Gray Wolf Reintroduction, What Does 2023 Look Like In Colorado?

By: Kalli Hawkins + Save to a List

Proposition 114 passed in Colorado and now the planning process begins. What does 2023 look like for gray wolf reintroduction?

I followed this issue closely once I learned it was being placed on the November 2020 Colorado ballot. I was quite shocked that the reintroduction of a predatory species had found its way to a statewide vote. On that November 3rd day, while watching other monumental ballot issues, I kept a watchful eye on Proposition 114: Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative (2020). The tallied votes continually swayed back and forth from 49% to 51%. In historical significance, Colorado residents voted yes on the ballot issue of Reintroduction of Gray Wolves into the State. Just barely. The final tally of votes was 50.91% Yes to 49.09% No, with a separation of just 56,986 votes.

The fundamental components of Proposition 114 were fairly unambiguous; Colorado Parks and Wildlife has to formulate a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves west of the continental divide (western slope) by 2023. So what does the year 2023 look like for Colorado? How will the first reintroduced wolves fair? Fortunately, we do have some insights into what that process will look like, thanks to Yellowstone National Park.

Gray Wolves have had a nearly 80-year absence in the State of Colorado after their eradication in 1940. While multiple sightings have been reported in the last decade across Northern Colorado, there hasn’t been a confirmed pack living in the state until just this year. Coincidentally, the same year that the species' reintroduction was put on the ballot. Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed a pack had indeed moved down from Wyoming in January of 2020. It was suspected that once the wolf populations were stable across Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho that naturally, a wolf pack would venture down into Colorado. A valid argument could be, why should the State spend millions throughout the next 3 years if reintroduction is occurring naturally? It would be a slower process and have uncertain success, but there was no time to consider that possibility. The ball was already rolling on allowing the decision of the reintroduction of wolves to be left up to a statewide public vote.

Every issue will have its benefits and downfalls, especially a controversial issue such as reintroducing a predatory species into a state. I wanted to address and touch on some Pros & Cons that will arise throughout the next few years.

Pros:

1. Reintroduction of a keystone species

The Yellowstone National Park success story. A keystone species can be considered to be the glue that holds the ecosystem intact. The species provides a check and balance scenario for flora and fauna within the ecosystem. Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF) President Rob Edward states, "Gray wolves are the ecological engines of the northern hemisphere."

2. Increased job opportunities

Job opportunities may arise within the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Wolf Management Department. Jobs could also arise in the private sector and non-profit organizations as activism and tourism increase.

3. Statewide education programs and conservation efforts

I am most excited about this one. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, along with other governmental organizations, have really stepped up their game in educating the public in recent years. With the age of increased social media use, there has been a valiant effort from the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to educate and inform the public as much and as frequently as possible. I look forward to the education programs and further conservation programs that will be developed in the following years.

4. Increased appreciation for a species

After the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, there were countless groups of people who came to observe and, in turn, fell in love with the species. During the summer, it is common to see Slough Hill filled with people standing behind spotting scopes, hoping to catch a glimpse of a wolf. Facebook groups were formed, communities and activists rallied for further protection, and dedicated observers soon became renowned authors. Wolves haven’t just impacted the physical landscape of Yellowstone; they have also impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Cons:

1. The landscape where wolves once roamed is not the same

Colorado’s population is booming. What was once a state of 1.13 million inhabitants in 1940 is drastically different from a state that is now home to 5.7 million people. The boundary between humans and wildlife are constantly intertwined. News headlines are persistently sprinkled with bears rummaging through mountain town’s trash bins during the night, breaking into cars at trailheads, or even sneaking their way into the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Elk gangs flood the streets of Estes Park, and a hungry juvenile mountain lion attacks a runner in midday at Horsetooth Reservoir. These occurrences will continue to happen, and predominantly when one occurs, it negatively impacts the animal as it is tracked down to be euthanized or relocated. Now add wolves into the mix; it won’t be long before they are featured in news headlines as well.

2. "It worked in Yellowstone, so it will work here…".

It did work in Yellowstone; however, Yellowstone is drastically different from the area that has been chosen to release wolves in Colorado. The 41 wolves reintroduced into the National Park had 3,500 sq. miles to roam with minimal human interaction. Predominantly confined to an area where they were protected and had diverse landscapes free of livestock, humans, and pets.

3. Money. The cost of reintroducing a species is frankly expensive, let alone an apex predator

Where is that money coming from? Here's where: hunting and fishing license fees. The sportsman and women of Colorado will have to foot the bill for the reintroduction of this species. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s fiscal note, they estimate that the reintroduction process could cost $5.7 million over the course of 8 years. There will be continued costs after the fact as Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be responsible for compensating ranchers for any lost cattle, sheep, llamas, horses, and various other livestock. During the Yellowstone National Park reintroduction, the organization Defenders of Wildlife footed the bill for ranchers who lost livestock taken by wolf packs on multiple occasions. I would love to see the two main supporters of Proposition 114, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund and Sierra Club, come forward to do the same.

4. Ungulate populations

While there has been an influx in elk and deer population in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and surrounding regions in recent years, this is not where the wolves would be released. The National Park and its proximity to the Front Range, where a higher density of the human population resides, lies east of the continental divide. As a result, the reintroduction of wolves cannot occur here. Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages elk and deer populations by issuing hunting licenses per Game Management Units (GMU’s) across Colorado. Certain GMU’s have seen increases in population numbers throughout the past five years, while others have been steadily declining. The Southwest corner of Colorado has been one of the regions to experience a steady decline in elk populations since 2017. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will have to analyze population numbers over the next three years to determine where the pl’ placement will succeed among a thriving ungulate population. A concern among hunters is that elk and deer hunting licenses could be reduced in areas where wolves are to be released.

As addressed, there are valid arguments that can be made for both sides of this issue. Having a conversation about it is important, and that will be Colorado Parks and Wildlife's main objective over the next three years. To have conversations with the public, inform, educate, and in 2023 hopefully see a successful reintroduction.

A turn of events that occurred on October 29th, 2020 was the Department Of Interior announced a rule to remove the gray wolf from federal protections nationwide under the Endangered Species Act. What does this mean? Management and control over the species are transferred from the United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) to the States. Now Colorado Parks and Wildlife will take over management and financial costs of the reintroduction. The States have complete control of managing their wolf populations and are allowed to hold hunting and trapping seasons. However, as Colorado does not currently have a stable wolf population, the species will stay on the State endangered list, and the lawful take of the species will not apply.

I suspect there will be endless litigations regarding this issue at both the federal and state level for years to come. I plan to follow the reintroduction process over the next three years and am very interested in what regions of the state Colorado Parks and Wildlife will choose to reintroduce gray wolves into. Hopefully, 25 years from now, we too can look back and say that we made the right decision.

Resources to learn more:

Colorado Parks & Wildlife - Wolf Management

Proposition 114: Wolf Reintroduction Initiative 2020

Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

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