Colorado wildlife officials plan to capture between 30 and 50 gray wolves from other states in the northern Rocky Mountain region over the next three to five years and release them into forests on the western slopes of the state, according to a draft plan released on Friday.
These wolves are meant to act as a seed, which will hopefully grow into a self-sustaining population, restoring endangered species to at least a fraction of their former glory.
The reintroduction effort is mandated by Proposition 114, which voters narrowly approved in 2020 and which over the years has pitted rural West Rim communities against the much more urban Front Range.
Since the vote two years ago, Colorado parks and wildlife officials have studied how best to reintroduce predators and manage their packs in perpetuity. Their draft plan is the culmination of that work so far, CPW Commission President Carrie Besnette Hauser said Friday morning. It will also likely be changed in the coming months as the agency holds public comment sessions ahead of a final vote scheduled for early May.
“Today is our starting point,” said Besnette Hauser.
The draft plan is meant to be one the majority of the public can support, Besnette Hauser said. It is also meant to leave room for evolution and change with “lessons learned and wisdom gained”.
Colorado wildlife officials will begin physically releasing wolves by the end of next December, a deadline set by Proposition 114.
The agency will capture between 10 and 15 wild wolves a year for the next three to five years by trapping, darting or “netching” them each fall and winter, the draft plan says. The wolves will likely come from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, or Wyoming.
Eric Odell, species conservation program manager, said the wolves are likely to all be caught and released during the winter months. And state officials will conduct what they call a “hard release,” meaning they will be released as soon as they are in the right place, with no acclimatization period.
The proposal also states that the wolves will be released on the western slope (a source of contention for the region since the Front Range largely carried the measure to victory) but otherwise offers no specific direction on the location. The draft plan says wolves should be released at least 60 miles from New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming state borders as well as Native American tribal borders.
State wildlife officials will track the wolves using GPS collars after they are released in Colorado, the draft plan says. The collars will help them understand which wolves survive and where they travel, which can help inform future release efforts.
The first wolves to be released late next year will likely be released in the area around Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Vail, Odell said. They will be released on private or public land that appears to provide a good ecological home for wolves with low risk of human interaction.
Wherever wolves are deposited, they will likely travel dozens of miles before settling in a suitable location, Mike Phillips, a conservation biologist based in the greater Yellowstone area, told the Denver Post.
Phillips and other wildlife experts from the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians have expressed concern that if wolves released in Colorado travel too far, they could cross state lines and enter a territory where they are legal hunting targets. Such appears to be the fate of three wolves living in North Park, who were likely killed recently after wandering north into Wyoming.
But killed wolves aren’t the only concern that has surfaced throughout the reintroduction process. Ranchers and farmers on the West Slope have repeatedly warned that they expect pack hunters to target their livestock.
The North Park pack killed at least three cows and two dogs. And wolves remain the prime suspect in the death of 40 cattle near Meeker. No evidence of wolves has yet been found near Meeker, although wildlife officials continue to investigate.
The draft plan says the state will reimburse herders and farmers for lost livestock. And under certain conditions, problematic wolves will also likely be killed.
Regardless of the implementation of deadly control measures, wildlife advocates and wolf experts have warned that the species should never be hunted for recreational purposes.
While the draft plan recognizes that recreational hunting is an eventual possibility, CPW senior biologist Brian Dreher said it does not set out a specific pathway for this process.
Currently, the wolves are listed by the state as endangered, Dreher said. Once their population has reached a total of 50 wolves and remains at that level for at least four years, they can be “downgraded” to an endangered species. Once the predators have reached a population of 150 for two years or if they reach a total of 200 wolves, they could be downgraded again and listed simply as a “non-game” species.
“At this point, Wolves could stay with non-playing status,” Dreher said. “This plan does not contemplate any regulated hunting goals or objectives.”
While wolves can be expected to hunt wildlife and even prey on livestock, attacks on humans are unlikely, Odell said.
“Wolves are generally fearful of people and rarely pose a threat to human safety,” Odell said.
Now that CPW’s draft plan is released, the agency will hold five public comment sessions, which will be used to further refine the document. These meetings will be held Jan. 19 in Colorado Springs, Jan. 25 in Gunnison, Feb. 7 in Rifle, Feb. 16 online, and Feb. 22 in Denver.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission will not vote on adopting a final plan until early May.
This is a developing story and will be updated.