Photo Credits: All photos by Rick Lamplugh
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When wolves were reintroduced into the Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995, conservationists hoped that these wolves and their descendants would create a healthy population that would in turn produce dispersers. Dispersal is a fact of wolf life; wolves regularly leave their birth packs in search of food, open territory, or a mate to start a pack with.
By 2008--with the help of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act-- that hope became reality: dispersers of reintroduced wolves had created the first confirmed packs in Oregon and Washington. By 2020 dispersers that had made the long trek to California had established the state’s only pack, one with a breeding pair and 13 other members.
Yet by 2020 dispersers had not established a single breeding pair in Colorado, the only Rocky Mountain state still without a permanent wolf population. This shortage of successful dispersers speaks to the necessity of ESA protection for wolves.
A handful of dispersers did reach Colorado but most ended up dead: poisoned, hit by a car, and killed by a hunter who claimed he thought he shot a coyote. In July of 2019 a collared male disperser from Wyoming’s Snake River pack arrived in northwest Colorado and is still in the state according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
In January of 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that a pack of six wolves, mostly brothers and sisters, was living in northwestern Colorado. Since most of those wolves are related, reproduction is unlikely without unrelated dispersers reaching the state and finding the pack.
But they better hurry. In September of 2020, the Center for Biological Diversity reported that at least three of the six wolves in that pack had been illegally shot and killed.
So that’s it: After a quarter-century of wolves successfully dispersing elsewhere across the West, Colorado has a confirmed lone wolf and three survivors of poaching.
Why Don't Dispersers Reach Colorado?
Wyoming, right on Colorado’s northern border, has a well established wolf population that generates dispersers. So I looked at Wyoming’s wolf management plan, and the more I dug into that plan, the more I saw how Wyoming has created what I call a wolf prison that keeps dispersers from reaching Colorado.
As the map above shows, Wyoming’s prison sits in the northwest corner of the state on the public lands that surround Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Wyoming calls this prison its Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (WTGMA). Recent data from Wyoming Game & Fish Department reveals that almost every one of the state’s 50 or so wolf packs roam within the trophy zone most or all of the time.
Trophy hunters need a license to kill in the zone and there are limits to how many wolves can be taken. In 2020, 31 wolves were killed in the trophy zone.
If a wolf isn’t killed in the trophy zone, it can still be killed trying to escape, to follow that natural urge to disperse. When a wolf disperses from the trophy zone where it can be hunted three to six months of the year, it enters the 85% of the state where it can be shot on sight, anytime, anywhere, by anyone. No license needed. Wyoming calls this area surrounding the trophy zone its Predator Zone.
Of course, a wolf can’t see prison walls designated by lines on a map when it is compelled to disperse. Consider a wolf who busts out and heads south in search of elk, a favorite meal. Plenty of elk can be found between the Wind River Reservation that sits at the southeastern corner of the prison and the Colorado border, according to three web sites oriented to elk hunters. So the escaped wolf may take an elk right away or continue south.
As the map below shows, in about 250 miles (not a long wolf journey), the escapee—if not shot on sight anytime, anywhere, by anyone—could reach elk-filled northwestern Colorado, where all of Colorado’s few confirmed wolf sightings have occurred.
But with the way Wyoming has set up the prison, an escapee’s chances of reaching Colorado are deathly slim. Last year 24 wolves were reported killed in the Predator Zone, according to Wyoming Game & Fish. That’s just the number reported. I wouldn’t be surprised if others were shot and not reported. They are, after all, considered vermin in the Predator Zone.
Yet that collared male from Wyoming’s Snake River pack escaped the prison, survived the Predator Zone, and reached northwestern Colorado. His escape and survival may be even more miraculous than that of Oregon’s famous OR-7 that dispersed from northeastern Oregon to northern California. While on his longer journey, OR-7 was almost always protected by the Endangered Species Act. But the Snake River escapee from wolf prison had no protection in the Predator Zone.
Wyoming’s Management Necessitates Reintroducing Wolves to Colorado
Clearly, the prison system Wyoming uses to manage wolves keep dispersers from reaching Colorado—a state with plenty of elk and suitable wolf habitat. Surely some of those 24 wolves killed in the Predator Zone—probably many of them—were heading towards Colorado when they were senselessly killed. If they had reached Colorado, those dispersers could have found one another, bred, and created a permanent wolf population.
If wolves can’t walk to Colorado, they can still be trucked in. Proposition 114, which Colorado voters approved in November 2020, instructs their Parks and Wildlife Department to develop and implement a science-based plan for reintroducing gray wolves to the state.
The impact of Wyoming’s wolf management plan on Colorado’s wolf population reveals why dispersing wolves need federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. When federal protection is stopped and management is handed over to individual states, one state’s approach can stop dispersing wolves from reclaiming territory in a neighboring state. Just as Wyoming’s Predator Zone has stopped wolves from reclaiming habitat in Colorado.
During the last nine years of advocating for wildlife and wild lands, I've talked with many other advocates. Often our conservations touch on challenges we face.