Today marks a historic day for both those rooting for the reintroduction of displaced species to their native habitats and those opposed to the measure.
This morning, in Grand County, Colorado, 5 gray wolves were released into the wild, the first time in nearly 100 years that the species has put its paws on the rocky Centennial State soil.
3 males and 2 females were captured Sunday night in Oregon, evaluated by Colorado Parks & Wildlife veterinarians and biologists, and were fitted with tracking collars to monitor the migration and stability of this small pack. It’s hoped these wolves will reproduce and spur a stable population within the state.
A historic day for Colorado and for the first time ever — we released 5 wolves, 3 males and 2 females, in Grand County today.
Captured in Oregon, the wolves were evaluated by our veterinarians & biologists, fitted with GPS collars & transported to Colorado for their release. pic.twitter.com/1Q1EiRxoZf
While the video alone is awesome to see, you may have a few questions about how we got to this moment and the history of wolves within Colorado, so let’s take a deeper look.
Why were the wolves released?
In 2020, the first ever voter mandated reintroduction proposition passed by a very slim margin, with 51% voting in favor and 49% voting against. The reintroduction push was lead by well-funded urban majorities and wolf supporters along Colorado’s Front Range, while opposition was lead by farmers, cattle ranchers, and elk hunters, who fear the apex predator will destroy large portions of livestock and game animals, as well as create problems with residents of whatever areas the wolves decide to settle in.
Proposition 114 forced the government to create a plan to put “paws on the ground” by December 31st, 2023.
Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund board member and pro-wolf proponent Jim Pribyl made the following statement to The Denver Post:
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was never going to reintroduce the gray wolf to its habitat in the southern Rockies, and this grew out of frustration with the federal government for not fulfilling provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
(CPW) will do a world-class job (and seize) a golden opportunity for Colorado to reintroduce in the state, without federal resources, a carnivore and to do it in a way that is thoughtful, humane and respectful.”
Patrick Pratt, leader of the opposition group, said the following:
“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 the voters.
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.”
The wolves released today are the first of an expected 50 to be released in the next 3 to 5 years, with the next 10 planned to be released before March of 2024.
Today’s release fulfills the wish of Colorado voters who, in 2020, directed us to begin reintroducing wolves by Dec. 31, 2023 and kickstarts our goal to release 10-15 wolves by Mid-March 2024.
According to Gray Wolf Conservation, between 250,000 and 500,000 wolves once roamed nearly every region in the lower 48, excluding only most of the California coast. As with species like the bison and grizzly bear, industrialization and westward expansion of the United States forced nearly all wolves out of their natural habitat, but wolves especially received harsh treatment.
As the late 1800’s rolled around, hunters had eradicated many of the prey animals wolves rely on to survive, such as elk, bison, and deer. Domestic livestock were brought out to support the growing population and ranchers began killing as many predators, including wolves, as possible to protect their property. As ranchers’ herd sizes increased, so did their political power and many landowners began petitioning the federal government to do something about the packs of wolves that would wreak havoc on their animals.
Even President Teddy Roosevelt, known for his track record of environmental conservation, spoke very poorly about wolves, writing in his 1902 book Hunting The Grisly and Other Sketches:
“The wolf is the arch type of ravin, the beast of waste and desolation.”
Federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began offering a bounty to wolf hunters at $20 to $50 dollars a head and both local and federal agencies allowed for trapping, hunting, and even poisoning of wolves to protect livestock.
In Colorado, all wolves were eliminated by the 1940’s, although the population had effectively been zero for years before that point.
Positives of wolf reintroduction?
The first and easiest positive to see with wolf reintroduction is just a logical one. These animals called the area home long before US settlers arrived and, just like other native species in other states, maintaining the local flora and fauna not only benefits the remaining natural resources which depend on them to continue the so called circle of life, but it provides depth and a physical embodiment of the area’s culture and history.
The following reasons have also been cited as positives of wolf reintroduction.
Trophic Cascade: Given the current lack of predators in the state, prey animals such as elk and deer consume larger amounts of resources. This negatively impacts lower tier species like beaver, songbirds, and beetles, as well as vegetation such as willow and aspen trees, and ground plants like bluegrasses and wheatgrasses. Introducing wolves will hopefully help tamp down growing prey animal populations, the amount of resources they consume, and begin rebalancing the overall ecological system.
Reduction of coyote populations: Coyote population has grown significantly in nearly every state over the past few decades. Similar to the benefits listed above, wolves will remove some coyotes from the population, which will increase the number of rodents and small mammals for birds of prey to eat.
“Landscape of Fear”: While the term sounds daunting, it only refers to prey animals’ behavior when predators are around. Visitors to Colorado can find themselves face to face with an elk at any turn, a behavior that’s been spurred, some researchers say, by a lack of natural fear from predation. Increasing the numbers of predator animals can reduce the number of human-elk incidents.
Economic Value: A reduction in large prey animals, like elk and deer, will also reduce the number of car accidents involving wild animals every year. As those animals change their behaviors, they will become more risk adverse and try to stay away from potentially dangerous situations. This can save the lives of drivers and reduce costs of car accidents by millions, according to this study from the University of Wisconsin.
Negatives of wolf reintroduction?
The negatives of wolf introduction are a bit easier to understand.
Hunters are against reducing elk populations to keep their chances of a successful hunt as high as possible. Ranchers fear for the lives of their livestock and the impending financial hit they will take as wolves pick off members of their herds. (Note: The current reintroduction plan does offer compensation to ranchers for losses in livestock.)
While there have been few incidents of wolves attacking humans, it’s possible that’s only due to the low population levels seen over the past few decades. Residents fear wolves may become aggressive if they come into contact with humans, which is something that is almost guarantied to happen at one point or another.
Even if wolves don’t directly attack humans, their pets can be in danger. Just as mountain lions and alligators do now, residents fear their small dogs and cats could be targets for the wolves.
Has wolf reintroduction worked in the past?
In short, yes.
Wolves were extinct from Yellowstone National Park until the mid 1990’s. Several small groups of wolves were captured from nearby Canada and released into the park between 1994-1996, and while more relocations were in the works, those plans were scrapped due to how well the wolves took to their new home. Today, a stable population of around 97 wolves roams Yellowstone and data shows benefits to the overall environment due to the project.
The wolves primarily preyed on elk and those carcasses provided additional food to scavenger species. Grizzly bear population also stabilized as they began taking over an elk kill nearly at will, meaning more resources for the also protected grizzly. The coyote population seemingly decreased, allowing for increases in small mammals that positively impact the environment.
There have also been reports of once decimated trees, like the willow, growing taller and stronger than previously. This is attributed to elk needing to move through areas quicker as they don’t want to attract a hungry wolf pack.
Wolves were also reintroduced to central Idaho in the mid-90’s. A total of 35 wolves were released and the population immediately took to their new home. Similar environmental benefits to the Yellowstone reintroduction were seen, however, due to this region not being a well-regulated national park, there were numerous issues which came up regarding livestock degradation, which kicked off another slew of legal battles that are more or less still in progress.
Today, some 1,337 wolves roam the state of Idaho.
So what happens now?
The current plan states that 50 additional wolves will be released into Colorado over the next 3 to 5 years, with 10 more from Oregon to be released by March.
As you can imagine, there are a number of legal battles currently working through the courts which seek to overturn this Proposition, or change it in some major ways.
Two ranchers’ groups sued state and federal wildlife officials in hopes of delaying the initial release of wolves, but that was denied. They are continuing legal action and have refiled in federal court and another, separate federal lawsuit was also filed on December 14th.
Ranchers are preparing to fight off the wolves by stockpiling deterrent supplies approved by state officials, like LED lights, cracker shells, propane cannons, and electric fences, in hopes of protecting their livestock.
While the current law will allow for a rancher to kill a wolf if it’s found in the act of attacking livestock or a person, many are still confused on what exactly will be deemed legal and what will not.
A 4th generation sheep farmer in Gunnison County said to the Denver Post:
“We don’t know what it’s going to be like. A lot of the stress is the unknown.”
The results of this project are yet to be seen and it’s possible we won’t know for sure until many years in the future, but one thing is for certain: For better or worse, the landscape of Colorado will be changing.