What it was like to witness the first wolves released in Colorado, and what happens next
The first group of gray wolves was released in Colorado this week after voters narrowly approved a statewide ballot initiative in 2020 to reintroduce the species.
The ballot measure broadly pitted environmentalists, who were in favor of reintroducing the species that once played a critical role in the ecosystem, against ranchers and hunters who were concerned about the loss of livestock and big game.
According to state wildlife officials, wolves were eradicated from Colorado in the 1940s and were among the first animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Colorado Public Radio’s Sam Brasch was one of a handful of reporters selected to be onsite when Colorado Parks and Wildlife reintroduced five wolves - three males and two females - from Oregon onto state-owned public lands in Grand County on Monday.
Aspen Public Radio spoke with Brasch about what it was like to witness ‘paws hitting the ground.’
The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Eleanor Bennett: So Sam, can you tell us a little bit more about the actual reintroduction itself? Who was there and how did it all work?
Sam Brasch: So it was a big mystery to us reporters Monday morning. I was one of three reporters allowed in this press pool, and we met CPW at a rest stop, and then we were driven to the release site. The agency had flown five wolves from Oregon earlier that morning. And when we got there, each one was in these dark metal crates in the backs of pickup trucks. They were then driven to a small clearing where there were about 45 invited guests who wanted to watch the releases — that included CPW officers, Governor Polis, his husband, and top wolf advocates from around the state. Then we watched the governor help open each crate. Three of the wolves bolted up out over a snow covered road into the woods immediately. You know, two others took their time before just kind of sauntering out of their crates and running into the woods.
Bennett: And one of the wolves actually looked back at you, is that right? What was it like to be up close with these wild animals as they were being released?
Brasch: That's right, this was the second wolf. It was a molted, gray female, and it was this really chilling moment when she looked back at the crowd kind of curiously and then wandered off into the woods and disappeared. You know, I've seen a lot of large dogs and I didn't think it would be that different from seeing wolves, but they're very different looking animals. I mean, it's clear that these are something far more wild. And to see them go back onto Colorado's landscape, I think took everybody's breath away just a little bit.
Bennett: Wow. Well, I have to say I am jealous that you got to be there because it's such a unique experience to have. And it sounds like state officials are still keeping the exact location secret and the whole process felt a little cloak and dagger with no date announced beforehand. Why was that?
Brasch: So, Colorado Parks and Wildlife told us it wants to protect the safety and security of these release operations. You know, it's important to remember this isn't the only release. The state is already under contract with Oregon to capture up to five more wolves. And the state hasn't said exactly what it's worried about, but it's clear there's many opponents to having wolves back in Colorado. You know, one good example is wolves that naturally migrated back into the state across the Wyoming border over the last few years. It's legal to kill wolves in Wyoming and a recent report in WyoFile investigated losses from Colorado's first modern wolf pack in Moffat County — and it confirmed hunter's lured three of those wolves back across the border and shot them where it was completely legal to do so.
Bennett: Okay. So that might be an example of something they'd be worried about.
Bennett: And did state wildlife officials tell you anything about how far these wolves might travel? I know there are a lot of folks listening here in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys who are probably wondering, ‘Are wolves going to be in our backyard in the coming year?’
Brasch: I think that's something you should probably expect. In Colorado's wolf plan, it says that in examples of other sorts of hard releases, you know, where they just open up crates and let wolves go, that those wolves can disperse immediately up to 50 miles and they're very good at dispersing further beyond that. I'm not looking at a map and I don't know exactly what the distance is from this location to the Roaring Fork Valley, but my guess would be it's close enough. And even if it doesn't happen immediately, wolves are very good at moving across landscapes. And one of the hopes of this reintroduction effort is that they eventually do colonize places like the Roaring Fork Valley.
Bennett: So the first five wolves are now out there in the wild. What happens next?
Brasch: So these five wolves are all wearing GPS and telemetry collars that should help the state track them and investigate any future cases of livestock depredation to wolves. As far as future releases, like I said, Colorado has an agreement with Oregon to capture up to five more wolves immediately. I know that they're also in conversations with Washington and the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho. Their reservation might be interested in supplying wolves as well, and the state hopes to release a total of up to 50 wolves over the next five years.
Bennett: Okay. And there were two lawsuits filed by ranching and hunting groups to try and stop wolf reintroduction in the last week. Obviously, they weren't able to stop this first round, but is there a chance they might impact efforts in the coming months?
Brasch: I mean, that's anybody's guess, but I think it's unlikely. The main goal of these lawsuits was to pause the first reintroductions and allow time for a full environmental review. A federal judge already denied one request saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife followed standard procedure in approving Colorado's wolf plan. I doubt we'll see that shift from that judge or another judge, especially since reintroductions are already happening.
Bennett: Well thanks so much, Sam. We really appreciate the fact that you were there on the ground when, you know, ‘paws hit the ground.’ And thanks for joining us.
Brasch: Yeah, glad to be here.