Photograph by Ronan Donovan, National Geographic
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A wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Wolves were introduced to Yellowstone in 1995, and have since spread to many states—but have not established a permanent population in Colorado, which has vast swathes of suitable habitat.

Photograph by Ronan Donovan, National Geographic

Gray wolves to be reintroduced to Colorado in unprecedented vote

Voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves into the southern Rockies, where there's plenty of suitable habitat.

In Colorado, the wolves are coming home.

Voters in the state narrowly approved a ballot initiative, Proposition 114, paving the way for gray wolves to be reintroduced into Colorado, where they were hunted to extinction by the1940s. This is the first time a state has voted to reintroduce an animal to the ecosystem.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife department will lead the effort to establish a sustainable population of the animals in the western part of the state beginning in 2022 or 2023. The Southern Rocky Mountains contain millions of acres of suitable habitat—where wolves once thrived—land that could support several hundred wolves or more, biologists say.

Potential core wolf habitat (Canis lupus)

Opponents of the initiative conceded they had lost on November 5, but the vote was close: As of Thursday afternoon, with 90 percent of the votes in, there were 1,495,523 votes for and 1,475,235 against. But most of the remaining uncounted votes come from urban areas that strongly support reintroduction.

“Reintroducing wolves will restore Colorado's natural balance,” says Jonathan Proctor, a conservationist with the group Defenders of Wildlife, which assisted the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund in passing the measure.

Supporters say it’s especially timely, since the federal government removed Endangered Species Act protections for the animals in the contiguous U.S. in late October. (Learn more: Gray wolves taken off U.S. endangered species list in controversial move.)

The Colorado reintroduction initiative was opposed by many in rural areas, including ranchers, who worry that wolves will kill their cattle.

Many of these opponents have objected to leaving the question of reintroduction to voters, rather than state wildlife officials.

Shawn Martini, spokesperson for Coloradans for Protecting Wildlife, which opposes the initiative, says state biologists have previously declined to introduce wolves.

“This is the first time that any species would be introduced via the ballot box, and there's a reason it's never been done before—direct democracy certainly has its limits,” he says.

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A wolf in Yellowstone. Research has shown gray wolves have benefits for the environment, though their reintroduction is controversial, and routinely opposed by many livestock owners.

Advocates point to the successful reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies in the 1990s, where only one in 10,000 cattle in wolf-occupied counties are killed by the predators on average, Proctor says. The Colorado initiative will also fund a program to reimburse ranchers for lost livestock.

Some hunters also opposed the measure for fear of losing elk to the predators, though in the Northern Rockies, records show wolves have not impacted elk harvests.

Lone wolves

Wolves once ranged over most of North America but were nearly wiped out by the early 20th century in the contiguous U.S. by widespread hunting, trapping, and poisoning, much of it government-sponsored, with only a small population hanging on in the Great Lakes region. They were placed on the Endangered Species List in the 1970s, and in 1995 and 1996 the federal government reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. From there the animals spread to Montana, Washington State, Oregon, and northern California.

But wolves still haven’t established a permanent population in Colorado. There’s also a formidable distance of several hundred miles between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Colorado state line—and wolves that attempt to travel south can be killed in Wyoming, where it’s legal to kill them throughout 85 percent of the state without restriction.

In January, a small wolf pack was seen in northwestern Colorado, but several of their members were shot when crossing back into Wyoming. Besides that pack, a few more lone wolves have been spotted in Colorado since the 1990s, but not enough to repopulate the state.

“Almost every one we can account for has died or left,” says Joel Berger, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University.

Though some scientists have made the argument that it would be better for wolves to recolonize Colorado naturally, “we've waited for 25 years,” Berger says. “It’s unlikely to happen soon.”

Berger, who wasn’t directly involved in the reintroduction initiative, is excited about the prospect of “a connected population of wolves, from Canada down to Mexico” that will help the species maintain genetic diversity as they reclaim their former habitat.

Long-term, wolves have a good chance of moving beyond Colorado—for example, into New Mexico. That could lead to the introduction of new genes into the endangered and inbred population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, explains Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization also involved in passing the ballot initiative. Robinson has been pushing for wolf reintroduction in Colorado for decades.

Wolf benefits

The livestock industry, some hunting groups, and the Colorado Farm Bureau rallied against the measure, which was supported largely by voters in urban areas.

Martini stresses that the majority of rural residents in western Colorado have opposed the measure, whereas supportive urban voters won’t have to live alongside the animals, a scenario he considers unfair.

But conservationists point to the beneficial role of wolves as apex predators and keystone species. They help thin out sick animals, maintaining healthy populations of deer and elk, thus limiting overgrazing and erosion, Proctor says. By killing and competing with coyotes, wolves can support higher populations of other small carnivores, including foxes. And the remains of wolf kills also provide food for many scavengers, including endangered wolverines, eagles, and bears, Robinson says.

Proctor also emphasizes that “the experience of living with wolves in other places, like the Northern Rockies, has shown that wolves are not the threat people sometimes make them out to be.”

Reintroduction program biologists will make it a priority to work with people who live alongside wolves, for example providing training and resources for ranchers to help prevent wolves from preying on cattle in the first place, Proctor adds.

“Colorado has the chance to be better than the other states,” he says, “by being inclusive.”