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Colorado releases first 5 gray wolves as part of reintroduction plan

Gray wolves are native to Colorado, but they were systematically exterminated and functionally extinct by the 1940s.
Colorado releases first 5 gray wolves as part of reintroduction plan
Posted at 12:14 PM, Dec 19, 2023

The first five gray wolves have been released by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as part of the state's voter-mandated reintroduction effort.

CPW made the announcement Monday evening, saying the five animals included two juvenile females, two juvenile males and one adult male. They came from Oregon's Five Points Pack, Noregaard Pack and Wenaha Pack.

You can watch a video of the release here.

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The wolves were freed at an undisclosed location in Grand County, CPW said. Before they were set loose, veterinarians and biologists weighed, measured and vaccinated the predators to ensure they were healthy enough to relocate.

This announcement came days after a federal judge denied a request from Colorado's cattle industry to temporarily delay the release.

The wolves were captured from northwest Oregon, where they are most abundant in the state. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher previously said their removal will not impact the state's conservation goals.

The animals were released in Grand County, but could travel up to 140 miles from where they were freed, according to the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. With this in mind, these initial five wolves — as well as the ones that will be relocated in the future — were freed a minimum of 60 miles from the state border with Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and the sovereign tribal lands in southwestern Colorado, the latter of which was requested by the Southern Utes, according to the plan.

Over time, Coloradans should expect the packs to expand widely, which could include the Front Range, the plan reads.

CPW Director Jeff Davis said Monday was a historic day.

"We’ll continue releasing animals based on our plan to have wolves not just survive but thrive in Colorado as they did a century ago," Davis said.

CPW Wolf Conservation Program Manager Eric Odell called it an "honor" to participate in the effort.

“We were thrilled to have great conditions for capture and early success in Oregon," he said. "Weather conditions and information on pack locations provided by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff combined to help us capture five gray wolves on day one of capture operations in northeast Oregon and release them earlier today on Colorado’s Western Slope.”

All of the gray wolves released on Monday are:

- Young, but of breeding age.

- Wearing a GPS collar that transmits at least one location per day (these collars are the "primary means for monitoring individual wolves post-release," the plan states).

- Treated for endo- and ecto-parasites and vaccinated for canid diseases of concern.

This effort has been highly controversial as many ranchers in the potential release areas feared their livestock would become quick targets for the animals. The Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan lists three categories of conflict — livestock interactions, wildlife species interactions, and other situations — plus management tools available for use based on the phase the population is in at the time of the conflict. These include both lethal and non-lethal methods.

Livestock owners who suffer from economic losses if their animals are injured or killed by wolves will be fairly compensated, the plan reads.

Under current state law, it is illegal to hunt wolves.

The Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan outlines the reintroduction process in-depth.

How did we get here?

Gray wolves are listed both state and federally as an endangered species in Colorado by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are native to Colorado, but were exterminated and functionally extinct by the 1940s. About 6,000 of the animals now live in the Northern Rockies, Pacific Northwest and Western Great Lakes after the federal government reintroduced the wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.

This gray wolf reintroduction effort in Colorado began in the summer of 2019, when the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Project began circulating petitions asking voters to put a question on the 2020 ballot asking if wolves should be reintroduced. This went on to become Proposition 114.

In the November 2020 state election, voters chose to pass Proposition 114, which mandated that CPW develop a plan to start reintroducing and managing gray wolves in western Colorado and to take steps to begin reintroductions by Dec. 31, 2023.

In its wake, CPW and the CPW Commission worked with the public and experts to develop the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, which was approved in May.

CPW said its primary goal with this plan is "to recover and maintain a viable, self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado, while concurrently working to minimize wolf-related conflicts with domestic animals, other wildlife, and people."

The approval of this plan came after years of intense meetings, public comment and outreach. It is the result of two and a half years of Technical Working Group and a Stakeholder Advisory Group discussions — the groups met monthly between June 2021 and August 2022 — and hearings that welcomed public input.

CPW staff used these findings to develop a draft version of the plan, which was changed, updated and ultimately finalized and approved this spring.

That day, CPW Commission Chair Carrie Besnette Hauser said while everybody may not have agreed on every detail, it was the culmination of years of effort, best intentions and thoughtful compromise.

In total, more than 4,000 members of the public expressed their perspectives on this plan.

In early November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had finalized the designation of an experimental population of gray wolves in Colorado under section 10(j) of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Section 10(j) in the ESA allows the federal government to designate a population of a listed species — like gray wolves — as experimental if they are set to be released into natural habitat outside their current range, like Colorado in this case. Its adoption means that the state wildlife organization gains management flexibility for the animal. For Colorado, this could include management tools like aversive conditioning and lethal take to protect people and livestock, especially following reintroduction.

Many members of the public, as well as elected officials, previously said they feel that this rule needed to be adopted before Colorado reintroduced any wolves to the land.

The 10(j) rule became effective on Dec. 8, 2023, according to the USFWS.

As a result, Dec. 8 marked the first possible day that CPW could put gray wolves on the Colorado landscape, however, the department had until Dec. 31 to do so.

As the packs become established in Colorado, CPW will work to collar at least one to two wolves in each group. This may become challenging as the population grows, but CPW will prioritize the collaring efforts based on pack proximity to livestock and any history of conflict. Aside from collars, CPW will also monitor wolves via winter track counts, aerial surveys, hair samplings, scat collections, howling surveys, trail cameras and visual observations from both experts and the general public.

During the creation and edits of this official plan, gray wolves started to naturally trickle into northwestern Colorado.

What is next?

CPW said it plans to release more wolves January through March. Over a period of three to five years, CPW will transfer 30 to 50 wolves to Colorado, aiming for 10 to 15 from multiple packs annually.

After this point, the active reintroduction efforts will stop and CPW will focus solely on monitoring to see if the population is self-sustaining.

The reintroduction will be considered successful if the survival rate is high, the wolves stay in Colorado, packs are formed and if wolves born in Colorado survive to also reproduce. If the survival rate is less than 70%, a protocol review would be initiated, the plan reads.

For those who want to help fund a preventive measure program for ranchers in the impacted areas, a wolf license plate will be available starting in January.

Anybody who wants to learn more about the biology of the animals or their impact on the landscape can visit CPW's website page titled "Living with Wildlife," which lists ways to avoid conflict with several large animals, such as elk, goats, bear, moose, mountain lions and, now, gray wolves. 

Like many predators, wolves tend to avoid people and are very unlikely to approach a person.

A brochure titled "Living with Wolves" provides detailed actions on what to do if a wolf responds to a person's actions.

The brochure encourages people to make noise, stay aware of their surroundings, hike with bear spray and keep dogs leashed or close by while in wolf country. It includes a breakdown of wolf tracks compared to large dog and coyote tracks.

CPW also has a Wolf Educational Resources page, where you can find videos on wolf biology and the reintroduction planning process.

The department encourages the public to report any wolf sightings, especially with photos or videos. To submit one, visit CPW.info/wolf-sighting.

This story was originally published by Stephanie Butzer at Scripps News Denver.


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