GRAND COUNTY, Colo. — In the wake of a vote that was heavily decided by Front Range residents, much of Grand County feels like they were, quite literally, thrown to the wolves.
As an effort to elevate the overlooked voices in the mountainous county, Denver7 contacted more than 60 people, businesses and organizations in Grand County on Dec. 20 and asked plainly: How do you feel about the initial release of five gray wolves? Many people responded, saying they would rather not answer. Several wrote explanations — some brief, some lengthy — of their perspectives but wanted to keep them private. “Thanks for listening, though,” one person wrote in an email. As of Tuesday afternoon, 10 residents spoke on the record with us.
As part of the state's voter-mandated reintroduction effort, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) released its first five gray wolves on Dec. 18 at an undisclosed place in Grand County. Five more were released a few days later in Grand and Summit counties. All 10 were captured from packs in Oregon.
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, according to the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, which was approved in May. After that point, the reintroduction efforts will stop and CPW will monitor if the population is self-sustaining.
During the years of planning that led to the final plan — before CPW put any animals on the ground — gray wolves were already slinking around Grand County, multiple residents recalled. They saw paw prints in the snow. They heard howls. Some saw the wolves themselves. Many said they felt generally OK with the wolves naturally moving into Colorado.
That sentiment didn't always carry over once humans became actively involved.
The gray wolf reintroduction effort in Colorado stems from 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 narrowly chose to pass the proposition, which mandated that CPW develop a plan and start reintroducing and managing gray wolves in western Colorado by Dec. 31, 2023.
Of the 64 counties in Colorado, the majority in 13 voted in support of the wolf reintroduction. Most were around the Front Range, in addition to Summit, Pitkin, San Miguel, La Plata and San Juan counties. Denver County had a 66% yes vote.
In Grand County, 64% of residents — 6,135 people — voted against Proposition 114.
'DON'T FEEL LIKE THEIR VOICE REALLY MATTERS'
Each vote in Colorado — like anywhere in the United States — holds the same weight. But with Denver County's population nearly 50 times that of Grand County, the voices of rural spaces were drowned out as Prop 114 results trickled in in 2020. In its aftermath is frustration for "ballot box biology."
With the majority of the voting base in Grand County against the wolf reintroduction, Granby Mayor Josh Hardy said locals are dismayed and discouraged because they feel Front Range politics dribbled west and are negatively affecting their livelihoods.
"Obviously, we have a large amount of ag in Grand County," he said. "There's a lot of cattle ranchers that are frustrated and concerned about their livelihood, which is rightfully so. And then to have the wolves introduced here into Grand County, it was a bit of a shock, honestly, because we didn't have any heads up."
Hardy, who was born and raised in Granby, said people feel like they no longer have a say in the state simply because they live outside urban areas.
"Not that they're not talking here, but they just don't feel like their voice really matters," Hardy said. "It was something that was just dropped in the laps of so many people that didn't want it to begin with."
Erik Woog has called Grand County home since 1978 and is the owner of Alpine Motor Sports Inc. in Kremmling, which services locals in the agricultural industry. He wonders why people who don't live in an area are allowed to make decisions for those who do.
So, he turned the question around.
"Would it be OK, if just once... the small rural communities get to vote some impactful measure into the Denver-Boulder region, and you don't have a say in it," he asked. "But we're going to decide. And maybe it has to do with homeless encampments. And we're going to make certain that we can put homeless encampments anywhere we want, whenever we want. And you don't have any say in it... The point is, you wouldn't feel all that empowered as an American citizen, would you — when someone can just check a box on a ballot that affects your life, and there's not one thing you can do about it?"
Grand Lake Mayor Pro Tem Christina Bergquist, a third-generation Grand Laker, explained that the visitors from Denver, Boulder and beyond are welcome to explore all that Grand County has to offer. Tourism is important to the small community of Grand Lake, especially as it continues to recover from the 2020 East Troublesome Fire.
"But they're only here temporarily," Bergquist explained. "And if they're coming from Denver thinking, 'Oh, this is all wonderful and good and it'd just be better for them to have the wolves' — we're not so sure about that."
Both she and Granby Mayor Hardy said they knew gray wolves were coming, but were not alerted ahead of time. Hardy said he learned about the release in his local paper the following day.
"We have to remember too that as public figures in government, we have to be available to our voters and the people within our communities to give them answers," Bergquist said. "And if we don't have the answers, and we aren't being informed, it starts to look a little questionable on the other side of the coin."
CPW's decision to choose Grand County as the release location has also left behind a sour taste for some people, especially as they look to their neighbors in Summit County, which had a majority yes vote for Prop 114. Early on, Summit County was also named as a possible drop spot — and would later become one on Dec. 22 with the second release.
"It's very odd that they picked Grand County to be the first place to release," said Dan Weida, owner of Colorado Mountain Expeditions in Grand County. "They didn't have to come to Grand County. And I think there would be less tension if they had picked somewhere that the voter population in that local area had also supported releasing wolves."
He said because he heard many stories of wolves already living in the county (which was also mentioned on the Prop 114 mailing list), it felt like a waste of taxpayer and government resources to set out on the long journey of producing a complex reintroduction plan.
"I would just say that this is definitely a political experiment, with passing the wolf reintroduction as a state," Weida said. "It's very interesting that such a large part of our population lives in an area that they won't release wolves in because of the language on the ballot."
Grand County resident Ed Raegner, who moved to Grand County in 1994 and is now the owner of a liquor store in Granby, said one of his friends has a saying that when people do things, they do it "for you, with you, or to you."
"And for Grand County, the population as a whole voted against the wolves. I'm not saying it's the entire population that feels that way. But the majority vote was against wolves, and then they're introducing them into Grand County," he said. "So it kind of feels like it is being done to us."
Looking ahead, he hopes that when Coloradans go to the ballot box, they think about what's best for the state, its residents and other people's way of life.
"How do your decisions and your legislation impact the rest of the state, the rural part of the state, and make decisions that are sensitive to our way of life and our communities and how things impact us?" he implored.
RESIDENTS PONDER IMPACTS ON ELK, OTHER WILDLIFE
After years with extremely few gray wolves wandering into Grand County, some residents are concerned about how the apex predator will interact with the beloved elk, moose and other wildlife around the county.
Animals are incredibly important to Grand County residents, said Grand Lake Mayor Pro Tem Bergquist. They love to see black bears emerge in the spring, the moose clip-clopping their way across neighborhood streets and herds of elk peacefully grazing in open spaces. She, among others, is not sure what wolves will bring to that dynamic.
"And so it isn't a matter of voting against the wolves because we're anti-wildlife — it has to do with the fact we're just concerned about what that may bring," she explained. "If it's positive, great. If it's negative, then we need to take a look at that."
Colorado is home to the largest elk population — 309,000 as of 2021 — of any state in the United States, with 19 of its 42 elk herds in 2018 exceeding population objectives set by CPW, according to Colorado State University's Center of Human-Carnivore Coexistence. Elk are one of the primary prey animals for wolves, which often chase elk to determine which of them are old, injured or weak. About 80% of their hunts are unsuccessful, according to the center.
Based on the center's data, there was no decline overall in post-hunt elk populations in the northern Rocky Mountains states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho between 1995 and 2018.
Over the past decade, hunter harvests of mule deer have been stable as well, CSU found, adding that wolves are not the primary cause of moose declines across the west either, which have been impacted by habitat quality and quantity, low pregnancy rates and malnourishment.
However, the Center of Human-Carnivore Coexistence acknowledges that the effect of wolves on big game is complex and something that Colorado, in its own regard, will work through in the coming years. It does not rule out the possibility of local reductions of several big game herds in some areas, particularly in combination with habitat degradation, other predators, and human hunting — but notes that "based on evidence from northern Rocky Mountain states, wolves will likely have a relatively low impact on big game and hunting at a statewide level."
For about four decades, Jim Young has lived in Granby and said he has long thought about wolves and wolf-related issues after an experience tracking one in Canada while Nordic skiing. He added that he and his wife previously raised and rescued Siberian Huskies — a similar-looking canine to, and decedent of, wolves — for many years. He feels "a bit more empathy" than most people, he said.
Around town, he said there are two versions of the wolf conversation and no middle ground. He believes Grand County has a substantial population that still supports the reintroduction, but they don't speak up as much. Thirty-five percent of the county voted yes on Prop 114, which equates to 3,424 people.
"It's like a microcosm of our political environment right now," Young said. "If you say something too loud, you're likely to encounter hostility, whichever side of the fence you happen to be on."
Young also pointed to misinformation swirling within conversations about the wolves. He brought up public data from Yellowstone National Park's annual wolf reports, as well as 2023 elk reports from Colorado's neighboring states, which all read that populations are stable at the state level:
- "Elk numbers remain at or above objective in all herds in the region" in Wyoming
- "Overall, the numbers for Idaho elk are once again looking steady and impressive" (Idaho is actively trying to reduce its gray wolf population by 60%)
- "The 2023 Elk Management Plan defines a statewide sustainable number of elk between 96,015 and 151,425; FWP (Fish, Wildlife & Parks) observed 143,310 elk on survey in 2023" in Montana
While these statements address statewide numbers, individual herds may experience declining numbers.
"The evidence from the states to the north of us are that the effect on the elk population, which is what hunters are concerned about, is that the wolves don't destroy the elk population," Young said. "They disperse it, which means that hunters have to actually get out and be more active as hunters. Trackers and hunters, rather than depending upon stumbling across a huge herd of 200 elk, they have to go wandering to the woods to find smaller groups of 20 to 30."
Grand County resident and Colorado native Dan Shannon said 2023 was an "off year" for Colorado's elk, as many of them died while struggling against extreme weather and starvation last winter. CPW reported in May that the survival rates were the lowest it had ever documented and "below what we previously thought possible in elk." CPW issued substantially fewer big game hunting licenses in 2023 — by as much as 89% around Bears Ears — to allow the herds to recover.
With an already-thriving mountain lion population, Shannon is worried about adding the extra stress of another apex predator.
"The fact that this didn't come from the biologists (or has) a basis in science really doesn't seem like the appropriate thing to do," he said.
This sentiment was echoed by Raegner, the owner of a Granby liquor store.
"If you talk to hunters, the last two seasons have not been terrific," he said. "So, that kind of tells you about the health of the elk herd. Also, if you look, the cow-calf ratio is actually not where they want it to be. So that's another question of, should we be introducing this animal right now, at this time?"
CPW invested in expanded ungulate monitoring well before the wolf release and that will likely expand as wolf populations grow.
The anxiety about the elk population is tied to one of Colorado's economic engines: hunting. Hunters, along with anglers, contribute $3.25 billion to the state's economy every year, according to the Colorado Wildlife Council.
Elk tags vary from about $60 for resident licenses to $759 for non-residents. Those funds provide for public access programs, conservation jobs, habitat improvements, wildlife management efforts, and wildlife crossing programs and more.
In addition to elk, some residents also expressed alarm about the bighorn sheep population, which are also prey for wolves, though not as commonly as elk. The state rebuilt the number of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep around Colorado beginning in the 1950s. However, the CPW plan reads that predation on those animals, as well as mountain goats, "is not anticipated to be significant."
LIVESTOCK LOSS, COMPENSATION CONCERNS AMID QUESTIONS ABOUT OREGON WOLVES DEPREDATION
Multiple people Denver7 heard from said they are not ranchers, but understand the exasperation of their neighbors who have built their livelihoods around livestock. They validated their concerns and questioned if financial assistance and compensation from the government will be enough for the ranchers.
"I'm not a rancher, I don't speak for them. But I know, ranching is a tremendously difficult job," Raegner said. "The state is trying to have remedies for what happens if the wolves attack your cattle, but then there's one more thing they have to do with time out of their day — submit all this paperwork, which I'm sure will be cumbersome, and then get paid eventually. So I think it puts a burden on our population."
Grand County resident Jared Peterson believes the predators will deeply hurt the ranching community.
"I believe our county will see a drastic dip in revenue due to these decisions," he said. "It may not be noticed right away, but in four to seven years, it will be ugly."
Simply put, the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan reads that if wolves are creating a conflict, CPW must manage to resolve the problem on a case-by-case basis. As listed in the plan, this will include management tools like non-lethal conflict minimization, hazing of wolves, scare tactics, public education, damage payments and when necessary, lethal take of wolves. The first line of defense should be non-lethal, the plan reads. However, in specific conditions, the initial response may include killing of wolves. A "Wolf Hands-on Resource Guide for Depredation Prevention" from CPW is available here.
The restoration and management plan allows for ranchers to use lethal methods against a wolf that is seen actively wounding, killing or chasing livestock, but stressed that nonlethal tools should be used first. During the initial phases of the reintroduction, a permit is required for private landowners to provide this kind of lethal control, per Colorado Revised Statutes 33-2-106.4. A person who kills a wolf in this scenario must report it to CPW within 24 hours when practical, but no later than 72 hours afterward. It is illegal to address the potential of future depredations at a regional or statewide scale by lethally removing wolves.
The plan says CPW is legally required to provide fair compensation to livestock owners for any economic losses if their animals are injured or killed by wolves.
Livestock in Colorado's plan is defined as cattle, horses, mules, burros, sheep, lambs, swine, llama, alpaca, and goats. At least one anonymous rancher in Grand County, who owns both bison and yaks, doesn't know what this means for him.
If livestock or a guard animal is confirmed to have been injured or killed by a wolf, the wolf-livestock compensation program will pay for 100% of fair market value compensation, up to $15,000 per animal.
Other western states, including Oregon, Montana and Idaho, also pay ranchers fair market value if one of their animals is injured or killed.
Colorado's plan acknowledges that the number of livestock killed by wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming increased over time as wolf numbers grew, but "these are small compared to losses caused by coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, domestic dogs, bears, foxes, eagles, and other predators."
CSU's Center for Humane-Carnivore Coexistence reported that based on previous studies, livestock producers underuse compensation programs, mainly due to "high costs and burden of proof to verify kills."
"Although wolf depredation on cattle and sheep accounts for less than 1% of the annual gross income from livestock operations in the Northern Rocky Mountains, these costs are unevenly distributed and localized," the center said. "As such, low average industry-wide costs could mask high costs for some individual producers."
Colorado's compensatory funds will come from a source other than the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, CPW's plan reads. It expects depredation claims of $25,000 in fiscal year 2023-2024, increasing by about $5,000 in subsequent years as wolf numbers rise. This compensation program does not include coverage for stress on livestock living among wolves, which can result in lower weights and pregnancy rates.
Proposition 114 increased state spending by about $300,000 in 2021-2022 and $500,000 the following year in the state budget as it worked on public outreach and development of the wolf reintroduction plan. Beginning in state budget year 2023-2024 — which runs from July 1, 2023 through June 30, 2024 — spending will increase to about $800,000 per year for the implementation of the plan. The actual spending will depend on the amount of livestock losses caused by wolves.
As first reported by The Fence Post, a nationwide agricultural newspaper, all five wolves in the initial release are from packs in Oregon that were deemed responsible for killing or injuring livestock in 2022 and 2023.
“Once a pack starts to depredate on livestock, they tend to include livestock in their diet in the future,” John Williams, co-chair of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Wolf Committee, told The Fence Post. “It does not say they always eat livestock but it’s more like they acquire a taste for it, they like it, and they stay on it and they may not.”
Multiple people Denver7 spoke with said this left them feeling uneasy.
In response to these concerns, Travis Duncan, CPW's lead on gray wolves, said on Dec. 27 that any wolves that live near livestock "will have some history of depredation, and this includes all packs in Oregon. This does not mean they have a history of chronic depredation. If a pack has had infrequent depredation events, they should not be excluded as a source population per the plan." He added that the Oregon officials lethally removed four wolves from the Five Points Pack in early August after two depredations in July. The pack has not depredated since, Duncan said. Some of Colorado's wolves are from the Five Points Pack.
"CPW took multiple factors into account when deciding to bring in animals from the Five Points Pack as that particular pack has some history of depredations on livestock," he explained. "Factors such as size of pack, previous removals from the pack, pack behavior after removals, and age of captured wolves were all considered... The change in pack behavior and the lack of current depredations met CPW criteria for accepting the animals."
Duncan added that CPW passed on several larger and easier-to-access packs in Oregon because they had recent depredation or had a chronic or ongoing depredation history.
'IF I'M WITH MY DOG, I'M TREMENDOUSLY CONCERNED'
Currently, there is no compensation program for the loss of pets or hunting dogs to wolves. Killing a wolf that has killed — or is in the act of killing — a pet or hunting dog is prohibited, as consistent with other game damage laws and regulations, according to the Colorado wolf reintroduction plan.
"Attacks on dogs are usually related to defense of pups at dens or rendezvous sites or defense of territories rather than acts of predation," it reads. "Dogs used for livestock guarding, herding, and hunting are the most vulnerable to attack, but pet dogs are also at some risk where dogs and wolves spatially overlap."
Raegner said he often takes his Colorado mountain dog — a mix of a Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd, both livestock guardian dogs — while he's Nordic skiing, one of his favorite pastimes in the winter in Grand County.
"If I'm with my dog, I'm tremendously concerned about what would happen if we came across a pack of wolves because his instinct would be to protect and attack," he said. "And, you know, it's impactful. It changes the way you do things."
It's a concern that Tucker Merz shares. Merz lives outside of Granby on a ranch and is an avid outdoorsman and hunter.
"I've never had an interaction with a wolf. And I don't want to have one," he said. "So, I don't really know what it would be like out in the woods as a hunter."
Merz said he lives within a few miles of the second wolf release and is now worried about his dogs disappearing.
"I live on seven acres. And that's one thing I enjoy, is opening the door and not worrying about my dog for two hours. And now you don't know what's going to happen," he said. "But when you mention that sort of issue to somebody that lives in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and they actually understand that, ‘Oh my gosh, my pet could go missing if I went on vacation in Granby,’ it kind of changes their mind a little bit."
Travis Caffee has spent the last 14 summers in Grand County and also expressed concerns for his Great Pyrenees dogs, which guard the horses he rescues from slaughter. He described himself as part of the "saving animals business."
"My dogs can handle bears, moose, mountain lions, coyotes, all that stuff. But a pack of wolves might become a different thing," he said.
His dogs roam a massive amount of miles — "they've been the king in the castle," he said — and doesn't want to force them to wear wolf collars, which are covered in outward-facing metal spikes.
"They keep the horses safe," Caffee said. "What is the dynamic going to be when there's wolves that won't back off?"
He said he respects wolves in the sense that they are interesting wild animals, and has enjoyed knowing he could travel eight hours north of Grand County and seek them out in Wyoming or Montana.
"I'm pro-wolf in general. I’m just not pro-wolf in the backyard," Caffee explained.
As cited by CSU's Center for Humane-Carnivore Coexistence, hikers are encouraged to keep dogs leashed or under strict voice control, learn to identify signs of wolves — like scat, tracks and howls — and use bells or beepers on their dogs. The center did not address working dogs or livestock guard dogs that often roam freely.
"Typically, most dogs killed by wolves are hunting dogs in pursuit of wildlife such as bears, mountain lions, and wolves themselves," the center said.
Human safety is also a worry, but CPW said wolf attacks on people are "exceedingly rare" and there are no documented attacks on people between 1900 and 2000, according to CPW's plan. According to the federal Endangered Species Act, a person can kill any endangered animal in the defense of their own life or the lives of others. Based on state regulation, a Coloradan can kill a wolf threatening human life, but that does not include if the animal is passing near, watching or behaving in a non-threatening way.
FUTURE OF UNKNOWNS FOR RANCHERS, TOURISM AND POTENTIAL WOLF HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES
Brimming with mountainscapes, lakes and authentic Colorado history and tradition, Grand County is a popular place for visitors to enjoy hiking, camping and other outdoors activities.
As the owner of a guided hiking and camping company, Weida said he isn't expecting to need to change how they operate in the wake of the gray wolf release, as he does not have concerns about them coming in to mess with campsites.
"It's really the bears that we have to worry about. The wolves — they're not causing too much of a headache for us or anything like that," he said.
Merz, who has worked for outfitters in Grand County, had a different take, noting that his groups have always packed in on horses.
"It's a giant liability to take people into the woods that usually don't have a whole lot of horse experience. They can be pretty jumpy animals and you got a string of horses and a pack of wolves rolls in, you got people on the horses — that's gonna be a very dangerous situation," he said.
Woog, the owner of Alpine Motor Sports Inc., worries that ranchers' way of life as a whole is at stake.
"I mean, some of the (ranchers) who have been doing this for generations aren't that interested in changing, and they produce our food and it matters," he said. "And obviously, they’re customers of ours — we service the agricultural industry on several different facets, meaning we sell tractors and we sell equipment, other OHV equipment that they use. And it's just a massive sacrifice for them to make — to change the way they live, the way they do business, the way they run their operations."
Colorado wasn't facing a problem with wolves but now it has created one, Woog said.
"As a guy who has to live with them in my backyard, and to listen to people and to probably observe the impact over the next few years, it's probably going to put me in opposition to it," he said. "Though I don't know that I've stood in that place all along, I certainly question the whole thing."
While Granby Mayor Hardy also feels a frustration, he wasn't alone in saying that he thought it would be intriguing to see a wolf in the wild.
"Being in the mountains, I still pull over to look at deer and elk myself, and I've lived up here a lot," he said. "So, it'll be neat to see, I guess, a wolf running out in the wild, but it's going to be an adjustment."
This fascination could possibly increase tourism dollars in Grand County, as more visitors seek to catch a glimpse of a wild wolf.
CSU's Center for Humane-Carnivore Coexistence found that guided hiking to see wolves in Yellowstone National Park costs $600 to $900 per day, depending on the size of the group. A multi-day "wolf vacation" to try to see the animals can soar well above $2,000 per person.
"The benefit of wolf-related tourism in Colorado may be more limited than the unique wolf viewing opportunities in Yellowstone’s northern range, which has high wolf density, radio-collared wolves, outstanding viewsheds, and good access via paved year-round roads," the center said. "However, Colorado is also a top tourist destination and many of its citizens would likely benefit from developing a wolf-related tourism industry."
How this will play out in Colorado is unclear.
Any possible future of hunting gray wolves in Colorado, also a growing topic of discussion amid residents, is also murky.
Under current state law, it is illegal to hunt gray wolves in Colorado, but it is allowed in much of the Northern Rocky Mountains. In 2018, Montana gathered more than $400,000 via the sale of licenses for hunting and trapping wolves, according to the Center for Humane-Carnivore Coexistence. Some private ranchers in Colorado currently charge thousands per hunter for group elk and deer hunts — something that could be adopted for wolves if the time comes when hunting them becomes legal. The CPW plan did not take a stance on if the CPW Commission has the authority to reclassify wolves a game species.
The unauthorized killing of a wolf in Colorado is currently punishable with a fine up to $100,000, imprisonment for up to one year and possible restrictions on hunting and fishing privileges. If a person is convicted of this crime, CPW may suspend any license privileges, up to a lifetime ban.
Wolves, which are currently classified as "state endangered" in Colorado, may be downlisted to threatened if their numbers reach 50 for four successive years, then delisted to nongame wildlife if 150 are found anywhere in the state for two successive years, or 200 are found anywhere anytime. Two hundred animals would, by a conservative estimate, indicate about 25 packs occupying a total of 2.8 million acres, according to the Colorado reintroduction plan.
Those are numbers that alarm some, like Merz, who is clinging to the hope that something can stop the reintroduction process soon.
"You know, find the ones that have trackers on them, dart them and put them in the zoo. Get them the hell out of our woods," he said. "But if people actually understood what they've done, maybe there's a chance we can get this stopped and turned around somehow."
With passions, fears, anticipation and anger running deep around Grand County, Grand Lake Mayor Pro Tem Bergquist gently asked everybody to leave emotions behind and examine the facts. Strung through every opinion is the same bottom line, the only crystal clear speck in the many gray areas of gray wolf reintroduction: Nothing is certain right now.
"We need to take some time and see how these things are going to pan out," Bergquist said. "The issue with the wolves has really brought concern to the community because it's going to change our dynamics up here. And you'll hear from one side it will be great for tourism. You'll hear another side it'll be bad for hunting. And we're still waiting to find out. It's yet to be known how this is going to work."