Wolves Hit the Ground in Colorado

Ten wolves were released in Colorado’s Summit and Grand counties in December in an effort to establish a population there.

Wolves Hit the Ground in Colorado

In December, Colorado Parks and Wildlife carried out a voter-mandated release of wolves in the state that’s home to the world’s largest elk herd. Ten wolves, sourced from Oregon, bounded from crates in two public land locations in Summit and Grand counties — the first major release in the West in almost three decades. The state plans to release 30 to 50 total in the coming years in an effort to establish a population, though wolves naturally dispersing from Wyoming had already established at least one breeding pack in Jackson County, which borders Grand County to the north. 

After getting little traction at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, which preferred naturally dispersed wolves over a forced introduction, wolf advocacy groups gathered enough signatures for a 2020 ballot initiative mandating a release. RMEF and a coalition of conservation groups and ranching interests worked vigorously to defeat this “ballot box biology,” preferring natural dispersal as well. RMEF dedicated some $300,000 to this effort, which focused on swaying voters. Early polling found nearly six in 10 voters supported the measure, making its defeat a major challenge, says RMEF Chief Conservation Officer Blake Henning. 

“We took a very strategic and calculated approach,” he said. “We were communicating to our members that we were fighting this, but a lot of our efforts aimed to reach non-members, the folks in the urban centers that were going to make the difference in the vote.” 

In 2020, voters narrowly approved the ballot initiative. The vote — 50.91 percent to 49.09 percent — illustrated a sharp urban-rural divide as populous counties along the Front Range narrowly carried the initiative to victory over rural areas where, in most cases, voters opposed it. That included release locations on the Western Slope, home to Colorado’s largest herds of deer and elk. Stockgrowers filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in December attempting to halt the release. Josh Hardy, mayor of Granby, the largest town in Grand County, told KMGH-TV that many local ranchers, concerned about their livelihoods, felt dismayed and discouraged. “It was something that was just dropped in the laps of so many people that didn’t want it to begin with.” 

Following the initiative’s passage, RMEF pivoted to the public process surrounding the releases, engaging CPW as it drafted its wolf management plan, supporting legislation aimed at science-based management and providing tools for wildlife managers. After decades of working with wolves in other states, RMEF has a blueprint for its approach, Henning says. 

“Now that wolves are on the ground, we’re going to contribute dollars to science, research and monitoring. Once those populations are at what the management plan calls for, we’re going to want to see tools in place, whether through hunting or trapping, to manage their numbers.” 

In November, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the release under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, which provides management flexibility for the state to address conflicts, such as allowing agency staff to kill wolves that are killing livestock. RMEF and other groups supported this designation with the aim of helping ranchers and others most likely to be impacted.


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