolf reintroduction are concerned about damage to livestock- and hunting-based rural economies, reports the Colorado Sun. But research has shown that the apex predators keep populations of deer and elk healthy by taking down sick animals, and by extension limit overgrazing. The carcasses wolves leave behind also provide a food source for scavengers, conservation advocate Michael Robinson tells National Geographic.

“The hard work, the critical work, of rekindling a wolf population in Colorado begins now,” Edward told the Denver Post after the measure was passed. “Colorado’s vote will one day be seen as a monumental conservation victory. The voters of Colorado should be proud.”

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