Animals

Colorado Planning Reintroduction, but Wolves Could Be Returning on Their Own

What appears to be a wolf captured this month by a camera near Leadville.
What appears to be a wolf captured this month by a camera near Leadville. Charlie Marshall, Marshall Mountain Properties
When Charlie Marshall walked out the back door of his home in Lake County a few days before Christmas, he saw a giant paw print in the snow. It looked about the size of Marshall’s size 8.5 slippers. “I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” Marshall says.

The Denver-area real estate agent, who recently started doing business in Lake County near Leadville, has a game camera mounted on his back porch to track wildlife in the yard. In the summer, Marshall caught a large bear on the camera, but he knew winter wasn't the season for bears, since they hibernate. So he took a look.

“I pulled the camera and was like, ‘Holy smokes, that's definitely a wolf as far as I can tell,’” Marshall recalls.

Wolf sightings in Colorado are rare; as humans moved into their territory, the breed disappeared from the state. But that will change in 2023, when Colorado reintroduces wolves under a program created when voters narrowly approved Proposition 114 in 2020.

After reporting what appeared to be a wolf sighting to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Marshall sent the photo to animal trappers in northern Idaho, where wolves numbered 1,500 before a controversial bill passed earlier this year that made it legal for the government to hire private contractors to reduce the wolf population to 150; they told him it looked like a gray wolf. Marshall also sent the photo to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which was key to the passage of 114. Rob Edward, strategic advisor with the project, said that it seemed to be a gray wolf sighting, but cautioned that he isn’t a wolf biologist and so couldn't say for certain.

Travis Duncan, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife communications supervisor, notes that most reported "wolf" sightings turn out to be large dogs or coyotes. “In this instance, CPW terrestrial biologists and wildlife officers say it is impossible to determine the species of this animal based on the supplied photos,” Duncan says, adding that CPW is still investigating Marshall’s report.
click to enlarge A potential wolf print pictured next to Charlie Marshall's foot. - CHARLIE MARSHALL, MARSHALL MOUNTAIN PROPERTIES
A potential wolf print pictured next to Charlie Marshall's foot.
Charlie Marshall, Marshall Mountain Properties
Wolves occasionally wander down from Wyoming, Edward says, so even if this was a wolf, it might not be native to Colorado. This summer, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed the state’s first wolf litter since the 1940s was found in North Park.

Marshall, who earned a degree in natural resources from Colorado State University before becoming a realtor, wonders whether a reintroduction program is needed if wolves are already present. And he isn’t the only Coloradan with questions about the ramifications of 114. The Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit organization, is collecting feedback on behalf of Parks and Wildlife; it heard from 3,400 Coloradans in July and August, and is taking comments at wolfengagementco.org/Wolf.

Julie Shapiro, senior policy director for the Center for Natural Resources at Keystone, says that Keystone held 47 public-comment meetings that focused on the logistics of wolf restoration, including livestock interactions, engagement, education and outreach.

“We were seeking to kind of qualitatively understand what people's perspectives and values and interests were, and to help kind of understand the why behind people's attitudes,” Shapiro says. “We saw some differences, for sure, on topics like whether or not to have maximum population thresholds, whether or not to allow public harvest or hunting of wolves. .... We also saw some common ground in terms of the interest in incorporating science and addressing a variety of ecological and social and economic interests.”

To ensure that many voices are represented in the final wolf reintroduction plan, Parks and Wildlife is appointing a Technical Working Group of reintroduction and management experts and a Stakeholder Advisory Group of people from various geographic areas that may be impacted by wolf reintroduction. CPW staff will present its final plan to the Parks and Wildlife Commission in late 2022 or early 2023.

One complication is that Colorado doesn’t have a location for wolves like Yellowstone National Park, where a successful wolf reintroduction took place in 1995. Three zones for potential wolf reintroduction in the state were identified in a 2003 study called “Impacts of landscape change on wolf restoration success: Planning a reintroduction program using static and dynamic spatial models.” Those zones are Northern Colorado Core, which includes White River, Routt National Forest and Flattops Wilderness; West-Central Colorado Core, which includes Grand Mesa and Gunnison National Forest; and Southern Colorado Core, which includes the San Juan Mountains and Wemenuche Wilderness.

click to enlarge Wolves were introduced in Yellowstone in 1995. - DAN STAHLER
Wolves were introduced in Yellowstone in 1995.
Dan Stahler
Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, says that it’s "impossible" to overstate how complicated wolf reintroduction will be. People think,“You put wolves out there, they live in a pack, they'll go make babies and live happily ever after,” he says. “It's just not that simple. But that doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be done.”

Bekoff, who studied carnivores for decades, says that fear is a major contributor to why some people are hesitant about wolf reintroduction, especially ranchers and farmers who worry that wolves might kill them or their livestock. But that fear is largely unwarranted, he notes: “There's very, very few wolf attacks on humans. That's just the fact. We live among cougars, mountain lions and black bears. And they, too, can and have attacked humans. I just think a lot of people don't want them because they're predators and they eat other animals.”

On December 21, CPW determined that a dead calf found on a ranch in Jackson Country had injuries consistent with wolf depredation. That rancher will be compensated under CPW’s game damage process as if the depredation were caused by mountain lions or bears, because there isn't yet a process in place for wolf depredation. Creating one will be part of the reintroduction plan.

“Having wolves on personal land, whether you're grazing cows or sheep, doesn't necessarily mean that wolves are going to prey on your livestock,” says Edward. “It also doesn't necessarily mean that if they do that, that's the end of the world.” Edward adds that he supports compensation programs, but also hopes proactive solutions will be considered, including using herding techniques that bunch cows together and use pop-up paddocks for nighttime.

click to enlarge Rob and Anne Edward are self-described "wolf nerds." - SARAH BOYUM
Rob and Anne Edward are self-described "wolf nerds."
Sarah Boyum
The controversy isn't all about the animals. Defend Colorado, a Republican-affiliated dark-money group, recently accused Dan Gibbs, the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, of improperly awarding the wolf outreach contract to the Keystone Policy Center because his wife once worked there. Its ethics complaint alleges that Keystone was a more expensive option than several other bids.

"It’s unfortunate that the independent ethics commission is being used this way,” responds Megan Castle, a community relations supervisor for the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission who issued a statement on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources. “Dan Gibbs is a trusted and dedicated public servant, from protecting our forests as a volunteer wildland firefighter to serving at the local and state level as an elected official.”

Castle notes that CPW, not the Department of Natural Resources, entered into the contract with Keystone and that it did so while following “all statutory requirements and the rules under the Colorado procurement code.” Gibbs had no involvement in that process.

Keystone declined to comment on the ethics complaint, which is pending.

A lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians regarding whether wolves should be returned to the National Endangered Species list went to trial in November; a decision in that case is pending, too, and could impact Colorado’s reintroduction process.

But with the 2023 deadline looming, work continues on the plan. “I am confident that the state can implement the law,” Edward says. “If they simply do that, we will have a population of wolves rekindled before the end of the decade. That said, there is going to be never-ending public discourse about what it means to have wolves on the land. It's one thing to say wolves shall be restored. It's another thing to say ‘and managed in a responsible stewardship framework.’”

Bekoff cautions that, based on studies of the Yellowstone reintroduction, it will be a few decades rather than a few years before Colorado can know if wolf reintroduction has been successful. For example, one missed year of breeding for reasons out of CPW’s control, such as lack of food or unusual weather, could tank the project or set it back substantially.

Still, he believes wolves should be reintroduced. “They should never have been killed off by humans,” Bekoff says. “They're really part of the historical natural ecosystems here, and it would be nice to have them return to where they want to live.”

Even if it's near Leadville. “It's kind of just shocking and amazing,” Marshall says of his backyard sighting. “If you love them or hate them, [wolves] are here now.”
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Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire