Colorado releases first 5 wolves in reintroduction plan approved by voters to chagrin of ranchers
Dec 18, 2023, 5:08 PM
(Don Gittleson via AP)
GRAND COUNTY, Colorado (AP) — Wildlife officials released five gray wolves into a remote forest in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains on Monday to kick off a voter-approved reintroduction program that was embraced in the state’s mostly Democratic urban corridor but staunchly opposed in conservative rural areas where ranchers worry about attacks on livestock.
The wolves were set free from crates in a Grand County location that state officials kept undisclosed to protect the predators.
It marked the start of the most ambitious wolf reintroduction effort in the U.S. in almost three decades and a sharp departure from aggressive efforts by Republican-led states to cull wolf packs. A judge on Friday night had denied a request from the state’s cattle industry for a temporary delay to the release.
About 45 people watched as the first two wolves — 1-year-old male and female siblings with gray fur mixed with black and brown patches — were set free. The male bolted up the golden grass, running partially sideways to keep an eye on everyone behind, then turning left into the trees.
The crowd watched in awed silence, then some hugged each other and low murmurs started up.
When the latch on the second crate flipped, the wolf didn’t budge. Everyone waited as Gov. Jared Polis peeked into the cage.
After roughly 30 seconds, those around the crates stepped back, giving the wolf space. The female slowly rose inside the crate then bounded up a snowy divot in the dirt road.
When she reached the tree line, she stopped and turned to look back at her silent audience for a moment, then disappeared into an aspen grove, its branches barren.
The other three wolves released were another pair of 1-year-old male and female siblings, as well a 2-year-old male. The wolves were all caught in Oregon on Sunday.
When the final crate opened, the 2-year-old male with a black coat immediately darted out, making a sharp right past onlookers and dashing into the trees. He didn’t look back once.
When it all ended, a small round of applause broke out.
Colorado officials anticipate releasing 30 to 50 wolves within the next five years in hopes the program starts to fill in one of the last remaining major gaps in the western U.S. for the species. Gray wolves historically ranged from northern Canada to the desert southwest.
The carnivores’ planned release in Colorado, voted for in a 2020 ballot measure, has sharpened divides between rural and urban residents. City and suburb dwellers largely voted to reintroduce the apex predators into the rural areas where prey can include livestock that help drive local economies and big game such as elk that are prized by hunters.
The reintroduction, starting with the release of up to 10 wolves in coming months, emerged as a political wedge issue when GOP-dominated Wyoming, Idaho and Montana refused to share their wolves for the effort. Colorado officials ultimately turned to another Democratic state — Oregon — to secure wolves.
Excited wildlife advocates have started a wolf-naming contest, but ranchers in the Rocky Mountains where the releases will occur are anxious. They’ve seen glimpses of what the future could hold as a handful of wolves that wandered down from Wyoming over the past two years killed livestock.
The fear is such attacks will worsen, adding to a spate of perceived assaults on western Colorado’s rural communities as the state’s liberal leaders embrace clean energy and tourism, eclipsing economic mainstays such as fossil fuel extraction and agriculture.
To allay livestock industry fears, ranchers who lose livestock or herding and guard animals to wolf attacks will be paid fair market value, up to $15,000 per animal.
Hunting groups also have raised concerns that wolves will reduce the size of elk herds and other big game animals that the predators eat.
Meanwhile, Colorado residents who backed the reintroduction are going to have to get used to wildlife agents killing wolves that prey on livestock.
Some wolves were already killed when they crossed from Colorado into Wyoming, which has a “predatory” zone for wolves covering most of the state in which they can be shot on sight.