Colorado is no stranger to the gray wolf. It was only six months ago that a canid was sighted in Jackson County in northwest Colorado, which shares a border with Wyoming. And just last week, a scavenged elk carcass surrounded by large footprints was found near Irish Canyon, north of Dinosaur National Monument. Now, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) have announced that multiple wolves are likely residing in the state after a credible source reported seeing six large canids traveling together in northwest Colorado in October. Two of the wolves were even captured on video.
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Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP), the coalition working to bring wolves back to the Western Slope, successfully secured a spot for its petition on the 2020 ballot after state election officials validated over 200,000 signatures in favor of the wolf reintroduction on January 7. That means that the potential reintroduction of wolves will be decided by Colorado voters on November 3, through Initiative 107.
But if wolves are already traveling in and out of Colorado—and possibly residing here on their own—is a reintroduction plan really necessary? Well, it’s complicated.
“Wolves have been appearing on and off over the decades,” Joanna Lambert, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and science advisor for the RMWP, says. “What the issue is really, is whether or not this pack of six animals can ultimately establish a functional breeding population. A single pack with a couple wolves here and there is not a viable population.” Back in 1995, when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, there were already a few wolves located in and around the park. “But it did not influence whether reintroduction took place simply because there just weren’t enough animals for it to be a functioning, viable population.”
Because wolves have been sighted in different parts of Colorado over the last 20 years, it is likely that they will visit the state again, whether Initiative 107 passes or not. Wolves live and hunt in packs and are known to travel great distances, about 12 miles a day. Because wolves have been reintroduced in Yellowstone, which spans Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the mammals historically have left their protected territory and ventured into the Centennial State—but the journey isn’t always easy. Back in 2004, a wolf was killed in a vehicle collusion on I-70 near Idaho Springs. Three years later, a wolf was captured on video by two CPW officers near the Colorado–Wyoming border. And in 2009, a dead gray wolf with a radio collar was found outside of Rifle.
“Wolves barely make it to Colorado simply because they have to make it through some pretty hostile habitats,” Lambert says. While gray wolves are on the Endangered Species list, which is mandated by the Endangered Species Act, they are managed by state agencies in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. According to Lambert, some wolves who leave their protected areas in places like Wyoming are killed because the public is legally allowed to hunt them—which is a common wildlife management practice.
But wolves are safe in Colorado—for now. Back in 2016, CPW officials reminded the public—after an influx of wolf sightings —that wolves are federally protected and killing a wolf can result in a year in prison and fines up to $100,000 per offense. However, whether or not wolves can eventually be hunted here like they can be in Wyoming will be a part of a proposed management plan, if and when Initiative 107 passes.
“Hunting remains the primary management tool for species like elk, deer, wolves, bears, and so on,” says Mike Porras, the public information officer of CPW’s northwest regions. “Management agencies use hunting to maintain levels that not only are sustainable by a habitat but by what society is willing to tolerate.”
While an entire wolf pack was able to travel to the Centennial State safely and will possibly stay here—there is no evidence of a den yet—members of the RMWP and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF) are still hoping Coloradans will view reintroduction as necessary to ensure the recovery of gray wolves come election day.
“All of the other wolves that have come down here, and have been seen, ultimately perished or disappeared without a trace,” says Rob Edward, president of the RMWAF. “So, reintroduction is the only way that we will see sustainable population developed in the western part of Colorado in our lifetime.” And while Edward doesn’t think the recent news of a wolf pack in Colorado will sway voters, he is certain the opposition will use this evidence to convince Coloradans to vote against Initiative 107.
“I think it should persuade people to oppose the initiative,” says Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “We certainly are.” Henning believes wolves are already moving here on their own and it would be a lot cheaper if Colorado didn’t administer a forced reintroduction.
In the meantime, Colorado can expect to see more wolves crossing the border and hunting in the state. CPW—which remains neutral in regards to the ballot initiative—has officers throughout the Centennial State keeping tabs on wildlife populations, including wolves. According to Porras, “Wolves in Colorado remain under the jurisdiction of the of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). And so at this point, any tracking efforts would likely be initiated by them.”
If Initiative 107 passes in November, CPW will need to secure a permit from the USFWS in order to manage wolves on a state level, according to Lambert. “The motivation behind reintroducing wolves to Colorado is that it will facilitate the species’ recovery, which will ultimately result in delisting at the federal level,” Lambert says.
If USFWS delists wolves, which is under consideration, the authority of managing the species would return to the state. “We don’t know anything about the process or have any timeline about the details yet,” Porras says.