Wolf reintroduction plan includes Glenwood Springs, Vail, Aspen areas for likely releases

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed GPS collars on two wolves in North Park on Feb. 2, 2023. Male wolf 2101 has a gray coat and is in the foreground on the right. Male wolf 2301, believed to be the offspring of the gray colored wolf, has a black coat and is in the background on the left.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Wednesday approved the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, clearing the way for biologists to introduce wolves this winter.

The I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail, along with the Highway 82 corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, is likely to be the first area where wolves are introduced as CPW has concluded that large, contiguous areas of public lands with a high abundance of prey and low livestock densities will be the best sites for reintroduction.

CPW plans to release wolves during winter months, from November to March, as cold temperatures create less stress for the reintroduced wolves, and fall presents conflicts with hunting season.

Wolves will be released on state or private lands, not federal lands, because CPW does not have the staffing or financial resources to undertake the required National Environmental Policy Act analysis prior to any federal land management agency authorizing releases on federal lands, according to the plan approved Wednesday.

“Specific release locations will not be made public in this Plan in order to protect private landowner information and sensitive species locations, but targeted outreach will occur with potentially affected stakeholders prior to release,” according to the plan approved Wednesday.

10-15 wolves per year

CPW plans an initial release of 30-50 wolves over a 3-to-5-year timeframe, expressing a preference to release the animals at a pace of 10 to 15 wolves per year. After the initial release, active reintroduction will stop, and post-release monitoring will determine if the effort to establish a self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado has been successful.

“All released wolves will be monitored using satellite GPS collars, which will inform managers on survival and dispersal, as well as future release protocols,” according to the plan approved Wednesday.

The success of the reintroduction efforts will be determined by the wolves’ survival rate in the first 6 months after release, with a survival rate of less than 70% initiating a review of the program. The program will be deemed successful if released wolves demonstrate low mortality rates over the initial 2-3 years post-release, wolves remain in Colorado, reintroduced wolves successfully form pairs and reproduce, and if wolves then born in Colorado also survive and reproduce.

After the first-year releases occur in the areas between Vail, Glenwood Springs and Aspen, a second area along the Highway 50 corridor between Monarch Pass and Montrose could also see wintertime releases in later years.

“Subsequent release sites will be considered based on the efficacy of the initial release,” according to the plan approved Wednesday.

A map of the proposed reintroduction area. The darker green areas are determined to have more ecological suitability for reintroduced wolves.
Courtesy image/CPW

Thousands of comments

The intent of the wolf reintroduction effort is to create a self-sustaining population of wolves that will restore a natural balance on wild lands in the state.

Groups like the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund spoke out in favor of wolf reintroduction in 2020 when it was placed on the Colorado ballot and approved by voters later that year.

“The presence of wolves can change elk behavior, keeping them from grazing stream-side vegetation out in the open,” the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance wrote in an editorial. “By allowing aspen and willows to recover along those streambanks, songbirds return and beavers recolonize these areas, building dams, improving water storage and trout habitat. Wolves are not a panacea but restoring wolves to their natural habitat in Colorado undoubtedly will, in the long term, send positive ripples through our mountain ecosystems.”

“Wolf reintroduction is seen as one way to improve the health of elk and deer herds suffering from chronic wasting disease,” wrote the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund.

Wolf predation on livestock, however, was raised as a major concern for reintroduction.

“My constituents in central and Northwest Colorado will be directly impacted by the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, of Avon. “It is vital that … an adequate source of funding to compensate ranchers for their losses is guaranteed.”

As a result of those concerns, the CPW Commission supported revising the draft plan to raise the cap on livestock compensation, as well as guard and herding animal compensation, to $15,000 per animal.

Gov. Jared Polis said the revised plan is better due to the thousands of Coloradans who provided input.

“This science-based plan is the result of months of planning, convening stakeholder and expert working groups, and offering live and public comment opportunities, while factoring in the biological needs of the species, and creating the best possible chance for these amazing animals to be successfully restored to our state,” Polis said.

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