Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plan would put wolves at Utah’s border

Wildlife officials propose releasing 10-15 wolves a year on Western Slope starting next year.

(Jacob W. Frank | National Park Service via AP) A wolf from the Wapiti Lake pack silhouetted by a nearby hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in 2018. Wolves have repopulated the mountains and forests of the American West with remarkable speed since their reintroduction 26 years ago, expanding to more than 300 packs in six states. Now Colorado plans to relocate some of these wolves in the hopes of reestablishing the grey wolf in the Centennial State.

Grey wolf packs will soon be roaming western Colorado under a draft plan released this month by that state’s wildlife officials.

The 293-page plan calls for relocating 10 to 15 wolves from the Northern Rockies each year in the hopes of establishing populations that would likely disperse west into Utah — to the dismay of some state and local officials.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is fielding public comment online through Feb. 22 and is hosting five public hearings this winter to share information about the plan, which was drafted at the behest of Colorado voters in a 2020 ballot initiative. Proposition 114, which passed by less than 2 percentage points, called for the restoration of the wolf, with translocations starting by late 2023.

The measure goes on to bar the wildlife commission from “imposing any land, water, or resource use restrictions on private landowners to further the plan” and requires it to establish a system for compensating ranchers for livestock losses.

Wildlife advocates are already noting what they see as flaws in the plan, especially in its call to scale back protections for wolves if their numbers reach just 150 for four straight years, while big game hunters say the wolf’s return would decimate cherished elk, moose and mule deer herds.

The predator is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act, providing it protection on its historic range outside of the Northern Rockies region, comprised of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and a sliver of northeast Utah. In the rest of Utah and all of Colorado, it is federally protected as a threatened species, meaning wolves cannot be legally hunted. Additionally, the wolf remains on Colorado’s endangered list even though a pack is already known to have been established with no human help in Moffat County in state’s northwest corner.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The court-ordered relisting of the grey wolf has made the Colorado plan a matter of concern for Utah wildlife officials, who have been meeting with their Colorado and federal counterparts to ensure Utah’s issues are addressed.

“Gray wolves have extensive movement capabilities, and wolves introduced into Colorado will likely disperse into Utah,” said Faith Heaton Jolley, spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “Under an endangered status, DWR will have limited management options to address conflicts with livestock depredation and wildlife management.”

While wolf sightings occasionally occur in Utah, no breeding pairs are known to have taken up residence in the Beehive State since the wolf was eradicated a century ago.

Whereas Colorado voters signed off on wolf reintroductions, Utahns are not so enthusiastic about the return of the apex predator, which is blamed, fairly or not, for big game and livestock losses.

In a recent appearance before the Utah Legislature, anti-wolf crusader Don Peay warned the return of wolves would be “a billion-dollar problem knocking on Utah’s door,” alleging wolves have already laid waste to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming’s big game herds following the 1995 Northern Rockies reintroduction.

“Five hundred wolves, which was the agreement between the three states, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, that’s about 12,000 dead elk [a year]. Three thousand wolves are about 75,000 dead elk,” Peay told lawmakers at an Oct. 29 interim meeting. “Wolves of that number would kill every elk in Utah.”

Wolf listing has been a game of political pingpong for the past several years, with Congress and presidential administrations taking the animal on and off the list of threatened species. It is currently on the list after a federal judge reversed a Trump-era decision to delist the wolf across its entire range. Utah intervened in that lawsuit, specifically citing Colorado’s reintroduction project as a reason to preserve Utah’s management authority over the grey wolf.

“Leaving Utah without a means to manage the further dispersal of gray wolves into Utah will create conflict between livestock and grazing operators, due to shared habitat,” Utah’s court filing states. “Even with management in state control, gray wolves have demonstrated great resiliency so long as food is present and have shown great ability to adjust to human impacts.”

In his legislative testimony, Peay blasted Colorado’s proposal to relocate wolves on the Western Slope.

“That’s a one-day walk from Utah,” Peay said. “Over five to 10 years of wolves coming into Utah, they will destroy everything we’ve built. And candidly, unless there is congressional action [to delist wolves], Utah will have its hands tied.”

Critics say such warnings amount to apocalyptical rhetoric with little basis in science.

Peay’s organization Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and its spinoff Big Game Forever have cashed in on the wolf controversy, having been awarded at least $5 million in state contracts to lobby for federal wolf delisting over the years.

The wolf packs established under the plan would be considered “experimental populations” under the Endangered Species Act, giving Colorado and perhaps neighboring states some flexibility to manage the translocated wolves and their offspring.

The wolves would come from the Northern Rockies and be set free on nonfederal land under a “hard release” strategy, according to Eric Odell, species conservation program manager with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission.

The animals would be captured and immediately released in Colorado from the crates they were transported in, instead of being held for a time to acclimate them to their new surroundings. The animals would all wear GPS-equipped collars with mortality sensors, and their movements would be carefully tracked. The wolf releases would occur west of the Continental Divide at least 50 miles from the borders of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

“The data from the Northern Rockies releases show that in the months immediately after releases, wolves move broad distances,” Odell said at a Dec. 9 commission meeting where the draft plan was unveiled. “This buffer helps us protect the investment that we will undertake in capturing wolves transporting them and releasing them in Colorado. It also addresses some of the concerns that we’ve heard from our neighboring states.”

Under the draft plan, up to 15 wolves would be released over each of the next three to five years, with a total of 30 to 50 being translocated. The releases would begin in the northern part of the release zone, which includes the towns of Vail and Glenwood Springs, then subsequent releases could occur in the southern part around Montrose and Gunnison.

The wildlife commission will host five public hearings: Jan. 19 in Colorado Springs; Jan. 25 in Gunnison; Feb. 7 in Rifle; Feb. 16 by Zoom; and Feb. 22 in Denver. Input gathered through this public process will be incorporated into a final version, which is to go before the wildlife commission for final approval at its May 3 meeting.

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