Wolves are fascinating animals. They hunt in a unique pack fashion, have an unparalleled hierarchy system, and act as the regulators for nature. Many states have wolf reintroduction projects in the works to mitigate the effects of animal grazing on habitat loss and ecology. Colorado is touting its 40-year wolf reintegration project, highlighting how it benefits the Rock Mountain State.
As of September 2022, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) plans to reintroduce wolves in Summit, Jackson, and Grand Counties, areas where homes, ski resorts, and cattle ranches caused their removal. Resident wolves were initially taken from northern Colorado in the 1940s. Recently, wildlife capture cameras have found signs of some packs in these counties, prompting wildlife services to continue their efforts even more. Introduced through Proposition 114 and passed in November 2020, the state will go ahead with the project, with wolf reintroduction beginning no later than Dec. 31, 2023.
Why are wolves beneficial to the state’s ecology? Simply put, they are responsible for regulating herbivore populations. If gone unchecked, deer and elk populations would overgraze vegetation in the wilderness, causing soil erosion, drought, and habitat loss for other wildlife.
“Wolves have profound ecological and biological effects not only on their prey but on the broader environment that their prey animals are a part of,” said Rob Edward, strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.
A great example of their impact is the 1990s Yellowstone gray wolf reintroduction effort, which Rocky Mountain Wolf Project cites as an inspiration for its campaign. The deer and elk populations had grown unsustainable, causing massive ecological problems. The animals returning to the national park have helped immensely, as the deer and elk now have a natural predator regulating the ecology of the wilderness. The same logic is being applied to Colorado’s plan.
CPW won’t have to travel too far to find wolf packs to bring to northern Colorado. The logistics preference for this plan will involve capturing them in states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, places with similar ecology and topography to Colorado. They will integrate 10 to 15 wolves across a three-to-five-year timeline, hoping the new ones will have time to acclimate and make new pups.
This strategy follows a discovery that wolves were migrating from Wyoming because of reduced traffic on highways due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Edward remarked that this was a fantastic step toward a “genetically diverse population of wolves starting to reestablish themselves here.” CPW even found evidence of two grown canines and six pups as recently as June 2021 in Jackson County, CO. One of these pups was tagged with GPS collars to track pack movements for research purposes; similar practices will occur with this campaign.
Even though wolves pose significant benefits to the state’s wilderness, not everyone in these counties is on board. Cattle ranchers are against reintroduction because their livestock is now at risk of being eaten. However, according to Matt Barnes, a research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, there are solutions to avoiding this issue.
He suggests using “low-stress livestock handling,” a method of training heifers to group if they are in danger. This tactic is a skill found in bison and elk herds in the wild. “Cattle that are kept together with a combination of low-stress livestock handling and rotational grazing management learn that together, as a herd, they can mob up and chase off that potential predator,” Barnes explained.
Despite some pushback, resident wolf reintegration is happening in northern Colorado. It will take time and resources to get wolf populations to sustainable rates, but with such a strong buy-in from state wildlife agencies, Colorado is ready for a new wave of canine residents. “Reintroduction is still very much necessary,” Edward said. “We hope to have a thriving population of wolves here in the coming years.”