Wolves are returning to Colorado. But is it too crowded for them to thrive?
Carbondale, COLO — Packs of gray wolves will soon roam again through the Colorado Rockies as state wildlife managers race to meet a year-end deadline to begin reintroducing the wild canines that were eradicated by humans here in the 1940s.
In 2020, voters in the state passed Proposition 114, requiring wolves to be reintroduced within three years. Since then, state wildlife officials have been holding public forums. They also convened a large stakeholder group compromised of people with polar opposite views on wolves, including rural county leaders and environmentalists. There were also outfitters and ranchers who overwhelmingly didn't support reintroducing them.
This citizen group ultimately hammered out a proposal, helping write a management plan that's widely seen as a compromise.
If all goes as planned, state wildlife officials, under the new law, will begin the reintroduction effort by New Year's Eve.
"We know that wolves will do well here," says Reid DeWalt, an assistant director with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "We wanted to make sure this was, from the get go, done with the citizens of Colorado and not done to the citizens of Colorado."
This is also seen as historic because the reintroduction is mandated by voters.
Earlier efforts in states from North Carolina to Wyoming were done by the federal government. Political analysts largely attribute the yes vote in Colorado to its booming urban population that helped flip the state from red to blue in recent elections.
Still, as the reintroduction is set to begin, there are lingering questions over whether that population boom may ultimately threaten wolves' ability to thrive.
Is Colorado too crowded for wolves?
Few western states have been more romanticized in popular culture for their beauty and open spaces than Colorado.
But back in the 1970s when Johnny Cash was singing about the wild Colorado River or John Denver hit those Rocky Mountain highs, the state's population was barely two million people.
Today, it's approaching 6 million.
In the last decade, Colorado grew at twice the national rate. Its busiest mountain highways now carry tens of thousands of vehicles a day and some of the most prime wolf habitat is fragmented by luxury homes, ski resorts and other urban development.
"We're not Wyoming. We're not Idaho. We're not Montana. I wish we were," says Perry Will, a retired state game warden of 40 years who's now a Republican state senator.
The federal government reintroduced wolves in those more rural states in the 1990s after decades of study. Will, who represents a large swath of western Colorado, says the matter goes beyond whether you love or hate the animal.
He thinks reintroducing another apex predator to the booming state won't be fair to the species. After all, wolves are known to have to travel up to thirty miles a day just to find enough food to eat.
"I think they're going to be in constant conflict in this state," Will says.
In Boulder, Joanna Lambert disagrees. The University of Colorado environmental studies professor and wildlife biologist helped write the state's ballot measure.
"Wolves are superb dispersers. Wolves are highly intelligent," Lambert says. "They're adaptable, flexible and if given half a chance they do well."
Lambert is an internationally known expert on wolves in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, hundreds of miles north of Colorado. She says the human population there has also grown significantly since the 1990s when they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.
Lambert says studies show they have mostly adapted with a far lower than expected livestock depredation rate. She says it is also clear that wolves don't like humans. Around Yellowstone, and beyond the Northern Rockies, scientists say there have been very few human-wolf interactions, let alone conflicts in parts of Europe and the Upper Great Lakes of the United States.
"They're not going to be running around in neighborhoods, [or] the streets of Aspen," Lambert says. "They're going to be remaining in areas where they can access their prey base."
There is actually a lot of prey in Colorado for wolves
In terms of a prey base, there are more elk in Colorado than in any other western state. Their numbers average around 300,000, or roughly twice the size of Montana's elk herd. The wolves that will initially be relocated from Oregon were partly chosen because they're adapted to feeding on elk.
Colorado wildlife officials initially struggled to even find wolves to reintroduce. They had turned to states in the Northern Rockies but their counterparts in wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho rejected requests for transfers in some cases due to politics.
Wolves outside of the Northern Rockies are still protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. As part of a compromise, in Colorado they'll be considered an "experimental population," meaning they could be harassed or killed if they're causing problems with livestock producers.
Wolf attacks are almost nonexistent in North America
Still, the story of wolf reintroduction in Colorado today feels different than the clashes between ranchers and the wild canines that have dominated headlines in the West for decades.
"It's frightening to think of taking your children, your family, your pets and trying to go on a day hike," says Orion Viertel, a realtor in Summit County, Colo. "Even if you bring a weapon, they come in packs, you'd better be quick."
In the thirty years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho, there has not been a documented case of an attack on humans. But Viertel says he'll think twice about taking his young son backpacking. He thinks voters were ill informed.
"I don't think anybody was thinking they would be released anywhere near residential areas," Viertel says.
It's clear there's still a lot of trepidation over wolves returning to a land that's radically changed since the 1940s. Some of the best wolf habitat in Colorado is also big business now for elk hunting, summer recreation such as mountain biking and of course, the internationally famous ski resorts.
There is still a "wild Colorado"
At least one rancher says there is room for both wolves and humans to coexist in Colorado.
Francie Jacober, who also chairs the Pitkin County Commission, says the "western slope," as it's known, is a lot wilder than first meets the eye.
"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. "And that's where the wolves will be."
Jacober, an outlier in the ranching community who supported reintroduction, sat on the wolf stakeholder group that helped hammer out a compromise on management. She keeps close tabs on a resident elk herd that frequents her son's ranch in the picturesque Crystal River Valley near Aspen.
With fewer predators around, the elk have grown accustomed to grazing leisurely, and not being on constantly on the move. Jacober believes wolves could restore balance and ultimately make the ecosystem healthier.
"I'm hoping they will scatter the elk, make them move, return them to their migratory habits," she says.
Like it or not, wolves themselves have migrated on their own to Colorado recently from the Yellowstone area. Lately, one was spotted just over the New Mexico bordertoo. This natural dispersion comes as the state plans to begin formally reintroducing several more by December 31st, with possibly dozens more to follow in the years to come.
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