How will it work? Working group outlines possible logistics for Colorado wolf reintroduction

Group favors medium pace of release that would reintroduce 10 to 15 wolves each year sourced from the Northern Rocky Mountains

A working group outlining logistics for Colorado’s wolf reintroduction favors capturing animals already in the Northern Rocky Mountains and quickly releasing wolves in areas of the state with broad expanses of public lands and low populations of humans and livestock.

Based on other reintroduction efforts, wolves could be present in most of the state as soon as 10 years after the first release, the group estimates.

Earlier this month, the Technical Working Group, comprised of elected officials from the Western Slope, Colorado Parks and Wildlife personnel and wolf experts involved in previous restoration efforts, released a report with recommendations about the capture, care and release of wolves in the state.

The recommendations come about a year before gray wolves are required to be reintroduced as outlined by the ballot initiative approved by voters in 2020. The measure’s language states the wolves need to be released by the end of 2023.

The working group is one of two helping shape the plan for reintroduction, with the other looking to get a wide range of stakeholder viewpoints through a series of meetings across the state. The Stakeholder Advisory Group has already reviewed the technical group’s recommendations, but neither group has any final decision-making power; instead, they are meant to guide the process.

“Restoration logistics is just one of the topics that these two groups are providing perspectives on throughout the next several months,” said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for CPW and lead biologist in the wolf reintroduction effort.

The stakeholder group will take a larger lead when exploring questions about managing wolves once reintroduced, how to handle livestock conflicts and other issues that have a larger social component. But Odell presented recommendations from the more technical of the two groups last week in a meeting of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission in Lamar on Colorado’s east side.

The preference of the technical group would be to get wolves from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, or a mix of all three, which would be logistically easier. Wolves already seen in Colorado are likely to be from Wyoming.

The next preference would be wolves from Washington and Oregon. Getting wolves from Great Lakes states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan would be considered only if other options were not available.

Getting wolves from the Southwest, known as Mexican Wolves, would be the least desirable option, as Colorado was never part of those animals’ original range.

One factor that could be considered when sourcing wolves could be proximity to Colorado, because wolves may try to return from where they came, potentially making Wyoming wolves less desirable.

The group recommends using helicopters to dart or net wolves before quickly transporting them to Colorado. Any age of wolf works, as long as it wasn’t born that year, and the group also doesn’t recommend any specific color of its coat.

It was also recommended officials should study the reputation of wolves they relocate, avoiding animals that have killed livestock in the past and favoring wolves that have not been exposed to livestock, generally from the deep wilderness of Idaho. Still, the tendencies of depredation likely also have to do with the landscape they live in and not just the wolves themselves.

Once the wolves are secured, it was suggested they should be kept in simple kennels for as little time as possible, likely just 24 to 48 hours, Odell said, which would limit any feeding needs. “Wolves don’t necessarily need to eat every day,” Odell said.

Each wolf should also have a collar when released, a recommendation Odell said was unanimously agreed to by the group. The hope is data from the first release of wolves can inform future releases and help avoid releasing wolves where a pack is already established.

“There is no justification for not placing a collar on an animal that is handed for the reintroduction,” the report says. “Too much money and resources will have been invested in each translocated animal, and monitoring the success of reintroduced animals is fundamental.”

A GPS collar could be beneficial because it is best in a remote situation, but a radio collar is more durable. Radio collars also force researchers into the environment, which the group sees as beneficial.

When it comes to actually releasing the wolves in Colorado, there are two main methods used previously. Officials in Yellowstone National Park used a soft release method, where wolves were acclimated to the area in kennels before being let go. In Idaho, they simply released the wolves, known as a hard release.

The group finds that both methods work, but simply releasing the wolves has shown to be more effective for setting up packs and for survival of the wolves, which is why it favors that option. A soft method can help establish packs faster and closer to the release point, but it is more cost intensive.

When released, the group favors an even mix of males and females. More females can increase the success of them forming a den, but males tend to disperse wider. Wolves are monogamous, so the group says having more of one gender isn’t likely to affect reproduction rates.

The group favors releasing wolves at a medium pace, with 10 to 15 animals each year for three to five years. The preferred option would make releases until there are about 30 to 40 total wolves and then pause to assess the population and whether it will be able to reach a self-sustaining level.

The report does not directly address the much-anticipated question of where wolves should be released, instead generally describing the ideal habitat. Large areas of contiguous public land — not necessarily federal land — are best.

Wolves are not expected to remain where released, so the group recommends any release site be at least 75 miles from a state or tribal nation border. The populations of humans, livestock and prey should all be considered when picking a release site, and it is possible the same release site could be used multiple times.

The group did consider looking at results of the 2020 ballot measure about wolves to inform where they should be reintroduced but, ultimately, did not recommend doing so. Still, public support for wolves will likely be considered when choosing release sites.

“Wolves can succeed anywhere with adequate habitat where there is social acceptance,” the report reads. “Where wolves settle may be far away from the release location.”

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