Colorado is set to start reintroducing gray wolves within the coming weeks. Voters passed a ballot initiative in 2020 that requires the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (CPW) to begin reintroduction efforts by the end of this year.
Over the course of this month, officials will capture, transport and release up to ten wolves from Oregon, according to USA Today’s Trevor Hughes, a process that can start as soon as December 8. CPW plans to eventually introduce 30 to 50 wolves in total.
Gray wolves can survive in a wide range of habitats and conditions. But predator-control programs in the early 1900s led the animals to be eradicated from most of the continental United States. Since February 2022, gray wolves have been considered endangered in the 48 contiguous states, except for Minnesota.
Before a pack recently migrated into Colorado, the last time wolves were known to live in the state was the 1940s, according to CPW. Small numbers of wolves have occasionally been spotted there in recent years: A group of six wolves was seen in 2020, and in June 2021, a pair of wolves gave birth to at least six pups.
The 2020 ballot measure directed CPW to develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in the state. Called Proposition 114, it narrowly passed, with 50.91 percent of votes cast in favor of the initiative.
It’s noteworthy that the state’s residents voted for reintroduction—past wolf reintroductions in other states, including North Carolina and Wyoming, were mandated by the federal government, according to NPR’s Kirk Siegler. Still, the day the wolves are released “will likely be one of the most controversial days in Colorado wildlife history,” writes the Colorado Sun’s Tracy Ross.
The law mostly received support from liberal urban residents, while farmers and ranchers remain concerned about the threat wolves could pose to wildlife and livestock, per USA Today.
Lenny Klinglesmith, a Colorado rancher, tells the Sun that he and his ranching neighbors have “been dreading [reintroduction] for quite a while. Now, reintroduction is almost here, but we don’t have a choice. It’s just the stress, not only for me but for our hunting community.”
Francie Jacober, also a rancher in Colorado, is an outlier among the community—she supports reintroduction, telling NPR that wolves and humans can live together.
“Along the highways we have a lot of development, but if you get in an airplane and you fly over out here, there’s a lot of untouched wilderness,” Jacober says to the publication. “And that’s where the wolves will be.”
CPW held public meetings and appointed two advisory bodies to inform the restoration plan. The goal is for a self-sustaining wolf population to live in the state.
Officials decided it would be best to get the wolves for reintroduction from the northern Rocky Mountain states (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) or other suitable places like Oregon and Washington. While Oregon agreed to let Colorado take wolves, other states that oppose growing wolf populations refused, according to USA Today.
CPW hopes to capture between 10 and 15 wild wolves each year from several different packs for three to five years. Officials will rely on trapping, darting or net gunning in the fall and winter to capture the animals.
When wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and in Idaho in the mid-1990s, they moved between 22 and 140 miles, or an average of 50 miles, in the months following their release. As a result, the newly captured wolves will be released west of the Continental Divide, at least 60 miles from the bordering states and sovereign tribal land. All the released wolves will be tracked with GPS collars, and as packs form, officials will aim to have a collar on at least one member of each pack.
CPW will also track how the wolves impact local prey populations, such as mule deer, and try to mitigate impacts on livestock. After the release, officials will monitor whether the wolf population is recovering.
“Wolves are superb dispersers. Wolves are highly intelligent,” Joanna Lambert, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells NPR. “They’re adaptable, flexible and if given half a chance, they do well.”