In just a few days, Coloradans will choose whether or not to return gray wolves to Colorado. A simple yes or no answer by 4.1 million registered voters will determine the fate of Proposition 114 and if gray wolves will get a fresh start.
Although wolves had once roamed Colorado for more than 750,000 years, it took just one human lifetime to eradicate them from the state. Today, it’s been 75 years since they’ve been gone from the Colorado landscape, and yet there still hasn’t been a viable population of gray wolves in the state.
In the 1990s, the federal government released gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho to restore the endangered species. Those original packs have since multiplied and spread, returning to parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, California and Oregon. In early 2020, a group of six wolves–-likely from the Yellowstone area in Wyoming—made it into Colorado.
Although exciting, the appearance of a single wolf pack in Colorado is unlikely to lead to a future with wolves in Colorado. Scientists agree that it is unlikely that a few wolves will ever create a self-sustaining population in Colorado. They also agree that reintroduction offers the most likely path to wolf restoration, especially since wolves can be killed across most of Wyoming.
Since gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho beginning in 1995, there have been six confirmed sightings of wolves who have survived the journey from the Northern Rockies into Colorado. Yet none have led to a lasting population. Despite the availability of suitable habitat, what has prevented them from permanently settling to the south in Colorado?
Roadblocks to Recovery
Gray wolves exist in the wild to the north in Wyoming and to the south in New Mexico, but for a combination of political, social and ecological reasons, they have not been able to travel in adequate numbers to establish a viable population in Colorado.
To the south, the reintroduced population of Mexican gray wolves, a rare subspecies, live within a designated area in the center of Arizona and New Mexico. Legally, they must stay within that area. Any wolf that ventures beyond it is captured and relocated.
“To the north, gray wolves are limited to the northwest corner of Wyoming, about 15 percent of the state,” said John Murtaugh, Rockies and Plains Representative. “Within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, wolves are fully protected, but outside the parks wolves are managed by the state of Wyoming.”
Within the designated Trophy Game Management Area of Wyoming, wolves can be legally hunted with a license. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department strives to keep the total population at 160 wolves. Throughout the remaining 85% of Wyoming, the state legislature classifies wolves as “predatory animals.” According to this definition, they can be killed without limit by anyone using any means.
In addition to this state-sanctioned intolerance across most of Wyoming, wolves en route to Colorado’s border must also travel through the Red Desert. This expanse of over 9,000 square miles is largely devoid of the wooded landscapes that offer wolves the cover they need for hunting and avoiding humans and other threats.
Given this inhospitable and exposed landscape, wolves rarely succeed in making the journey from the Yellowstone region to Colorado. Another possible route, which provides wolves with more preferred habitat, is to cross through northeastern Utah. However, this area has no legal protection for wolves. Utah’s longstanding policy is to remove any wolves found traveling through this corridor.
Welcome to Colorado?
The past 25 years have clearly demonstrated how unlikely it is that wolves can overcome the challenges in their way and successfully return to Colorado on their own in the numbers needed to create a self-sustaining population.
“Gray wolves are extremely social animals that depend on their families, or “packs,” to survive,” said Murtaugh. “Unless they discover a mate, they are unlikely to stay and will continue to travel.”
A pack of wolves typically consists of a breeding male and female and their offspring. Wolves are monogamous breeders that often form life-long partnerships. Once juveniles are two to three years old, they leave their families to find a mate of their own and start a new pack. During this period, they are commonly referred to as “lone wolves,” but they are only alone for as long as it takes to find a mate and start a new family. These lone wolves are simply looking for new territories to settle.
A few exceptional lone wolves have survived the journey into Colorado, but without a mate, these animals cannot form packs and reproduce. Reintroducing a small number of wolves is the best way to establish a self-sustaining population and ensure that future wandering lone wolves—including those from the new pack—will have the opportunity to find a mate and start their families in Colorado.