Monday, March 16, 2020

Fact Check: If Wolves Are Already in Colorado, Is Reintroduction Necessary?

Opponents claim there is no need to reintroduce wolves into Colorado; wolves are already there and more will follow. My fact checking finds that claim only partially correct. 

In 1995 and 1996 wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. One goal of that reintroduction was to bring wolves back to the Rocky Mountains, their ancestral home. In the 25 years since that reintroduction, wolves have dispersed to Montana, Washington, Oregon, and even California. But wolves have not established themselves in Colorado—the only Rocky Mountain state still without a permanent wolf population. 

Some wolves have reached Colorado and most have ended up dead: poisoned, hit by a car, and killed by a hunter claiming he thought he shot a coyote. In July of 2019 a collared male from Wyoming’s Snake River pack arrived in Colorado’s rural Jackson County. (His collar was still being monitored in February of 2020.)

That was it: a confirmed lone wolf after a quarter-century of wolves successfully making homes elsewhere in the Rockies. 

A Pack Appears

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

Then, in mid-January of 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers investigated an elk carcass surrounded by wolf tracks in Moffat County in the northwest corner of the state. While investigating, they heard wolf howls and using binoculars saw six wolves. 

In mid-February Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials confirmed the first documentation of a wolf pack in Colorado in more than 70 years. CPW used DNA testing on scat samples taken near an elk carcass that was about two miles from where six wolves were seen just a month earlier. The DNA tests revealed the presence of three female wolves and one male. The wolves were likely siblings. CPW could not say where they were born or how old they are. Six wolves were again spotted by CPW on March 4.

Opponents of wolf reintroduction immediately claimed that the presence of those six wolves eliminated the need to reintroduce more wolves.

Does One Pack Make a Healthy Population?

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

Since the goal of reintroducing wolves is to establish a permanent Colorado wolf population, advocates of reintroduction must ask: Will those six wolves lead to the establishment of a permanent wolf population? To answer this question, let’s look at how Yellowstone reestablished its permanent wolf population. 

Most of the 31 wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone were not related and interbreeding was possible. By the spring of 1997, 67 pups were born in the park’s nine packs; 49 of the pups survived to the end of the year. By the end of 1998, the Yellowstone Wolf Project counted 112 wolves in eleven packs. The population rose and fell over the years until stabilizing at about 100 wolves for the last few years.

The key difference between Yellowstone’s reintroduction and Colorado’s current situation is that at least four of the Colorado wolves are siblings. Since wolves rarely mate with family members, those six wolves will not likely interbreed and start producing a permanent population without other unrelated wolves reaching the state.

Will Wolves Return on Their Own?

Photo by Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

In January of 2016 when the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission issued a resolution opposing “the intentional release of any wolves into Colorado,” they did not oppose wolves returning on their own. But is that a way Colorado can increase its wolf population?

As an example of wolves returning on their own, let’s look at Oregon, where the last wolf was killed in 1947—around the same time the last wolf was seen in Colorado.

Wolves began to return to Oregon on their own in 1999. Just four years after reintroduction of wolves into neighboring Idaho, a lone Idaho wolf was captured in Oregon—and promptly returned to Idaho. By 2006 a number of wolves had been sighted in northeastern Oregon. In 2008 wolf pups were confirmed in the state. By December 2019, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated the state has 137 wolves in 16 packs.

Meanwhile in 2020—25 years after wolves were reintroduced into Wyoming—Colorado still does not have a permanent wolf population. What kept neighboring Wyoming wolves from reaching Colorado while Idaho wolves reached neighboring Oregon?

Why Don't Wolves Reach Colorado?

Wyoming has essentially created a prison for its wolves. This prison is in the northwest corner of the state on public lands that surround Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Wyoming calls this prison its Wolf Trophy Game Management Area.

When a wolf leaves that Wolf Trophy Game Management Area, it enter 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 prison its Predator Zone, and within this zone wolves are deemed vermin.

Consider a wolf who slips out of the prison and heads south in search of elk, a favorite meal. Plenty of elk roam between the Wind River Range and the Colorado border, according to three web sites oriented to Wyoming elk hunters. In less than 200 miles, the escapee—if not shot on sight anytime, anywhere, by anyone—could reach northwestern Colorado, where the six wolves have been recently confirmed.

But with the way Wyoming has set up the prison, an escapee’s chances of reaching Colorado are very slim. In 2018, for example, 37 wolves were reported killed in the Predator Zone, according to Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. That’s just the number reported. I wouldn’t be surprised if others were shot and not reported. They are, after all, considered vermin.

That collared male from Yellowstone’s Snake River pack that was confirmed to have entered Colorado in July of 2019 somehow escaped the prison and survived the Predator Zone. His feat may be even more miraculous than Oregon’s famous OR-7 traveling from northeastern Oregon to northern California. While on his much longer journey, OR-7 was almost always protected by the Endangered Species Act. But the escapee from Wyoming’s wolf prison had no protection in the Predator Zone.

Now Is the Time to Reintroduce Wolves

Photo by Rick Lamplugh

So opponents to wolf reintroduction are partially right: six wolves are living now in the northwest corner of Colorado. 

But opponents are wrong when they say that the presence of these wolves eliminates the need to reintroduce wolves. Those six wolves will not lead to a larger and healthy wolf population without unrelated wolves reaching Colorado, finding the six, and breeding. The likelihood of more wolves naturally returning has proven small due to Wyoming’s wolf prison. 

The best way for Colorado to bring wolves back is still reintroduction. And with six wolves already in the state, now would be a good time to add more wolves so that breeding can occur and produce a healthy and permanent wolf population.

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Photo of wolf pack at top of post by NPS

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