Colorado wildlife officials have a 261-page wolf management plan, a voter-mandated Dec. 31 deadline to bring the canine to the state and an area designated for their release.
But they don’t have any wolves. Yet.
Colorado wildlife officials continue to search for the wolves they need four months before the deadline for the species’ reintroduction to the state, as decided by voters in 2020. Conversations continue with three states — Washington, Oregon and Montana — and another two have unequivocally rejected the idea.
The search for wolves has highlighted the fractured system of management of the species across the West and the complex politics around the carnivores, which have inspired contentious litigation and political spats.
Colorado wildlife officials remain confident they’ll be able to find wolves to release between Glenwood Springs, Vail and the Roaring Fork Valley by the voter-mandated Dec. 31 deadline.
“We are confident that we will gain the cooperation of one or more states in this effort,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan said in an email in response to written questions. The agency declined a request for an interview for this story.
Colorado voters in 2020 narrowly approved the reintroduction of the species after a successful ballot initiative placed the question on the ballot. The species was killed off in Colorado by 1940, though a few wolves have been recorded in the state since 2020.
An anti-wolf sign stand in a field on January 25, 2022 outside Walden, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s wolf restoration and management plan, finalized May 3, states either Idaho, Montana or Wyoming would be ideal sources of wolves, with Washington and Oregon as backup options. Colorado wildlife officials expect to source between 30 and 50 wolves from multiple states over the next five years, according to the wolf plan.
“We are looking for sources of wolves that are as ecologically similar to the environment that they will find in Colorado,” Duncan said. “This includes terrain, prey availability, and similar characteristics. We would only source wolves from an area where the removal of those animals from the source population would not put that population at risk.”
The same week as the plan was finalized, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said he wouldn’t send wolves south. He cited the consequences of the 1995 federal reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the northwest corner of the state as well as worries that Colorado wolves would cross into Wyoming.
“Wyoming has the scars and lessons learned from the reintroduction of wolves,” he said in a statement. “Originally, gray wolves were to be a Yellowstone National Park population, but not to the surprise of any; wolves have been found throughout the state now.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Jeff Davis on May 15 — two weeks into his tenure leading the department — sent letters requesting wolves to four states: Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana. At least 2,800 wolves roam the four states, though the vast majority live in Idaho and Montana, according to wildlife officials’ estimates.
“If you are open to it, I would like to begin the discussion to determine if your state would be a willing donor, and if so, embark on the necessary process to secure the arrangement,” Davis wrote in the letters.
Response letters trickled in over the summer.
Idaho officials responded in June to say they would not participate, citing legal and political concerns. The state has been in and out of court for years over the management of the species and didn’t want any additional legal challenges, said Roger Phillips, spokesman for Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
“On this one, we’re going to respectfully decline,” Phillips said.
Wolves were reintroduced to the state in 1995 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and more than 1,330 wolves now live there — the biggest population in any Rocky Mountain state.
Phillips couldn’t calculate the exact cost of those legal battles but said there are also intangible costs, like divisiveness over the species and impacts to rural communities. Idaho wants to reduce, not expand, conflicts with wolves, the state’s director of fish and game said in his June 6 reply to Davis.
“If we gave wolves to Colorado, it’s likely that those wolves and the descendants of those wolves will end up in states that didn’t ask for them,” Phillips said.
A wolf track is seen in the snow at Don and Kim Gittleson’s ranch near Walden, Colo., on Jan. 25, 2022. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Conversations with the three other states continue, with at least one signaling openness to working with Colorado.
The director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said the state’s management plan allows for the relocation of wolves and his agency is “willing to consider relocation to Colorado.”
“In our discussions about potential reintroduction of wolves to Colorado, we will need to consider how any relocation would impact the productivity and distribution of Oregon’s wolf populations, as well as how ODFW can continue to meet the (2019 Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan)’s management direction,” Director Curtis Melcher wrote in response to Davis’ letter. “ODFW is open to discussion a process for Oregon to assist with Colorado’s reintroduction and working collaboratively to determine the necessary steps.”
Discussions about a potential agreement continue and Oregon has not yet made a commitment, said Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Oregon’s state and wildlife commission would not need to approve the translocation, she said.
Washington wildlife officials are scheduled to speak with Colorado officials in the near future, said Julia Smith, wolf policy lead at the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Ultimately, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission would have to sign off on any wolf transfer.
But the discussions may be complicated by Washington’s ongoing process to decide whether the species’ state classification should be downgraded from “endangered” to “sensitive.”
“That may factor into how the commission feels about it and weighs in,” Smith said.
Some members of the commission’s Wildlife Committee during a June meeting said they need more information and that they were hesitant to consider Colorado’s request while simultaneously dealing with the state classification decision.
“We’re not closing the door completely on a request to have Washington wolves go to Colorado,” Commissioner Lorna Smith said, but it would be difficult during the listing decision.
Montana officials, too, are still considering Colorado’s request, said Brian Wakeling, game management bureau chief at Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission would make the final decision on whether to send wolves to Colorado.
Under state law, Montana wildlife officials would have to complete an environmental assessment before the commission could make a decision, he said. They may also want to complete a more rigorous environmental impact statement because of the controversy surrounding wolves, which could slow down decision-making, Wakeling said.
“It’s hard to sit here today and tell you whether that would take six months or a year,” Wakeling said.
The Montana commission is not scheduled to discuss Colorado’s request at its next meeting on Thursday.
A federal decision looms over Colorado reintroduction plans: whether federal wildlife officials will give Colorado more leeway to manage reintroduced wolves than is allowed under the Endangered Species Act.
Colorado wildlife officials tranquilized two wolves in North Park on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, and fitted them with tracking collars. (Photo provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
Wolves in Colorado and much of the U.S. are listed as an endangered species, which means they cannot be legally killed in most situations. However, wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of Oregon and Washington are exempt from those federal protections.
The listing status mattered for at least one state. Idaho’s top wildlife official said he would consider providing wolves to Colorado if the species were solely under Colorado’s management.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are reviewing public comments on the decision and are finalizing an environmental analysis. The agency expects to make a decision by the end of the year, but spokesman Joe Szuszwalak couldn’t give a more exact date.
“We continue to be assured by the USFWS that the 10(j) will be final and effective by mid-December,” Duncan said.