Rewilding the West

Gray wolves are roaming wild in Colorado following an unprecedented reintroduction effort. Are we ready?

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We tell children stories — like Aesop’s Fables, Little Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf — that implicitly teach us how to think about wolves. Many of these myths portray them as conniving,
cunning or deceitful. 

“Expect no reward for serving the wicked,” writes Aesop after a wolf fools a crane. He calls the canine “the terrible wolf,” in another fable. 

Stories of the opposite sentiment are also true. 

The wolf is central to some Indigenous tribes’ creation stories around the country, where they are associated with characteristics like courage and loyalty. A female wolf is said to have cared for Romulus and Remus before the former founded the city of Rome. Aldo Leopold’s observation of a fading “fierce green fire” in a dying wolf’s eye gave birth to his famous conservation values. 

Mike Phillips, one of the foremost experts on wolf restoration, says the “mythical wolf” could be “nothing further from the truth.”

“Gray wolves are not the devil incarnate, and they certainly aren’t angelic and float two inches above the ground and never cause any problems,” he says. “The real wolf is firmly situated between the two. With time, a lot of Coloradans will come to see the real wolf more clearly.”

That’s because, as of a month ago, wolves are no longer relegated to legends or history books. 

After being systematically extirpated more than 75 years ago, the release of five gray wolves in Grand County on Dec. 18 marked the beginning of the canine’s unprecedented voter-mandated reintroduction to its native range. Never before has direct democracy led to an endangered species’ reintroduction, and it’s the first wolf-focused initiative led by a state agency. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has released 10 of them, and more are on the way. 

Some champion the reintroduction as a triumph of democracy and environmental prosperity. Others say it risks their livelihoods or way of life. These perspectives often align with other riffs along societal divides core to people’s identities, such as political ideology, culture and tradition.

That means discussions around canis lupus are about the ecological impacts of reintroducing an apex predator and, perhaps moreso, the resulting social implications.

(c) Jimdarby8 | Dreamstime.com Courtesy: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

“A lot of the arguments around wolves and about wolves aren’t necessarily solely about wolves,” says Kevin Crooks, director of the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University. “They’re about deeper underlying societal conflicts. Wolves are just a symbol of those deeper conflicts.”

Now with wolves living on the landscape, people are focusing their attention on what it takes for a successful reintroduction effort — for both wolves and humans. But with recent lawsuits, claims of fractured trust and desire for more transparency, it’s clear that just because wolves are roaming free doesn’t mean the job is done. 

“I don’t think that Colorado is ready for wolves,” says Robin Young, the Archuleta County Extension director at the CSU Extension Service. “I don’t think that anything to this magnitude you’re ever ready for. … There’s still a lot of work to do. There’s still a lot of knowledge that needs to be gained when the wolves get here and to know really how to manage them.”

Co-existence experts say one of the most important factors for a successful reintroduction hangs on meeting people across the aisle to build trust. For a creature steeped in everything from myth to politics to culture in a polarized country, that might be easier said than done.

Home on the range

Don Gittleson feeds his cows everyday in the wintertime. He owns a ranch in Jackson County, also known as North Park, near the town of Walden. 

Because he sees them so often, especially when temperatures drop and daylight dwindles, he knows his livestock well and is keyed in to their whereabouts, mood and behavior. In December 2021, he knew wolves were in the area even before the depredations started. 

“[The cows] were fine in the evening,” he says. “Next morning when I came out, she was lying there and quite a bit of her was eaten.” 

The wolves on Gittleson’s ranch migrated into the state before last month’s reintroduction and established a home range in the area. As of mid-December, CPW knows two are still in the area.

According to Gittleson, he’s lost four of his livestock since 2021 that were compensated by CPW. A few more were confirmed to be injured by wolves. 

He remembers walking up on one injured cow stuck in deep snow. 

“She was kind of in shock. So she could only go a little ways before she’d have to lay down and rest,” he says. “And she was just shivering, you know, shaking. And she was chewed up on her legs and flank beside her tail and back end. I knew she needed to get put down.

“That one was by far the hardest one to deal with. Because you knew the cow was in a lot of pain, and they chewed her up pretty bad.”

 Confirmed or probable wolf dispersals into Colorado have occurred seven times since 2004, yet wolves kill livestock infrequently. In fact, CSU Extension estimates the percentage of cattle killed by wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming is under 1% (although the exact number is unknown). There’s a loss of revenue, but CSU estimates it’s a “small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole.” 

Once wolves figure out livestock are vulnerable, they are known to hit the same area again, and it can become a problem for individual producers. There’s a suite of determent methods available, many of which Gittleson used on his ranch, including ranger riders, lights and fladry (colored fabric that hangs from fence lines), but he says once wolves find their way around them, the methods are inconsistent, expensive and time consuming. 

What might be more prevalent, and harder to track, are indirect costs both to livestock and ranchers. Gittleson says the cattle losses he’s faced are “more than you want,” but the high cost of nonlethal determinants and the ongoing psychological stress are bigger problems. 

“Everything you see on the landscape after, it’s a wolf,” he says. “You see something move by the corner of your eye, it’s a wolf. And it takes you a minute to realize it’s not.

“It’s extremely stressful. And that might be an understatement.”

Despite the low probability of wolf predation on livestock, it’s the reality some ranchers will face. Young says that uncertainty can lead to fear and anxiety. 

“You’re not just talking about someone’s job, you’re talking about a livelihood — their way of life,” she says. “And something that’s a threat to your way of life is fearful, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s the definition of fear, right, the fear of the unknown.”

Wolf country 

CPW’s plan, finalized last May, is to introduce 30-50 wolves to the state over the next 3-5 years on the Western Slope to create a self-sustaining population and “minimize wolf-related conflicts.”

Multiple studies have shown that Colorado, especially the Western Slope, is suitable for wolves. Phillips says “the western half of Colorado represents the best unoccupied wolf habitat in the world” in part because of the state’s 24 million acres of public lands (mostly in western Colorado) and abundant prey (over 430,000 mule deer and nearly 300,000 elk). 

David Parsons Courtesy: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Wolves are expected to cross the Continental Divide. Wolves released in Yellowstone and central Idaho moved from 22 to 140 miles away from their release site. From Grand County, that’s potentially as far east as Fort Morgan, south to Saguache, nearly to the western border with Utah and north into Wyoming, depending on the exact release site.  

The effect these apex predators will have on the landscape could vary, according to Crooks. For example, there might be local impacts on herds and hunting opportunities where wolves are in higher numbers, he says. 

Both Crooks and Joanna Lambert, a scientist who studies wolves, say the statewide ecological impact will likely be limited.  

“Drought, wildfire and habitat loss from development: those are the things that are shaping Colorado’s ecology and biodiversity,” Lambert says. “It’s not going to be 50 wolves.”

As environmental impacts play out, Lambert’s ongoing work will focus on helping people relearn how to live with wolves on the landscape — like humans did in much of our evolutionary history — something she says revolves around the tools, knowledge and eventual habituation.

‘Heels outta the dirt’

People in northern Montana’s Blackfoot Watershed have lived with grizzly bears since the early 2000s and gray wolves since 2007. A nonprofit called Blackfoot Challenge was founded to find solutions for living with large carnivores on the premise that collaboration is central to effective co-existence. 

Seth Wilson, the executive director of the organization, says residents were worried about wolves when they came to the area, especially livestock producers, but they’ve become accustomed to living with wolves and have learned a lot about their behavior.

“It’s not always easy to live with wolves, but they are part of our system,” Wilson says. “When we can figure out ways and strategies of having both people and wildlife share these same spaces, I think that is what makes a rural way of life special in a place like Montana.”

While it isn’t clear how co-existence can be compared across state lines, in some ways, efforts in Montana might provide a small glimpse into the future of Colorado, especially when it comes to mitigating social conflict. 

Denny Iverson lives in the Blackfoot region and has been ranching for 50 years. He is very clear he’s not “pro wolf” — he’d “rather not deal with them” — but he understands they have a place on the landscape. 

“I’m sure not an environmentalist,” he says. “And I’m not sure I’m even a very good rancher.”

He considers himself a “moderate” and “pro balance” — something he says has helped him bridge different perspectives on living with wolves. 

“If you’re gonna make any strides in managing and having that balance on the landscape, you gotta get everybody’s heels outta the dirt and stand flat footed and look each other in the eye and have a conversation,” he says. 

Modeling CPW used to determine release locations. Releases in the first year will occur only in the northern area. Green indicates high ecological suitability and low conflict risk. Courtesy: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

That conversation is even harder to have when you’re crossing political divides, which is often the case in discussions about wolves. 

In fact, one study found “presidential voting patterns had the largest effect on support for wolf restoration,” specifically in the 2020 election, where Biden’s supporters were more likely to vote pro-restoration. 

Further, the 2020 statewide wolf reintroduction ballot measure — Proposition 114 — passed by a margin of less than 2%. While there are pockets of areas that voted for reintroduction on the Western Slope, the region generally opposed the measure (especially ranchers and hunters), yet it will bear the majority of the costs of co-existence.

With underlying political ideologies added to the mix, Iverson says transparency, honesty and building relationships between ranchers and biologists helped him and others in the area progress toward a “productive conversation.” 

He specifically remembers trust strengthening when the location of wolves were shared with ranchers. Colorado currently doesn’t publicize that information. Reid DeWalt, assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources at CPW, said in a Jan. 11 CPW Commission meeting that the agency is working on sharing where those animals are “generally located” on its website.

But Iverson says trust has to be built and rebuilt over time. 

“We’ve been through building trust and then losing it, building it, losing it, and it’s always over communication,” he says. “It’s always over communication where we lose trust.”

Colorado is on the front end of that cycle.  

In a Jan. 10 CPW Commission meeting, two commissioners — Marie Haskett and Duke Phillips IV — called for greater transparency and communication from the agency, claiming more people, including themselves, should have known about the initial release. 

In the meeting, Haskett said the lack of transparency has made landowners, ranchers and citizens question their relationships with CPW because the agency did not inform some public officials or residents “on what was happening with the release.” The final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan states specific release locations won’t be public “to protect private landowner information and sensitive species locations, but targeted outreach will occur with potentially affected stakeholders prior to release.” 

Skylar Fischer, who operates a ranch near the first wolf release site, voiced disappointment in The Denver Post about the agency’s communication and said that local ranchers felt “blindsided by agents of change without warning of the introduction to their backyard.”

“While Radium is within the area that the CPW announced as a favorable environment for wolf introduction,” Fischer wrote, “there hasn’t been meaningful contact from the organization to livestock owners in the area since.”  

The flurry of recent comments came after multiple lawsuits — one from the Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ and the Colorado Cattlemen’s associations and another from the Colorado Conservation Alliance — were filed mid-December over the reintroduction. The Cattlemans’ lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, according to multiple media outlets. 

Gittleson says he and other ranchers are getting wolves whether they like it or not. Now he wants to move past that and figure out “how to deal with them.”

“The only way you’re ever going to fix it is if everybody’s talking about what’s working and what’s not working,” he says. 

Building trust 

Progress is being made to limit the amount of livestock and wolf losses while maintaining fragile relationships between parties.  

CSU’s Wolf Conflict Reduction Fund supports livestock producers and communities in regions with wolves with nonlethal tools like fladry, guardian dogs or range riders that are proven to prevent conflict.

The Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund, signed into law last May, appropriates $525,000 over the next two years to help cover livestock losses. Ranchers can receive up to $15,000 for slain animals. More funding is also coming to livestock producers for on-the-ground conflict reduction practices through grants funded by the USDA and facilitated by the Western Landowners Alliance and the Heart of the Rockies Initiative.   

The December implementation of the 10(j) rule of the Endangered Species Act, which gives Colorado authority to manage and kill wolves in certain circumstances, was widely supported by livestock producers and is supposed to help rural communities. Previously, the Act kept anyone from harming or harassing wolves in the state. 

There haven’t been any reported wolf-related conflicts in Colorado to date since the release, although they are sure to happen. Each released animal is still alive, according to CPW.

AP Credit: Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service

Lambert says difficult conversations between people with differing opinions will continue to happen, but it’s important to “keep showing up” and listen. 

“I’ve seen this in action many times, and it’s a wonderful thing about the human spirit and the human ability to grow and learn is that with individual interaction, through time, trust does build,” she says. “And then as soon as a trust builds, fear and anger gets stamped down, and then you can start working together.”

The grand experiment of canis lupus reintroduction is ecologically and culturally significant, but the costs and benefits aren’t evenly distributed. While there are fissures of debate behind the initiative, perhaps there’s an opportunity to show the foundational unity of a polarized people. 

“The voters of Colorado find and declare,” reads the beginning of the statute that brought wolves back to the Centennial State. Like any democratic motion, it won’t be perfect — it’s not designed to be.

“The conflict is never going to be resolved,” Young says about the initiative. “But at least we can come to some agreement on how we can manage and make this successful.”

Or perhaps it will become another story of the mythical wolf we’ll pass to the next generation.

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to reflect that grant dollars from the USDA are intended to support conflict reduction practices for livestock producers, and is facilitated by the Western Landowners Alliance and the Heart of the Rockies Initiative, which are also receiving support from the federal agency.