It’s finally happening: Wolves are coming to Colorado – to join ones already here – and there’s a brochure to prove it.
Every year Colorado Parks and Wildlife issues brochures detailing how Colorado residents can avoid conflicts with wildlife. This year’s conflict literature includes wolves.
The five-page virtual leaflet – “Living with Wolves: How to Avoid Wildlife Conflicts” – was released Nov. 17, ahead of what will likely be one of the most controversial days in Colorado wildlife history.
CPW says it will begin the process of bringing gray wolves from Oregon to Colorado on Friday, releasing them into three counties west of the Continental Divide – Grand, Summit and Eagle – in mid- to late-December. By the time the initial releases are done, in March, the agency hopes to have 10 to 15 new wolves roaming the landscape.
They’ll be additional wolves, because established packs already exist in Jackson County, east of the Divide. Don Gittleson, a rancher who runs cattle outside of Walden and has been the face of Colorado’s wolf controversy, has the personal experience with them to prove it.
Gittleson has become something of an expert in wolf track identification since wolves first began attacking his cows in January 2022. He said he recently found two sets of tracks outside his house on his North Park ranch. He doesn’t know if they were male or female, but if there were one of each traveling together, “the male will probably try to mate with the female here in February,” he said, “and there’s nothing we people can do about it one way or the other.”
State law says CPW must release the new wolves west of the Continental Divide, at least 60 miles from a sovereign tribe’s land or a neighboring state and not on federal land managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or National Park Service.
So months ago, researchers got to work finding state and private land with ecological suitability and low conflict risk. The prime region for release stretched from Grand County in the northeast to Montrose County in the southwest with Gunnison, Garfield, Pitkin, Rio Blanco and Routt in between.
All of these places have ranches, and people.
Grand County in 2017 had 126 ranches with 17,000 head of cattle; Eagle County had 72 ranches with 9,500 head of cattle; and Summit had 15 ranches with 1,400 head of cattle, according to the most recent data available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
In 2022, U.S. census data pegged Grand County’s human population at 15,769, Eagle County’s at 55,285 and Summit’s at 30,565.
Most people in the counties with the strongest support for Proposition 114 – Boulder with 68% and Denver with 66% – probably won’t encounter a wolf on a regular basis. But CPW spokesman Travis Duncan said as the wolf population grows, and some migrate to establish new territories, “it is entirely expected that wolves will move to within the 60-mile buffer of neighboring states as well as to the east of the Continental Divide.”
Residents in the urban-wildland interface along the Front Range may want to be prepared.
CPW’s brochure says it’s “very rare for wolves to cause a direct threat to humans” but that if you encounter one, back away, maintain visual contact, keep your (leashed) dog close and find shelter in a car or nearby building. Also: never run (it triggers a chase instinct), stand your ground (if you can’t retreat) and if a wolf attacks, fight back.
The wolves headed to Colorado currently live in Oregon. Once they’re captured, the volunteer flight service LightHawk, which assists conservation agencies with endangered species transportation, will bring them to Colorado.
Western Slope ranchers could start seeing wolves by mid-December. That troubles Lenny Klinglesmith, who runs between 600 and 1,000 head of cattle in Rio Blanco County, southwest of Meeker.
Klinglesmith said stress and anxiety are running high in him and his ranching neighbors, who’ve “been dreading it for quite awhile. Now, reintroduction is almost here but we don’t have a choice. It’s just the stress, not only for me but for our hunting community. They talk deterrents and conflict minimization like it’s easy, but wolves are there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And most [impacts] are going to happen in the middle of the night. It could be Christmas Eve. It’ll change lives forever.”
But Eric Odell, CPW’s species conservation manager, said CPW plans to help them with the transition by contracting a conflict minimization specialist with expertise in wolf reintroduction who has worked with several ranching communities in the past. The agency intends to hire more such specialists. And Odell said CPW has some of the materials needed for deterring wolves on hand, including “fladry” to string around livestock pastures or holding areas, and scare devices like sirens and strobe lights.
“We have some for loan and use, but not enough that will meet the demand,” he said. “And there will be lots and lots of demand.”
The state has appropriated $350,000 per year from the general budget for gray wolf depredation compensation in Senate Bill 255, the Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund. And Joanna Lambert, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology at the University of Colorado and a science adviser for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, said proceeds from a new license plate with a wolf in the center and the words “Born to Be Wild” emblazoned on it will go directly to CPW to fund nonlethal conflict reduction programs and tools.
As the state prepares for the wolves’ arrival, the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center wants middle schoolers across the state to get involved through participation in a wolf-naming contest.
“The overall goal is to engage children in the future of wolf recovery in Colorado and encourage more sensitive management of the wolf population through spreading awareness that children care for the fates of each reintroduced animal (as well as those to be born in Colorado),” Kelly Murphy, animal care supervisor for the organization, wrote in an email.
But Gittleson said, “This is a very volatile situation already, and that is not going to make it better. The wolves coming in may get injured or killed or may injure or kill people’s pets. If Darlene [Kobobel, the center’s founder] wants to convince children that wolves are so amazing, she should get one herself.”