Frustrated by official process, conservationists release plan for wolves in Colorado

In November 2020, Colorado voters approved a measure to reintroduce gray wolves to the state, 76 years after the last wolf was killed there. Now Colorado Parks and Wildlife is developing a plan to reintroduce wolves, which must begin by the end of 2023. But conservation groups say the process to date hasn’t included enough public input and has instead been dominated by the very groups responsible for the eradication of wolves in the first place — hunters and ranchers.

“The absence of science and the domination of the groups like hunters and ranchers that were responsible for their extirpation has been hugely disturbing,” said Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife chair at the Colorado Sierra Club, in a webinar presenting the plan on Tuesday.

So this week conservation groups, including WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Endangered Species Coalition, released their own plan for restoring Colorado wolf populations. It focuses on elements they say have been missing from the official conversations and “germinated from the notion that Colorado wolves represent immensely positive ecological, economic, and social opportunities for Coloradans and the Colorado landscapes that have been missing wolves for so long.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will release a draft of its own wolf reintroduction plan in the coming months, but the conservationists decided to release theirs in advance in hopes that it would influence the agency’s strategy. A spokesperson for CPW told Colorado Public Radio that environmentalists have not been excluded from the planning process and that there are members of conservation groups on both committees working on the reintroduction plan. 

Rural communities, led by ranchers and hunters, largely opposed the ballot measure to reintroduce wolves, characterizing it as a misguided policy backed by urbanites who wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences. Hunters argued that wolves would reduce the populations of elk that draw thousands of big game hunters to the state each year. Ranchers are concerned that wolves will kill and stress their livestock, and argued that apex predators including bears and mountain lions are already preying on their herds.

Meetings are underway to help define the state’s reintroduction plan, and conservationists say a significant portion of the conversation has focused on whether wolves will eventually be allowed to be hunted. 

Reintroducing wolves presents the opportunity to restore balance to Colorado’s “out of whack” wildlands, said Lindsay Larris, the wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. Colorado has the largest populations of elk in the U.S., and also large deer and moose populations, but in the absence of an apex predator like the wolf, herbivore populations can get too big and have negative effects on native vegetation and ecosystems. Chronic wasting disease — a contagious neurological disease — is also a problem among these animals, and it is thought that wolves’ tendency to hunt weaker and sicker animals could limit its toll.

The conservationists’ plan identified more than 11.6 million acres suitable for wolf introduction west of the Continental Divide, which is where Proposition 114 specified that wolves be reintroduced. These areas — which include Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and a number of other national forests and conservation areas — were broken into 12 “pack zones,” chosen by criteria including the presence of prey such as elk and deer, road and forest density, and public ownership. 

Colorado could support a minimum of 750 wolves, or 150 packs, defined as four or more wolves traveling together in winter, according to the plan. Noting that the reintroduction ballot measure called for a “self-sustaining population” of wolves, the plan cited several studies estimating that populations must range from 1,000 to more than 6,000 to be genetically viable in the long term. No regions of the U.S. where wolves are present have populations that big, but Colorado “has the opportunity to buck the trend of inadequacy and create a legitimately self-sustaining population,” the report said. 

Under the plan, killing wolves would be permitted in “extremely limited circumstances,” and nonlethal management methods — such as using fencing, adjusting calving timing and location, and increasing the use of shepherds and guardian animals — would be prioritized. In the initial phase of reintroduction, only people defending their lives or the lives of others would be allowed to kill wolves. 

“Native carnivores have an inherent right to exist on public lands,” said Aubyn Royall, Colorado state director at the Humane Society of the United States.

As the wolf population increased, there would be a few more circumstances under which wolves could be killed after preying on livestock — as long as it did not harm the overall population’s ability to recover. CPW — not landowners — would be allowed to kill wolves in cases of chronic depredation, but only if livestock owners had taken documented steps to minimize wolf-livestock conflict. 

While deferring to CPW on how to compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, the report did make several recommendations. Chief among them: Make sure that determining whether a livestock death was caused by a wolf falls to CPW — and not the USDA’s Wildlife Services agency, which has been accused of sabotaging wolf recovery in other states by falsely attributing livestock deaths to wolves.

The plan also broke down the wolf restoration effort into phases, beginning with the introduction of one breeding pair in each pack zone. Once the statewide population reaches at least 300 wolves for four years or when a minimum of 30 breeding pairs have been present for four years in eight pack zones, wolves would no longer be classified as endangered by the state and would instead be considered threatened. 

The third and final phase, in which wolves would no longer be considered threatened but “non-game,” would preclude hunting. That would happen once the population reaches 750 animals for four years or once 75 breeding pairs are present in 10 pack zones for four years. Chronic wasting disease among elk and deer would also have to decline in the pack zones. 

Bringing wolves back to Colorado has enormous promise, said the Sierra Club’s Malone, as long as it’s done correctly. “If there are enough, and if they’re protected in family groups and widely distributed, we will begin to see a recovery of Colorado’s wild ecosystems,” she said.

But even as policymakers and conservationists hash out the terms of their reintroduction, the wolves aren’t waiting. In 2021, a pair of wolves came to Colorado from Wyoming and had six pups.