Wolves are on their way to Utah. Ranchers and hunters are worried, while environmentalists rejoice.

Colorado released 10 wolves on its Western Slope in December, and Utahns believe it’s only a matter of time before they cross the state line.

(Colorado Parks and Wildlife) Colorado's Parks and Wildlife agency released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County, Colorado on Monday, December 18, 2023 — the start of the state's wolf reintroduction plan. Pictured is wolf 2302-OR, a juvenile female.

Shane Rowley grazes cattle on a U.S. Forest Service allotment high in the Uinta Mountains, surrounded by green pastures and jagged peaks. He rarely sees another human.

While he is up there, Rowley watches his livestock closely. But he also is scanning the ground.

“Over the last two or three years, if I found a wolf track up there, I tried to take a picture of it and GPS it so that if anything happens — if I have a problem — then I have something to document that it was here,” Rowley told The Salt Lake Tribune.

There are no known established wolf packs in Utah — yet. But Colorado made history in December when it released a total of ten gray wolves on the Western Slope as part of its wolf reintroduction program, and Utah’s wildlife experts believe it’s only a matter of time before the predators make their way west.

Gray wolves can move over large areas, and animals new to a given territory often wander to explore their surroundings, said Faith Jolley, a spokesperson for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

“If they migrate into Utah, the DWR is prepared to capture and return the animals to Colorado,” Jolley wrote in an email to The Tribune. “In support of those efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will provide authorities in Utah to capture and relocate gray wolves that leave Colorado.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Wolves were once common throughout North America, but they were hunted nearly to extinction by the start of the 20th century. Colorado voters narrowly approved a measure to reintroduce gray wolves in 2020.

The predators are protected under the Endangered Species Act in most of Utah, against the state’s wishes.

In 2023, the Utah Legislature gave $500,000 to an out-of-state hunting group crusading to get gray wolves off the endangered species list so the animals can be lawfully hunted and managed by states, rather than the federal government. Over the last decade, the Legislature has handed over $5 million to anti-wolf activists.

“I’ve traveled North America, I’ve been all over Canada and I’ve been all over Alaska, and I’ve seen wolves,” Troy Justensen, president of the hunting group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, told The Tribune. “They are majestic animals, but don’t kid yourself. They’re very accomplished killing machines.”

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is one of the anti-wolf organizations given money by Utah to fight the gray wolf’s federal protection. The hunting group believes that wolves will threaten Utah game herds, like elk and mule deer.

Wolves were controversially but successfully reintroduced in the Greater Yellowstone region — Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — in 1995, and the wolf populations there are now managed by those states.

Colorado State University found in 2020 that elk and mule deer populations in that region had not declined since wolves were reintroduced. Their research also concluded that the number of elk and mule deer taken by hunters has remained steady, or even increased, since then.

“Based on evidence from northern Rocky Mountain states, wolves will likely have a relatively low impact on big game and hunting at a statewide level,” their information sheet on the topic read.

Though wolves are federally protected in most of Utah today, they are delisted in a small corner of northeastern Utah, which is considered part of the Greater Yellowstone region.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In this part of Utah, wolves can be killed if they threaten pets, livestock or the health and safety of people, Jolley wrote — and all kills must be reported to the Utah DWR. A wolf may also be eliminated for harassing or killing livestock there.

But in the rest of the state, where wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, killing one is subject to federal penalties, regardless of livestock predation.

“Utah will have the authority to capture and return wolves that leave Colorado. All released wolves will be radio-collared, allowing us to be able to quickly respond and relocate the animals,” Jolley wrote. “That will hopefully prevent most depredation issues.”

Jolley said that livestock operators cannot be compensated for damages caused by wolves through the state’s regular depredation fund, since they are federally listed. The Utah Department of Agriculture and DWR are looking for federal funding to play that role, she said.

Kirk Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit Western Wildlife Conservancy, told The Tribune that gray wolves do occasionally kill livestock, but “it’s not as big a problem as people make it out to be.”

He said that wolves keep elk and deer populations in check, allowing vegetation to flourish and enriching biodiversity.

“Anybody who actually cares about the ecological health of our wild lands would want wolves to be present because they are such an important component of healthy ecosystems,” Robinson said.

Despite these potential benefits, many remain uneasy as Colorado plans to release ten to 15 wolves by mid-March of this year and 30 to 50 wolves over the next three to five years.

“I understand there has to be a balance in nature, and you have to have your predators and your prey,” Rowley said. “But when nature becomes regulated with a protected species that can’t be controlled, that’s not natural.”

Editor’s note, Feb. 1, 2024: This article was updated to clarify that 10 wolves were released in Colorado in December.