Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans to release 30 to 50 gray wolves in sparsely populated areas of the state’s central mountains over the next three to five years, according to a draft plan released Friday.
The long-awaited draft plan irons out the details of a politically contentious wolf reintroduction scheme triggered by a referendum in 2020. It also sets up the state for battles over the future of wolves’ status as an endangered species and whether to hunt or trap them — debates that have attracted national attention in other Rocky Mountain states.
Wildlife officials plan to dart and capture wolves from northern states at a clip of 10 to 15 per year, then release them on private and state public land after fitting them with GPS tracking collars. All releases will take place at least 60 miles away from neighboring states or tribal lands to account for wolves’ tendency to roam far from their release sites.
The first releases will likely take place in a central location that encompasses the towns of Vail, Glenwood Springs and Aspen. An area just south of that, roughly between Montrose in the west and Gunnison in the east, is another likely spot for releases.
Officials will wait to see if the released wolves survive and form packs before deciding whether to release any more animals. Because only two wolves per pack usually breed, biologists use packs and breeding pairs to estimate population size and viability.
The plan promises to reignite explosive debates over the future of wolves’ protected status and whether Colorado will issue tags allowing people to hunt and trap them.
“This is a science-based plan,” Eric Odell, the state’s lead wolf restoration biologist, said in a presentation on Friday, later adding: “The greatest challenges associated with wolf restoration in Colorado will come from social issues, rather than biological issues.”
A federal court ruling in February restored Endangered Species Act protections to gray wolves as a “threatened” species in most of the Lower 48, including Colorado. Gray wolves are also considered an endangered species under Colorado state law.
Those protections bar wolf hunting and trapping for now, and the draft plan would not change that.
“This plan does not contemplate any regulated hunting goals or objectives,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Brian Dreher said at the presentation.
While the plan does not aim to delist wolves as a federal endangered species, it would request that Colorado wolves be listed as an “experimental” population instead of a threatened one under federal law. This would allow authorities some latitude to kill wolves for management purposes, including to halt killing of livestock.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans to request delisting wolves as a state endangered species when the population reaches 150 for two years in a row, or 200 regardless of time frame. And it envisions the possibility of classifying gray wolves as a “game species” once recovered, which would open the door to hunting and trapping.
Environmental groups largely panned the draft plan for not going far enough to protect the wolves.
The plan “ignores decades of scientific study from the Northern Rockies and from the Great Lakes states,” Delia Malone, ecologist and wildlife chair of the Colorado Sierra Club, said in an email. She faulted Colorado Parks and Wildlife for the low population thresholds for delisting and not requiring ranchers to adopt strategies to avoid wolf conflicts.
The plan also doesn’t require wolves to be evenly distributed across the state before attempting to delist, noted Chris Smith, the southwest wildlife advocate with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
“Once those protections are removed, I think it’s likely that population growth will slow considerably,” Smith said in an email. More than a dozen advocacy organizations have signed onto an alternative wolf recovery plan authored by his group calling for Colorado to set 750 wolves as the minimum recovery goal.
Smith cited the experience of the Mexican gray wolf as a cautionary tale. The sub-species, smaller and genetically distinct from the gray wolves Colorado plans to release, has struggled to recover in Arizona and New Mexico despite remaining protected under federal law.
The federal government, however, agreed on the same figure of 15 breeding pairs each in the states of Montana and Idaho as a condition for delisting gray wolves. Despite trying to tamp their numbers down by slashing wolf hunting and trapping restrictions, population estimates top 1,000 wolves in both of those states.
Some ranchers, outfitters and residents in rural areas where releases would take place oppose bringing new wolves into the state at all. Generally, they view hunting and trapping as a necessary tool to prevent population surges seen in Montana and Idaho.
The state has a lot more to do before it can start letting wolves loose. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, a governor-appointed board that oversees the state agency, has to assess the plan.
The agency will then host meetings for the public to comment in January and February before the state finalizes the plan in May. The state plans to begin releasing wolves in December of next year.
Because of gray wolves’ “threatened” status in Colorado under federal law, the plan will also need approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mirroring ongoing conflicts over wolf reintroduction across the west, most support has come from urban areas with more liberal views, where voters often see wolf restoration as a way to restore ecological balance after the extermination campaigns waged on behalf of the livestock industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But wolves remain unpopular in rural areas, largely because of opposition from ranchers, outfitters and big game hunters. The voracious predators can scarf down an average of 10 pounds of meat per day, according to the International Wolf Center.
In Idaho and Montana, where Republican-dominated legislatures have enacted aggressive laws to tamp down growing wolf populations, confirmed wolf kills of cattle are rare. But wolf pressure keeps cattle stressed and moving ― a major liability for an industry that depends on quickly fattening animals to slaughter weight.
The state plans to compensate ranchers for livestock losses.
While wolves have historically ignited political conflicts in most states where they’ve been reintroduced, the Colorado effort is unique because the state initiated it, rather than the federal government.
Still, the public remains closely split over wolves. The reintroduction measure passed by less than a percentage point.
Colorado has rapidly urbanized over the last several decades, with Front Range cities like Denver and Boulder emerging as powerful tech hubs with populations that skew young. Once staunchly Republican, Democrats have dominated state politics since the election of 2006 and held all statewide offices since 2019.