Colorado’s plan to reintroduce wolves is putting livestock at risk, officials say

Gray wolf packs will soon roam western Colorado, according to 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 hopes of building populations that would likely spread west into Utah — to the dismay of some state and local officials.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is making public comments online through Feb. 22, and is holding five public hearings this winter to share information about the plan, which was drawn up at the behest of Colorado voters in a 2020 ballot initiative. Proposition 114, which passed by less than 2 percentage points, called for the wolf to be restored with resettlements beginning in late 2023.

The measure also prohibits the Wildlife Commission from “imposing restrictions on land, water or resource use on private landowners to further the plan” and requires it to set up a scheme to compensate ranchers for livestock losses.

Wildlife advocates are already noting what they see as the plan’s flaws, particularly in its call to reduce protections for wolves when their numbers reach just 150 for four years, while big game hunters say the return of the wolf has valued moose and elk would decimate herds of mule deer.

The predator is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act, giving it protection in its historical range outside of the Northern Rockies region, which includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and part of northeastern Utah. In the rest of Utah and throughout Colorado, it is federally protected as a threatened species, meaning wolves cannot legally be hunted. Additionally, the wolf remains on Colorado’s endangered list, although a pack is already known to have been established without human assistance in Moffat County in the northwest corner of the state.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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

“Grey wolves have extensive locomotion skills, and wolves introduced into Colorado are likely to spread 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 destruction and wildlife management.”

While wolves are occasionally sighted in Utah, it is known that not a breeding pair has settled in the Beehive State since the wolf’s extinction a century ago.

While Colorado voters have approved the reintroduction of wolves, Utah residents are less enthusiastic about the return of the apex predator blamed, rightly or not, for the loss of big game and livestock.

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

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

The wolf list has been a political ping-pong game in recent years, with congressional and presidential administrations adding and removing the animal from endangered species lists. It’s currently on the list after a federal judge reversed a Trump-era decision to eliminate the wolf from its entire range. Utah interfered in this litigation, specifically citing Colorado’s reintroduction project as a reason to retain Utah’s administrative authority over the gray wolf.

“Leaving Utah without having means to control the continued spread of gray wolves into Utah will result in conflicts between livestock and grazing operators because of shared habitat,” Utah court filings said. “Even with government-controlled management, gray wolves have shown great resilience as long as food is available, and they have shown a great ability to adapt to human influences.”

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

“That’s a day’s march from Utah,” Peay said. “In five to ten years, when wolves come to Utah, they’re going to destroy everything we’ve built. And frankly, unless there is action from Congress [to delist wolves]Utah’s hands will be tied.”

Critics say such warnings are apocalyptic rhetoric with no scientific basis.

Peay’s Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife organization and its offshoot Big Game Forever have capitalized on the wolf controversy after receiving at least $5 million in government contracts over the years to advocate for the federal wolf elimination.

The wolf packs established under the plan would be considered “experimental populations” under the Endangered Species Act, giving Colorado and possibly neighboring states some flexibility in managing the relocated wolves and their offspring.

The wolves would come from the northern Rocky Mountains and be released on non-government lands as part of a “hard release” strategy, according to Eric Odell, conservation program manager at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission.

The animals would be captured and immediately released in Colorado from the crates they were transported in, rather than being held for a period 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 take place west of the continental divide, at least 50 miles from the borders of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

“Data from releases in the Northern Rockies show that wolves travel great distances in the months immediately following release,” Odell said at a Dec. 9 commission meeting at which the draft plan was presented. “This buffer helps us protect the investment we will be making capturing, transporting and releasing wolves in Colorado. It also addresses some of the concerns we have heard from our neighboring countries.”

According to the draft plan, up to 15 wolves would be released at any time over the next three to five years, and a total of 30 to 50 would be relocated. Releases would begin in the northern portion of the release zone, which includes the towns of Vail and Glenwood Springs, and subsequent releases could occur in the southern portion around Montrose and Gunnison.

The Wildlife Commission will hold five public hearings: January 19 in Colorado Springs; January 25 at Gunnison; February 7 in Rifle; February 16 from Zoom; and February 22 in Denver. The input gathered through this public process will be incorporated into a final version to be submitted to the Wildlife Commission for final approval at its May 3 meeting.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Colorado’s plan to reintroduce wolves is putting livestock at risk, officials say

Justin Scacco

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