DENVER — Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will present its final draft of its gray wolf restoration and management plan at a commission meeting Thursday.
The draft is 301 pages and includes revisions from a December meeting. It is a hybrid meeting, meaning it is open to both in-person and virtual comments from the public.
CPW's Assistant Director of Aquatic, Terrestrial & Natural Resources Reid DeWalt, Species Conservation Program Manager Eric Odell and Game Damage Manager Luke Hoffman will present the plan and the new revisions from 2022.
According to CPW's agenda, the presentation begins around 9:50 a.m. Commissioners will provide feedback around 11 a.m. and public comment is set to begin at 1:10 p.m., followed by more commission feedback at 3:20 p.m. Click here to watch the meeting live on YouTube.
The CPW Commission is responsible for making the final decision to approve the plan. They will adopt it through a two-step process, starting with Thursday's meeting in Steamboat Springs. The final meeting is set for May 3 and 4 in Glenwood Springs.
Background of wolves in Colorado
Gray wolves are currently classified as an endangered species by the State of Colorado.
They are native to Colorado, but were exterminated and functionally extinct by the 1940s. About 6,000 of the animals now live in the Northern Rockies, Pacific Northwest and Western Great Lakes after the federal government reintroduced the wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990s.
In the summer of 2019, 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.
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The exact question read: Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning the restoration of gray wolves through their reintroduction on designated lands in Colorado located west of the Continental Divide, and, in connection therewith, requiring the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, after holding statewide hearings and using scientific data, to implement a plan to restore and manage gray wolves; prohibiting the commission from imposing any land, water, or resource use restrictions on private landowners to further the plan; and requiring the commission to fairly compensate owners for losses of livestock caused by gray wolves?
The group was able to collect more than 215,000 signatures, which were submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State Office in December 2019. It was certified the following January, and was set to appear on the November 2020 ballot.
This went on to become Proposition 114.
In the November 2020 state election, voters chose to pass Proposition 114, which mandated that CPW develop a plan to start reintroducing and managing gray wolves in western Colorado and to take steps to begin reintroductions by Dec. 31, 2023.
The measure passed with 50.9% — 1,590,299 votes — of the public voting in favor of the proposition. Opposing voters made up 49.09%, or 1,533,313 votes. It was an inconsistent topic across the state, CPW said.
“Our agency consists of some of the best and brightest in the field of wildlife management and conservation,” said former CPW Director Dan Prenzlow after the proposition passed. “I know our wildlife experts encompass the professionalism, expertise, and scientific focus that is essential in developing a strategic species management plan. CPW is committed to developing a comprehensive plan and in order to do that, we will need input from Coloradans across our state. We are evaluating the best path forward to ensure that all statewide interests are well represented.”
Since then, CPW has been working with experts and the public to develop the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. The first draft of the plan was released in December. The final draft will be discussed at the CPW Commission meeting Thursday.
CPW said its primary goal with this plan is "to recover and maintain a viable, self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado, while concurrently working to minimize wolf-related conflicts with domestic animals, other wildlife, and people."
In the wake of Proposition 114, the following developments have evolved:
- In July 2019, CPW said it was investigating a gray wolf sighting in Jackson County. The wolf was wearing a tracking collar. They confirmed it was from a pack in Wyoming
- In January 2020, CPW confirmed seeing six wolves about two miles from a carcass in Moffat County. They also heard "distinct howls" in the area before spotting the animals through binoculars
- In February 2020, officials confirmed the first documentation of a wolf pack in Colorado in more than 70 years. CPW staff used DNA testing on scat samples found near an elk carcass. The results indicated it was three females and one male and they were likely siblings
- In May 2021, CPW identified a collared wolf that has been living in Colorado since 2019 as a female. The wolf dispersed from the Snake River Pack in Wyoming and has been staying in the Jackson County area of northwestern Colorado for the last two years. She has been traveling with a male and their movements were consistent with "potential denning behavior"
- In June 2021, Colorado became home for its first wolf litter since the 1940s
- In February 2022, CPW collared its first gray wolf born in Colorado. The pup was tranquilized from a helicopter in North Park. CPW staff said she was in good health
- In late February 2023, CPW held its fifth commission meeting regarding the wolf reintroduction plan. At the time, CPW said it has until April to make changes to the plan and a final vote is set for May
Over the years, there have been multiple wolf-human conflicts, including but not limited to:
- In December 2021, officials confirmed the first wolf kill of livestock in Colorado in more than 70 years
- In January 2022, CPW reported that a domestic dog had been killed — and another was injured — by wolves in Jackson County. This same month, two domestic cows were attacked by wolves in the same county
- In October 2022, CPW investigated potential wolf attacks on livestock near Meeker, but said it found no evidence of wolves in the area
Key issues the drafted wolf reintroduction plan aims to address
The wolf reintroduction efforts will require 30 to 50 wolves to be transferred to Colorado over a period of three to five years, likely from Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, but also possibly Oregon or Washington. All wolves released in Colorado will have a GPS satellite collar, according to the drafted plan, and as they become established, CPW will aim to have one to two wolves in each pack collared.
CPW has said it plans to manage wolves in Colorado with impact-based management, allowing the organization to have maximum flexibility throughout the system. This will allow authorities to lethally remove wolves for management purposes, which could include protecting human safety and reducing livestock depredation.
"Not all impacts can be predicted, and that future management flexibility is crucial for adaptively managing impacts as they arise. With such uncertainty, the full gamut of potential management actions cannot be comprehensively identified (in) this Plan," the document reads.
A minimum wintertime count will be the metric to monitor early phases of reintroduction, and this includes both wolves that were brought in by humans and wolves that naturally migrated into the state. Once this number reaches 50 for four successive years, the plan instructs downlisting wolves from State Endangered to State Threatened. If 150 are found anywhere in Colorado for two successive years — or 200 are found anywhere — they will be reclassified as delisted, nongame wildlife.
At this point, the CPW Commission will conduct a population viability analysis to assess extinction probability using Colorado-specific demographic parameters, the plan reads.
In a presentation by the Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG), they said if the wolves create conflict, CPW is responsible for resolving the problem on a case-by-case basis. This may include education, non-lethal conflict minimization techniques, lethal means or damage payments. Lethal methods should, generally, not be the first response to a conflict, the SAG said.
Negative impacts stemming from a wolf reintroduction could include depredation and harassment of livestock or guard animals, loss of domestic pets, and reduced ungulate hunting or viewing opportunities.
The plan says it is legally required to provide fair compensation to livestock owners for any economic losses if their animals are injured or killed by wolves. These funds would come from a funding source other than the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. The wolf-livestock compensation program will pay for 100% of fair market value compensation, which is up to $15,000 per animal, according to the draft. This is up from $8,000 in the previous draft.
"Some negative impacts may be low on a statewide scale but can be acute on a local or individual scale, with social and economic impacts for those that are affected," the draft reads.
On the other hand, where CPW observes positive impacts, they should be "recognized and fostered," the draft plan continues. This could include reductions in ungulates in an overpopulated area, removing ill or injured prey from a herd, and intrinsic value.
Managing wolves will likely come with a higher price tag than the current plans for other carnivores, like black bears and mountain lions, CPW said. According to Proposition 114, the state budget for 2023-2024 for the implementation of the gray wolf reintroduction plan would increase to $800,000 per year.
The plan notes seven key issues considered the most significant for wolf conservation and management. They, as listed, are:
- Social tolerance for wolves and economic impacts
- Wolf recovery
- Wolf management with respect to wolf-livestock interactions
- Wolf management with respect to wolf-ungulate interactions
- Wolf interactions with other wildlife species
- Wolves and human safety concerns
- Monitoring and research
CPW will use a variety of other tools to monitor Colorado wolves' health, prey opportunities and the species' social and ecological effects.
One of the aspects they will study is wolf mortality. In most cases, wolves died of infectious disease, starvation and intraspecific strife, the draft reads. This plan notes the importance of also monitoring cases where a wolf was killed by a person. If the survival rate is less than 70%, a protocol review would be initiated, the plan reads.
With intense public interest in this plan, CPW will release an annual report about the restoration actions that happened the previous year. However, the CPW Commission can request an update at any time if there are new developments. A formal review of the plan's progress is scheduled for five years after the reintroduction efforts are completed.
CPW acknowledged in the plan that at some point in the future, the long-term management of these wolves may need to be considered in a way that is not outlined in the plan.
"These discussions would only occur after wolves have successfully been recovered and removed from the State Threatened and Endangered list," the plan reads. "The long-term management of wolves should be impact- and science-based, with consideration of biological and social science as well as economic and legal considerations."
If you see a gray wolf, CPW asks that you fill out its wolf sighting form here. If possible, wildlife officers ask that you take photos and videos.