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Wolves are returning to Colorado. But is it too crowded for them to thrive?

Colorado's booming urban population flipped the state from red to blue, allowing a referendum on reintroducing wolves to pass. But that growing population now may be too big for them to thrive.

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This December 2018 photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the breeding male of the Chesnimnus Pack caught on camera during the winter survey on U.S. Forest Service land in northern Wallowa County, Oregon.  (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File)
This December 2018 photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the breeding male of the Chesnimnus Pack caught on camera during the winter survey on U.S. Forest Service land in northern Wallowa County, Oregon. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File) AP

Carbondale, COLO — Packs of gray wolves will soon roam again through the Colorado Rockies as state wildlife managers race to meet a year-end deadline to begin reintroducing the wild canines that were eradicated by humans here in the 1940s.

In 2020, voters in the state passed Proposition 114, requiring wolves to be reintroduced within three years. Since then, state wildlife officials have been holding public forums. They also convened a large stakeholder group compromised of people with polar opposite views on wolves, including rural county leaders and environmentalists. There were also outfitters and ranchers who overwhelmingly didn't support reintroducing them.

This citizen group ultimately hammered out a proposal, helping write a management plan that's widely seen as a compromise.

If all goes as planned, state wildlife officials, under the new law, will begin the reintroduction effort by New Year's Eve.

"We know that wolves will do well here," says Reid DeWalt, an assistant director with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "We wanted to make sure this was, from the get go, done with the citizens of Colorado and not done to the citizens of Colorado."

This is also seen as historic because the reintroduction is mandated by voters.

Earlier efforts in states from North Carolina to Wyoming were done by the federal government. Political analysts largely attribute the yes vote in Colorado to its booming urban population that helped flip the state from red to blue in recent elections.

Still, as the reintroduction is set to begin, there are lingering questions over whether that population boom may ultimately threaten wolves' ability to thrive.

Tens of thousands of vehicles pass through the Colorado Rockies a day on busy thoroughfares like Interstate 70.
Tens of thousands of vehicles pass through the Colorado Rockies a day on busy thoroughfares like Interstate 70. Kirk Siegler | NPR

Is Colorado too crowded for wolves?

Few western states have been more romanticized in popular culture for their beauty and open spaces than Colorado.

But back in the 1970s when Johnny Cash was singing about the wild Colorado River or John Denver hit those Rocky Mountain highs, the state's population was barely two million people.

Today, it's approaching 6 million.

In the last decade, Colorado grew at twice the national rate. Its busiest mountain highways now carry tens of thousands of vehicles a day and some of the most prime wolf habitat is fragmented by luxury homes, ski resorts and other urban development.

"We're not Wyoming. We're not Idaho. We're not Montana. I wish we were," says Perry Will, a retired state game warden of 40 years who's now a Republican state senator.

West of Glenwood Canyon, retired Colorado game warden Perry Will stands at a popular fishing access area along Interstate 70.
West of Glenwood Canyon, retired Colorado game warden Perry Will stands at a popular fishing access area along Interstate 70. Kirk Siegler | NPR

The federal government reintroduced wolves in those more rural states in the 1990s after decades of study. Will, who represents a large swath of western Colorado, says the matter goes beyond whether you love or hate the animal.

He thinks reintroducing another apex predator to the booming state won't be fair to the species. After all, wolves are known to have to travel up to thirty miles a day just to find enough food to eat.

"I think they're going to be in constant conflict in this state," Will says.

One of the last remaining working ranches near Aspen, Colo. where the national forest lands are among the most visited in the country.
One of the last remaining working ranches near Aspen, Colo. where the national forest lands are among the most visited in the country. Kirk Siegler | NPR

In Boulder, Joanna Lambert disagrees. The University of Colorado environmental studies professor and wildlife biologist helped write the state's ballot measure.

"Wolves are superb dispersers. Wolves are highly intelligent," Lambert says. "They're adaptable, flexible and if given half a chance they do well."

Lambert is an internationally known expert on wolves in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, hundreds of miles north of Colorado. She says the human population there has also grown significantly since the 1990s when they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.

Lambert says studies show they have mostly adapted with a far lower than expected livestock depredation rate. She says it is also clear that wolves don't like humans. Around Yellowstone, and beyond the Northern Rockies, scientists say there have been very few human-wolf interactions, let alone conflicts in parts of Europe and the Upper Great Lakes of the United States.

"They're not going to be running around in neighborhoods, [or] the streets of Aspen," Lambert says. "They're going to be remaining in areas where they can access their prey base."

About 70% of the western slope of the Colorado Rockies is public land, meaning its generally not developed.
About 70% of the western slope of the Colorado Rockies is public land, meaning its generally not developed. Kirk Siegler | NPR

There is actually a lot of prey in Colorado for wolves

In terms of a prey base, there are more elk in Colorado than in any other western state. Their numbers average around 300,000, or roughly twice the size of Montana's elk herd. The wolves that will initially be relocated from Oregon were partly chosen because they're adapted to feeding on elk.

Colorado wildlife officials initially struggled to even find wolves to reintroduce. They had turned to states in the Northern Rockies but their counterparts in wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho rejected requests for transfers in some cases due to politics.

Wolves outside of the Northern Rockies are still protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. As part of a compromise, in Colorado they'll be considered an "experimental population," meaning they could be harassed or killed if they're causing problems with livestock producers.

Orion Viertel stands near a popular hiking area in Frisco, Colorado.
Orion Viertel stands near a popular hiking area in Frisco, Colorado. Kirk Siegler | NPR

Wolf attacks are almost nonexistent in North America

Still, the story of wolf reintroduction in Colorado today feels different than the clashes between ranchers and the wild canines that have dominated headlines in the West for decades.

"It's frightening to think of taking your children, your family, your pets and trying to go on a day hike," says Orion Viertel, a realtor in Summit County, Colo. "Even if you bring a weapon, they come in packs, you'd better be quick."

In the thirty years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho, there has not been a documented case of an attack on humans. But Viertel says he'll think twice about taking his young son backpacking. He thinks voters were ill informed.

"I don't think anybody was thinking they would be released anywhere near residential areas," Viertel says.

It's clear there's still a lot of trepidation over wolves returning to a land that's radically changed since the 1940s. Some of the best wolf habitat in Colorado is also big business now for elk hunting, summer recreation such as mountain biking and of course, the internationally famous ski resorts.

Francie Jacober is an outlier in Colorado's ranching community in that she supported wolf reintroduction.
Francie Jacober is an outlier in Colorado's ranching community in that she supported wolf reintroduction. Kirk Siegler | NPR

There is still a "wild Colorado"

At least one rancher says there is room for both wolves and humans to coexist in Colorado.

Francie Jacober, who also chairs the Pitkin County Commission, says the "western slope," as it's known, is a lot wilder than first meets the eye.

"Along the highways we have a lot of development, but if you get in an airplane and you fly over out here, there's a lot of untouched wilderness," Jacober says. "And that's where the wolves will be."

Jacober, an outlier in the ranching community who supported reintroduction, sat on the wolf stakeholder group that helped hammer out a compromise on management. She keeps close tabs on a resident elk herd that frequents her son's ranch in the picturesque Crystal River Valley near Aspen.

With fewer predators around, the elk have grown accustomed to grazing leisurely, and not being on constantly on the move. Jacober believes wolves could restore balance and ultimately make the ecosystem healthier.

"I'm hoping they will scatter the elk, make them move, return them to their migratory habits," she says.

Like it or not, wolves themselves have migrated on their own to Colorado recently from the Yellowstone area. Lately, one was spotted just over the New Mexico border too. This natural dispersion comes as the state plans to begin formally reintroducing several more by December 31st, with possibly dozens more to follow in the years to come.

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Transcript :

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Gray wolves were once plentiful in Colorado before they were wiped out by humans. They played an important role in the ecosystem. And in 2020, Coloradans voted to reintroduce gray wolves to the state. Now the first group is set to be released onto the west slope of the Rocky Mountains, but it's not clear whether there are too many people in Colorado for wolves to thrive. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DENVER")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) The bright lights of Denver are shining like diamonds.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Few Western states have been romanticized more for their beauty than Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WILD COLORADO")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) You wild Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GUESS HE'D RATHER BE IN COLORADO")

JOHN DENVER: (Singing) Guess he'd rather be in Colorado.

SIEGLER: Back in John Denver's 1970s heyday, there were barely 2 million Coloradans. But in the last decade alone, the state's population grew at twice the national rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES DRIVING)

SIEGLER: Tens of thousands of cars a day drive these crowded mountain highways. So could a wolf that may have to roam 30 miles a day to find food survive here now?

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES DRIVING)

SIEGLER: Lots of barriers. I mean, just thinking about how wolves would try to even cross Interstate 70 through this canyon right here with all these trucks and cars racing by.

West of Glenwood Canyon, Perry Will, a retired Colorado game warden of 40 years, is standing at a popular fishing area along the interstate.

PERRY WILL: I'll be quite honest. We're crowding 6 million people in the state of Colorado. We're not Wyoming. We're not Idaho. We're not Montana. I wish we were, right?

SIEGLER: In a black cowboy hat and horseshoe mustache, Will is talking about those more rural states where the federal government reintroduced wolves in the 1990s after decades of studies. But he calls what happened here biology by ballot box. In 2020, Colorado voters passed a proposition requiring wolves to be reintroduced to the land within three years.

WILL: I've been a wildlife advocate my whole life. It doesn't really matter whether you love wolves or hate wolves, right? It's not about that. I don't think it's fair to the species. I think they're going to be in constant conflict in this state.

SIEGLER: For skeptics like Will, there's irony. Colorado used to be a red state where wolf reintroduction never would have flown. Now its booming population is liberal enough to support it. But is it now too crowded for wolves to have a chance? Joanna Lambert doesn't think so. In Boulder, she's a wildlife biology professor at the University of Colorado and helped write the ballot measure.

JOANNA LAMBERT: Wolves are superb dispersers. Wolves are highly intelligent. They're adaptable. They're flexible. And if given half a chance, they do well.

SIEGLER: Lambert is also a well-known expert on wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where she says the human population has also grown a lot since the '90s. But generally, the wolves have adapted. It turns out they don't like to be around humans.

LAMBERT: They're not going to be running around in neighborhoods, right? And they're not going to be running around in the streets of Aspen. They're going to be remaining in areas where they can access their prey base.

SIEGLER: Like elk, which Colorado happens to have more of than any other Western state - some 300,000. The wolves that will initially be relocated here from Oregon are adapted to eating elk. State wildlife officials spent the last three years holding public forums. They convened a citizen group with polar-opposite views on the wild canines, which helped write a management plan that's widely seen as a compromise.

REID DEWALT: We know that wolves will do well here.

SIEGLER: Reid DeWalt with Colorado Parks and Wildlife is helping lead the reintroduction.

DEWALT: We wanted to make sure this was from the get-go done with the citizens of Colorado and not done to the citizens of Colorado.

SIEGLER: The wolves will be considered experimental under the federal Endangered Species Act, meaning they can be harassed or killed if they're causing problems with, say, livestock. But the story of wolves in Colorado today feels a lot different than the clashes between ranchers and environmentalists that have dominated headlines in the West for years.

ORION VIERTEL: It is chilly this morning.

SIEGLER: One frigid morning near the Breckenridge Ski Resort, Orion Viertel stood at a favorite trailhead at the edge of a neighborhood of condos, restaurants and a Whole Foods.

VIERTEL: It's frightening. It's frightening to think of taking your children, your family, your pets and just trying to go on a day hike. Even if you bring a weapon, they come in packs. You'd better be quick.

SIEGLER: In the 30 years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, they've never attacked humans. Still, Viertel, a local real estate agent, says he'll think twice about taking his young son backpacking if wolves will be around. He thinks voters were ill-informed and thought the canines would get released into some faraway wilderness.

VIERTEL: I don't think anybody was thinking that they would be released anywhere near residential areas.

SIEGLER: There's still a lot of trepidation, if not fear, here over wolves returning to a land that's radically changed since the 1940s. Some of the best wolf habitat also happens to be fragmented by luxury homes, resorts and other legacy development, like ranches.

FRANCIE JACOBER: Oh, there's a deer.

SIEGLER: This is gorgeous.

JACOBER: Yeah. It really is.

SIEGLER: In the Crystal River Valley near Aspen, rancher Francie Jacober keeps close tabs on a resident elk herd. With few predators around, they've grown accustomed to grazing leisurely on the cattle pastures beneath the towering Mount Sopris.

JACOBER: Then they drop down into the river, which you can see is right over the edge there. You can see the cottonwoods.

SIEGLER: Jacober chairs the Pitkin County Commission and also sat on that state wolf group. She's an outlier in the ranching world in that she's a reintroduction supporter.

JACOBER: I'm hoping that they will scatter the elk, make them move, return them to their migratory habits.

SIEGLER: The national forests that surround this picturesque valley are among the most visited in the nation. Elk hunting, mountain biking and internationally famous ski resorts are all big business here. But Jacober says it's wilder than it looks.

JACOBER: You know, along the highways we have a lot of development. But if you get in an airplane and you fly over out here, there's a lot of wilderness, a lot of untouched area. And that's where the wolves are going to be.

SIEGLER: And like it or not, wolves are coming back to Colorado. A few have already migrated down from Yellowstone. Lately, one was spotted just over the New Mexico border, too. This natural dispersion comes as the state plans to begin reintroducing more by December 31.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Carbondale, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.