July 24, 2024

Miles Blumhardt

USA TODAY NETWORK

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Three years after Colorado voters narrowly passed a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves, the first paws from the measure hit the ground running Monday.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife released five wolves at an undisclosed location in Grand County after they were captured in Oregon on Sunday and flown to Colorado, according to a news release. The wolves include two juvenile males, two juvenile females and one adult male. Three of the wolves are gray and two are black.

The wolves were fitted with tracking radio collars and given numerical names according to their collar.

The wolves were captured via helicopter from three different packs in northeast Oregon: two from the Five Points pack, two from the Noregaard Pack, and one (an adult male) from the Wenaha Pack. The wolves, which weighed between 68 and 108 pounds, were given vaccines, placed in crates, and flown to Colorado.

Oregon was the only state willing or able to provide Colorado wolves to meet this year’s deadline.

The release culminates a process three years in the making when in 2020 voters narrowly approved reintroducing wolves by the end of 2023 west of the Continental Divide.

One of five wolves captured in Oregon is shown released into Grand County in Colorado on Dec. 18, 2023, as part of the first reintroduced animals into the state.

History being made with release of wolves into Colorado

Colorado Parks and Wildlife will repeat the process until at least 10 to 15 wolves have been reintroduced into the state by mid-March 2024, the agency said.

“Today, history was made in Colorado,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in a news release. “For the first time since the 1940s, the howl of wolves will officially return to western Colorado. The return of wolves fulfills the will of voters.”

Kaitie Schneider, Rockies and Plains representative at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a release it was a historic moment.

“Living alongside wolves and other wildlife is part of life in the West, and we have the tools we need to successfully restore this piece of our natural heritage,” she said. “Now, we must allow these wolves to lead us toward the first self-sustaining wolf population Colorado has seen in over 80 years.”

The 2020 measure passed by voters 51% to 49% to reintroduce wolves was the first of its kind in the U.S. and was the first reintroduction of the polarizing predator since 1995-96 in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho.

Those populations in the Northern Rockies quickly met the thresholds sought by those plans.

What’s so controversial about wolves?Colorado to release gray wolves: Here’s where and why.

Legal fight in federal court

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has labored the past three years to lead the public process to create a wolf recovery plan finalized in May and to get a federal 10(j) rule allowing lethal removal of wolves in certain situations in place before wolves arrived. That rule went into effect on Dec. 8.

A federal judge in Denver on Friday denied livestock groups’ eleventh-hour request to delay Colorado’s wolf reintroduction ruling in favor of wildlife conservation groups in allowing the reintroduction effort to continue while the rest of the livestock groups’ lawsuit moves through the court process.

“Having the rule in place in early December helped CPW to stay on track to reintroduce wolves in 2023 with the ability to use the appropriate management tools,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Jeff Davis said in a Monday release. “We’ll continue releasing animals based on our plan to have wolves not just survive but thrive in Colorado as they did a century ago.”

Colorado has spent $3.3 million over the past three years to get wolves to Colorado, including $1 million for the environmental impact statement required under the National Environmental Policy Act to obtain the 10(j) rule.

The plan calls for the release of up to 50 wolves over the next three to five years in the Grand, Summit and Eagle counties and adjacent areas on private or state-owned land.

Wolves were eradicated largely through government-backed trapping, poisoning and shooting of the animal. The last wolf in Colorado was believed to have been killed in 1945.

There have been sporadic confirmed wolf sightings in Colorado in recent years.

In 2019, a lone female wolf was confirmed to have naturally migrated into Colorado. The next year, a pack formed in Moffat County in the far northwest corner of Colorado, but it no longer exists after its members were largely legally shot just across the state line in Wyoming.

A collared male naturally migrated into Colorado from Wyoming and with the existing female produced a litter of six pups in spring of 2021 in Jackson County, marking the first wolf pups born in the state in 80 years.

In the fall of 2022, four members of the North Park pack were legally shot in Wyoming. The breeding female has not been seen in more than a year and is believed to have died but has not been found. Her radio collar was no longer working. Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed no pups have been born in the state since the first litter.

The agency acknowledged two wolves in Colorado, before Monday’s reintroduced wolves, the pack’s breeding male and one of his male offspring, both of which are fitted with radio collars. Ranchers in Jackson County believe more have wandered into the state.

Members of the North Park pack have been confirmed by the state wildlife agency to be responsible for killing or injuring 20 livestock, including 14 cattle, three sheep and three working cattle dogs over the last two years.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has paid about $40,000 in compensation to ranchers for livestock losses, which is required by the ballot initiative.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife veterinarian Pauline Nol and biologist Ellen Brandell examine a wolf after the agency captured five wolves in northeast Oregon on Sunday to translocate to Colorado as part of the state's first wolves to be reintroduced into the state.

Return of wolves furthers divide between urban and rural Colorado

Polis has been an ardent supporter of the reintroduction. However, the vote further divided the state between urban and rural interests.

The vote largely passed with support from Front Range counties, including the cities of Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. A handful of western counties voted in favor of the reintroduction, including counties that are home to the towns of Breckenridge, Aspen, Durango and Telluride.

Included in the initial release sites favored by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Summit County voted in favor of the reintroduction while Grand and Eagle counties voted against the measure.

Despite Grand County voting against the reintroduction, the county is home to the state’s largest wintering elk herd, the main prey base of wolves. Grand County also includes the western section of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wolves are known to wander far and wide whether released or through natural dispersal, which is why Colorado’s wolf recovery plan calls for releasing wolves no closer than 60 miles from state lines and tribal boundaries. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has an agreement with Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona to recapture and return reintroduced wolves to Colorado but does not have an agreement with Wyoming.

Original Story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/12/19/colorado-wolves-reintroduction-program-voters/71968648007/

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