The gray wolf (Canis lupus) was once one of the most prevalent predators in Colorado, stalking deer and bison across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. Before wolves were killed off in the state by the 1940s, they enjoyed a rather peaceful coexistence with humans. Since their eradication, wolves have garnered renewed public appreciation that has led to their controversial reintroduction in a number of places, including Colorado; in 2020 Colorado became the first state to approve a ballot measure for wolf reintroduction.
The gray wolf is one of nature’s most imposing predators, with powerful jaws and sharp sets of canine teeth up to two and a half inches long. Wolves also possess remarkable intelligence and keen senses, allowing them to track and follow prey for many miles. Adept carnivores, they will eat large ungulates such as deer, elk, and bison, as well as smaller prey such as beavers, rabbits, and small rodents.
Wolves resemble large dogs, especially German shepherds (dogs are evolutionarily descended from wolves). They sport bushy tails and gray-and-white fur, and can weigh between 60 and 145 pounds. They live in dens, small burrows where females give birth to between six and ten pups each year, usually in March.
Historically, the gray wolf’s range covered more than two-thirds of the United States and a wide set of habitats, from tundra to prairies and deserts. Today, smaller populations of wolves roam parts of Alaska, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. In many of these places, including Colorado neighbors Wyoming and New Mexico, wolves were reintroduced after being wiped out in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Indigenous People and Wolves
Wolves are an important part of Indigenous spirituality. They figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Indigenous nation in the continental United States. In Ute mythology, the wolf is the creator and hero, while his younger brother, Coyote, is a trickster—a relationship that reflects the ecological tie between wolves as hunters and coyotes as their trailing scavengers. The Utes and other Indigenous people made a habit of leaving some of their buffalo carcasses behind for wolves, whom they also occasionally killed for fur. For the most part, wolves and Native Americans coexisted relatively peacefully until the arrival of white immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Euro-Americans and Wolves
At first, the arrival of white immigrants to what became Colorado was a boon for wolves. From the 1830s through the 1840s, white hunters killed buffalo in droves for robes, leaving their skinless bodies on the plains for wolves and coyotes to scavenge.
By the late nineteenth century, however, white immigrants had killed off an astonishing number of the gray wolf’s natural prey. The buffalo were gone, and by 1900 there were a mere 1,000 elk remaining in the state, a huge difference from the quarter million or so that roam Colorado today. Pronghorn and deer populations were similarly devastated. With the removal of prey, wolves turned to opportunistically eating livestock, prompting a furious backlash from Colorado ranchers.
In the popular imagination of the ranching era, wolves morphed from noble predators to “pests” or “destructive beasts,” as early 1900s reports called them. Local newspapers in ranching areas kept tabs on wolf pack locations, and reports of wolves “devouring” livestock fueled the perception of the predators as costly vermin that needed to be eradicated. To protect livestock, the state and independent ranching outfits placed bounties on wolves and other predators, including mountain lions, bears, and coyotes.
By 1892, for one dollar per kill, Coloradans were slaughtering an average of more than 10,000 wolves and coyotes each year. The bounty was one-tenth that of the one for bears and mountain lions, indicating that wolves and coyotes were far more widespread. The bounties got more lucrative later on; in 1900, for instance, the North Park Cattle Company and North Park Stock Growers Association each chipped in to offer thirty-dollar bounties on wolves “for the protection and benefit of every ranchman in the park.” Later, salaried government agents joined the wolf extermination campaign.
In addition to proactive approaches such as bounties, ranchers also relied on defensive strategies to protect livestock from wolves. A 1910 article in the Routt County Courier claimed that “a wolf-tight woven wire fence, with barb wires” offered “the best protection” for sheep. By the 1940s, the cumulative effect of negative press, bounties, and livestock protection had taken its toll, with wolves effectively wiped out of the state.
As in Colorado, wolves were cleared out of neighboring Wyoming by the 1930s, and their eradication across most of the continent led them to be listed under the Endangered Species Act by 1973. As the work of ecologists and conservationists became more widely appreciated over the ensuing decades, the public began to reconceive wolves as powerful, romantic symbols of a wilderness lost to rapacious development. Reintroduction measures began to accrue public support, though many ranchers and rural communities continued to oppose bringing back wolves.
By the mid-1990s, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and other parts of the northern US Rockies. Since then they have ranged widely, including into Colorado. In 2004 a lone wolf from Yellowstone was killed by a car on Interstate 70 in Colorado, and in 2009 another arrived from Montana and died in the state. In 2019 a lone wolf was discovered in northwest Colorado, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) later confirmed the existence of a wolf pack in that part of the state.
In the midst of these sporadic sightings, the state convened a fourteen-member Colorado Wolf Management Working Group, which produced a report on wolf population management in December 2004. The report identified four key recommendations for effective wolf management: addressing both positive and negative impacts of wolf presence, monitoring and collecting data on wolves and livestock, adapting management strategies to on-the-ground data, and compensating for livestock losses.
Even before wolves had made their own way back to the state, some Coloradans took it upon themselves to welcome them. In 1988, in the foothills of the Wet Mountains in Custer County, Kent Weber co-founded Mission: Wolf, a nonprofit dedicated to wolf education and preservation. Today the nonprofit houses nearly two dozen rescued wolves and operates a “wolf ambassador” program that brings wolves into classrooms to educate schoolchildren and dispel myths about the predators.
Effects of Wolf Reintroduction
Yellowstone National Park offers an example of the ecological effects of wolf reintroduction. After wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, the park’s riparian ecosystems and aspen stands experienced recovery due to reduced browsing by a smaller elk population. Coyote numbers also dropped as wolves drove them out, allowing numbers of smaller predators such as foxes and raptors to increase. There is also evidence that wolves generated more interest and visitation; by 2006, 44 percent of Yellowstone visitors named the wolf as the species they would most like to see in the park.
Wolf attacks on livestock are exceedingly rare, with wolves killing .009 percent of inventoried cattle across the United States in 2015, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). That same year, the USDA reported that wolves killed only 1,330 of the nation’s 6.8 million sheep. Claims of danger to humans are similarly exaggerated; a 2013 report noted only “a small number of documented attacks” in the last sixty years by an estimated North American wolf population of 60,000, adding that “a person in wolf country has a greater chance of being killed by a dog, lightning, a bee sting, or a car collision with a deer than being injured by a wolf.”
On November 3, 2020, Coloradans narrowly passed Proposition 114, a ballot initiative that directs state wildlife agencies to come up with a plan to manage a reintroduced wolf population on the Western Slope by 2024. The measure reflected many of the directives identified by the 2004 working group, including the provision of “fair compensation” to ranchers who lose stock to wolves. The vote made Colorado the first state to pass wolf reintroduction via ballot measure instead of being directed to do so by the federal government. The measure was extremely controversial, passing by less than two percentage points and buoyed by strong support from Front Range communities.
Those who favored the measure argued that restoring a keystone predator such as the wolf will allow for healthier, more balanced ecosystems throughout western Colorado, with minimal threats to livestock or people. Even though the measure instructs the state to compensate for livestock losses, opponents had other concerns, including claims that “wolves are disease vectors” that threaten elk and dogs and that they would endanger humans on public land.
On November 3, 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the gray wolf from the Endangered Species list, paving the way for state entities such as CPW to take over wolf management in early 2021. However, CPW notes that this measure will “likely” face legal challenges, so it remains uncertain which agency will manage Colorado’s wolf population in the near future.
The implementation of Proposition 114 will also face opposition, as thirty-nine of Colorado’s sixty-four counties—mostly rural counties in the mountains and plains—passed resolutions opposed to wolf reintroduction. The Southern Ute Tribe in southwest Colorado also officially opposes wolf reintroduction, as does the Northern Ute Tribe in Utah and the Jicarilla Apache Tribe in northern New Mexico, though there remain supporters of wolves in each tribe. Despite the role of wolves in Indigenous spirituality, the tribes worry about potential damage to livestock and livelihoods as well as to populations of elk and moose. With such broad opposition, it remains to be seen whether wolves will truly be allowed to roam Colorado as they did long before their Rocky Mountain sanctuary became part of the United States.