About a year from now, Colorado wildlife officials must begin releasing gray wolves across the Western Slope and they’ll spend the months in between fine-tuning their strategy for the reintroduction.
How many wolves will be brought into the state and where they’ll be released are among the details yet to be finalized. But Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have been studying how best to reintroduce the endangered predators into the state and how to manage them since the narrow and contentious passage of Proposition 114 in 2020.
Two committees — a technical and stakeholder advisory group — made their own recommendations to state officials in August and CPW will release its draft strategy Friday morning ahead of a months-long public comment period when the agency will further revise that plan.
A member of the state’s Technical Working Group and two wildlife experts at the environmental nonprofit WildEarth Guardians spoke with The Denver Post about what they expect CPW’s draft strategy to look like. And they began with the number of wolves likely on the way to Colorado.
Mike Phillips, a conservation biologist based, said he expects the state to introduce a total of 30 to 50 wolves to start.
Ideally, Phillips, who is based out of the greater Yellowstone area in Montana and sat on Colorado’s Technical Working Group, said that the reintroduction process should take no longer than 30 months, meaning between 10 and 15 wolves could be brought to the state each year.
With a base population of about 50 wolves, Colorado wildlife officials could stop bringing wolves into the state and focus instead on managing the existing packs and watching to see if they breed naturally, Phillips said.
“If not then you’d have to go back into reintroduction mode and release more animals,” he said.
Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said she and others at her organization would like to see more wolves reintroduced to the state, which would better ensure the animals thrive and reproduce.
As for where the wolves will be reintroduced, Chris Smith, southwest wildlife advocate with WildEarth Guardians, said they must be reintroduced west of the continental divide. That much was spelled out in Proposition 114.
Aside from that, though, voters didn’t give any additional direction on where the wolves will be released, Smith said. But recommendations from the stakeholder and technical working groups did give some insight into what’s possible.
Smith said state officials appear likely to release wolves into a sort of “donut hole” region, roughly outlined by areas northwest of Vail, southeast of Gunnison, southwest of Montrose and northwest of Glenwood Springs.
WildEarth Guardians had recommended that state officials release wolves across a wider swathe of the Western Slope, with 13 different recommended locations, Smith said. That geographic diversity might help them grow faster.
But Phillips is less sure that the release location matters.
State officials are going to drive the wolves to the end of a logging road, open up crates holding the wolves and just let them go, Phillips said. From there, the wolves will wander, typically north. And they might travel up to 60 miles from their original location before settling down.
“They’re gonna look around and say ‘I don’t really know where I am, I don’t really know where I’m going but this looks pretty good right here,’” Phillips said.
Perhaps the most important factor in where state officials release the wolves is their proximity to a state border, Phillips said. If they’re too close the wolves might wander into Wyoming, for example, where hunting wolves is legal.
Three members of Colorado’s only confirmed wolf pack near Walden might have been killed in Wyoming recently after wandering across the state line.
That possibility is also why Larris said she’s hoping the state releases a larger number of wolves into the wild.
“If they cross a line you could lose half a pack and that’s really going to slow down building a self-sustaining population,” she said.
Phillips said he’s hoping for a buffer of about 70 miles between wherever the wolves are released and the nearest state border.
Once the wolves are released they’ll enjoy both state and federal protections for endangered species. As their populations grow, Phillips said they will likely be removed from the endangered species list and instead put on a list of threatened species. If they grow further still – perhaps to about 200 wolves – they’ll likely be removed from the threatened list as well.
But at all times the wolves should remain listed as a non-game species, Phillips said. In other words, people shouldn’t be allowed to hunt them at all.
There will likely still be occasions when wolves could be killed, Phillips said.
If – or more likely when – wolves attack livestock, the state will reimburse farmers and ranchers for their losses. But if there are instances where certain wolves are deemed to be especially problematic, they might have to be killed, Phillips said.
Because the wolves remain a federally protected species, that killing will have to be done with the blessing of the federal government, Phillips said. And it’s not yet clear whether ranchers themselves or officials in Colorado will be allowed to do the killing or what that process might look like, he said.
In all, Phillips expressed optimism toward the upcoming draft plan and said he has faith both in Colorado Parks and Wildlife but also the Gov. Jared Polis’ administration.
“I expect it’s going to be a solid plan,” Phillips said.
Phillips also called Colorado’s Western Slope a “supremely suitable” habitat for wolves, perhaps the best in the world. Plus, once repopulated with the wolves, the region holds the key to connecting packs both to the north and to the south.
“It’s the archstone for establishing a metapopulation – that is, a population of populations – of gray wolves from the high Arctic to the Mexican border,” Phillips said. “There’s no other place in the world where you can imagine restoring a population of large carnivores across an entire continent.”
Once the draft plan is published, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will kick off a series of public comment sessions, the contents of which will all be taken into consideration before the reintroduction strategy is finalized.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission won’t vote on whether to adopt a final plan until early May. State officials are required under Proposition 114 to begin physically reintroducing the wolves by next December.
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