Colorado is about to get a little more crowded. With 90 percent of the votes counted, Centennial State voters narrowly decided to reintroduce gray wolves into the state by 2023—50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.

One of the more controversial ballot initiatives, Proposition 114 asked voters if Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) should design a plan that would bring the canids back to the Western Slope, where they used to freely roam 100 years ago before being hunted to near extinction. The plan, which would take at least three years to implement, has been opposed by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Stop the Wolf Coalition, which is predominantly made up of Colorado’s ranchers and farming community. Its supporters, however, believe reintroduction would help control Colorado’s deer and elk populations—while also increasing wolf populations which have been struggling to stay viable for the last few decades. This election is the first time voters in any state have had a direct say in reintroducing gray wolves.

“I am delighted that the people have voted on behalf of wildlife and have made a statement about how much Colorado’s wilderness and biodiversity matters to them,” says Joanna Lambert, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and science advisor for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP), the organization pushing for wolf reintroduction. “As a wildlife biologist and conservation practitioner, I view this as a victory on behalf of conservation and see this democratic initiative as yet another tool in our toolbox of ecological restoration.”

(Read more about the move to reintroduce wolves in Colorado)

The opposition group against Proposition 114, Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, conceded defeat on the measure on Thursday, even as more votes continue to be counted. “Coloradans Protecting Wildlife stands firm in our belief that the forced introduction of wolves into Colorado is bad policy and should not have been decided by voters,” said spokesman Patrick Pratt in an email to supporters. “While the election did not turn out as we had hoped, we are moving forward to continue to educate Coloradans about the importance of this issue. The election results demonstrate that nearly half of Coloradans agree with us. We hope these election results show proponents, lawmakers, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that next steps must be taken in a measured, responsible way.”

And that way forward will be a challenging one. Just last week, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. While the animal is still a protected species in Colorado, Lambert told 5280 last week that the removal of federal protections will make reintroduction even more difficult. “I am most worried about the fact that while we do have a viable protection of gray wolves in the northern Rockies—as well as in the very upper midwest—getting wolf populations reestablished outside of those areas will be difficult without that federal protection,” Lambert said.

Now that the initiative has passed, the work to determine the most viable means of reintroduction begins. A press release sent by CPW on Thursday evening said that the agency would be reaching out to key stakeholders, as well as other state agencies with experience introducing the species, to develop the plan over the coming months.

“Our agency consists of some of the best and brightest in the field of wildlife management and conservation,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow in a statement. “I know our wildlife experts encompass the professionalism, expertise, and scientific focus that is essential in developing a strategic species management plan. CPW is committed to developing a comprehensive plan and in order to do that, we will need input from Coloradans across our state. We are evaluating the best path forward to ensure that all statewide interests are well represented.”

Wolves have been spotted throughout parts of northwestern Colorado as recently as earlier this year, including a pack of six confirmed by CPW north of Dinosaur National Monument. While the predators have been seen within state boundaries on and off for decades, Lambert questioned whether a pack would establish a functional breeding population here without a formal reintroduction. “A single pack with a couple wolves here and there is not a viable population,” she told 5280 in January.

(MORE: All the results from the 2020 election

Erin Skarda
Erin Skarda
Erin is a Denver-based writer and the former digital editor for 5280.
Victoria Carodine
Victoria Carodine
Victoria Carodine is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.