Five gray wolves released on the Western Slope, with more to come
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County on Monday as part of a voter-approved ballot initiative passed in 2020 that required wolf reintroduction by the end of 2023.
The release of three male and two female wolves — mostly juveniles — is part of an effort to develop a permanent, self-sustaining gray wolf population in Colorado. Wildlife officials are aiming for a population of roughly 30 to 50 wolves in the next three to five years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated the Colorado wolf population as “experimental” under Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. That grants CPW some flexibility over how they manage the population, so even though the animal is considered “threatened” at the state and federal level, CPW can lethally remove a wolf from the landscape if it poses a threat to people or livestock in Colorado.
Gray wolves can provide ecological benefits as apex predators, according to wildlife biologists who study their impacts over time, by targeting weak and sick members of grazing populations and encouraging large ungulates to avoid sensitive, open riparian habitats that leave them vulnerable to attack. Yellowstone National Park saw increased biodiversity following wolf reintroduction in 1995. However, the contentious species can also target livestock and provide competition for big game hunters.
Special interest groups representing the cattle industry sued CPW and the Fish and Wildlife Service last week in an effort to stop the release of the wolves. But according to the Associated Press, a judge ruled the release could continue while the case was ongoing.
Colorado’s ballot initiative passed by a narrow margin, with many Front Range voters approving the effort and many people on the Western Slope voting against it. Pitkin County was an anomaly compared to most other Western Slope counties, with 62% of local voters approving the measure.
Relocating the wolves
The five gray wolves were captured in Oregon, where CPW veterinarians and biologists evaluated the animals to determine if they were fit for relocation. In a news release on Monday, CPW said criteria included the age, sex, health and physical condition of each animal.
The three male and two female wolves are black or gray and range from 68 to 108 pounds.
The release from CPW noted that “each gray wolf was weighed and measured. Staff collected genetic material — tissue and blood samples — before fitting each with a GPS satellite collar for tracking.”
The wolves were then given vaccines, placed in crates and flown to Colorado.
In the press release, Gov. Jared Polis called it a historic event.
“For the first time since the 1940s, the howl of wolves will officially return to Western Colorado,” Polis said. “The shared efforts to reintroduce wolves are just getting started and wolves will rejoin a diverse ecosystem of Colorado wildlife.”
CPW said it will repeat this process until at least 10 to 15 wolves have been reintroduced in Colorado by mid-March of 2024, as outlined in the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. The plan was developed through a series of stakeholder meetings and outreach efforts over the course of two years.
The state agency said the next group of wolves relocated to Colorado will come from nearby states in the northern Rocky Mountains, and CPW staff will select them from several different packs by trapping and darting them during the winter season.
You can watch CPW’s footage of the release here.