Science Notes

Everything you Need to Know about Colorado’s Wold Introduction

By Kayla Zacharias

March 2021

The Issue

Over the last 200 years, humans have driven several species to endangered status or extinction. Some have been lost to overhunting and some have had their habitat destroyed by conversion to farmland. One of these unlucky species, gray wolves, were nearly wiped out in the 1940s. 

As colonial Americans traveled further and further west throughout the 1800s, they started killing large numbers of big game, eliminating much of the wolves’ diet. As wolves started to turn to livestock for food, they became a new target for ranchers. The last wild wolf in Colorado was killed in 1945; and now – more than 75 years later – wolves are coming back. 

Photo by Gunnar Ries (CC-BY-NC-ND)

In November 2020, voters approved Proposition 114, which directed the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope. The measure barely passed, with 50.91% of voters approving and 49.09% voting no. Wolf reintroductions in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park have faced similarly contentious battles. 

The Debate

Why is the concept so polarizing? Often, opinions about the reintroduction of wolves are not based on science or facts, said Joanna Lambert, a wolf expert and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

“The amount of fear and loathing towards wolves is disproportionate to the reality of biology. I would argue that a lot of that comes from what I call historical and cultural inertia from Western Europe,” said Lambert. “In Western Europe, wolves have been extirpated since the 1500s, and since then, a lot of narratives and fairy tales have been written about wolves. When European settlers arrived in North America, they once again had to confront wolves and went about killing them off. Somewhere along the way we lost our knowledge about how to coexist with large body predators, such as wolves and bears.”

Much of the resistance to wolf introduction comes from the hunting and ranching communities. Ranchers are largely concerned about wolves killing their livestock, and hunters worry about dwindling numbers of big game as a result of wolf reintroduction. 

There is significant debate about how much wolves actually impact livestock populations, as numbers can vary significantly by source. According to a fact sheet from Colorado State University Extension, mortality caused by wolves is overall a small economic cost to the livestock industry. However, costs are unevenly distributed and localized, as some producers may suffer significant losses and others, none at all. 

“We know from records in the northern Rockies, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996, that the likelihood of livestock getting eaten by a wolf is vanishingly small – less than 1%. We also know that elk and deer populations have mostly increased since we reintroduced wolves,” said Lambert. “The numbers don’t bear out the fears, but it doesn’t really matter, because the numbers don’t matter. It’s more about values and the inertia of loathing toward wolves.”

Advocates for the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado say they hope the predator-prey balance in the state will be restored, ultimately creating healthier ecosystems. The return of wolves would change elk behavior, which could reduce overgrazing on riverbanks and create a more habitable environment for birds and beavers. Beavers can create healthier environments for fish and amphibians. Wolves may also mean fewer coyotes, which would allow foxes and ground squirrels to thrive, providing increased food sources for birds of prey. 

Wolves evolved in North America close to 1 million years ago, and they had been roaming around and coevolving with other species up until the 1940s. Reintroducing wolves would not only regulate predator-prey interactions, but restore the evolutionary and ecological integrity of the ecosystem, Lambert said. 

Why Colorado, and Why Now?

The location of wolf reintroduction in Colorado is intentional. Gray wolves can now be found along the West Coast, from Washington to California; in the northern Rocky Mountains (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming); and in Arizona and New Mexico. An analysis of available habitat between those populations would show a clear location: Colorado. 

“Colorado is in an ideal position to provide a link between the Mexican gray wolf population and the northern Rockies gray wolf population,” said Lambert. “We also have excellent public lands here. For these reasons, people have been talking about reintroducing wolves in Colorado for decades.”

Case Studies 

Although Colorado is the first state to let voters decide whether to bring back wolves, acts by the federal government during the last several decades have reintroduced wolves in the northern Rockies, New Mexico, Arizona and the Carolinas. Although reintroduction efforts in the Carolinas and the Southwest have struggled to significantly improve populations, wolves introduced to Yellowstone and Idaho have done very well. Currently, there are only about 20 red wolves left in the wild, and attempting to build back a thriving population from such a limited number of animals is a challenge. Gray wolves, on the other hand, started with much more of a fighting chance; there are now about 7,000 in the continental U.S., with another 7,000 to 11,000 in Alaska. 

“The biology of wolves is such that if given half a chance, they’ll do well. They are highly social animals; they’ll find each other and mate,” Lambert said. “The populations have indeed grown, and now they’ve connected with populations in Canada.”

Wolf Legislation This Session

Several bills regarding the reintroduction of wolves will be considered this legislative session, including SB21-105: Implement and Finance Gray Wolf Introduction; HB21-1037: Limit Designated Lands Gray Wolf Reintroduction; and HB21-1040: General Fund Money for Reintroduction of Wolves. Although it is technically the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission’s responsibility to develop a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves in the state, legislators still need to work out some details regarding funding and geographical restrictions. 

Proposition 114, which mandated the restoration of gray wolves in Colorado, specifies that the species should only be introduced on the western side of the Continental Divide. It is up to the state’s Parks and Wildlife Commission to determine which specific areas they will be returned to. However, HB21-1037 aims to prevent the reintroduction of wolves in counties where the majority of voters voted no on Proposition 114. Also in the bill as an amendment to prevent wolf reintroduction in counties where any prey species is a candidate for listing or has been listed as endangered or threatened. 

The Bottom Line

Gray wolves are coming back to Colorado and the logistics of reintroduction will be decided by the state’s Parks and Wildlife Commission. Proposition 114 provides guidelines for the policy, but legislation approved this session will clarify details related to funding and locations of reintroduction.

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