It’s been almost two years since Colorado voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative to force the state to reintroduce Gray Wolves by the end of 2023.
The initiative specifies that the reintroduction of the wolf must take place on the western slope of Colorado. Otherwise, it does not say where the state should release predators to revive the population.
But state biologists provided clues at a meeting of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Friday. Now it looks like CPW will be placing wolves somewhere in a large area containing some of the state’s most popular ski areas, including Aspen and Vail.
In an update on the wolf reintroduction planning process, Eric Odell, species conservation program manager at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, cited a recent study assist their efforts to select reintroduction sites.
The research takes a new approach to guide decision makers. To suggest suitable places for wolves, he doesn’t just look at biological factors, like where predators would find large populations of deer and elk. It also analyzes which local communities would tolerate wolves, based in part on the vote of more than 3 million Coloradans on the reintroduction ballot initiative.
The results, published in the journal ‘Global Ecology and Conservation’, revealed that wolves would have an easier time regaining a foothold in a part of southwestern Colorado.
In a presentation to wildlife commissioners, Odell showed a map overlaying the study’s results with an area he called the “doughnut hole” for wolf reintroduction. Its boundaries are 60 miles from Colorado’s borders with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, minimizing the risk of the animal immediately migrating to other states. The Continental Divide forms the eastern boundary.
Odell said wildlife officials will release wolves into the area over the winter months, which runs roughly between U.S. Route 24 and Montrose and stretches between Glenwood Springs and Vail in the north and Ridgway in the south. .
Odell told commissioners that the area has plenty of strong wolf habitat with less risk of conflict with livestock. He expects Colorado parks and wildlife managers to now start talking to communities in the area — like Aspen, Gunnison and Glenwood Springs — about the potential impacts.
“We want to have the highest probability of success so that we don’t face depredations more than we would like,” Odell said.
Odell said the area isn’t the only place the state will tolerate wolves. After reintroduction, wildlife managers expect predators to move out of its confines and into other parts of the state.
Northern Colorado is a place wolves might seek out. Using only biological factors, the study suggests that the West Slope north of Interstate 70 contains the best wolf habitat in the state due to its large populations of deer and elk. At the same time, the researchers concluded that the region had a higher potential for conflict between wolves and humans. Most voters in the region voted decisively against the reintroduction of the wolf.
The area has already attracted wolves from Wyoming. Colorado’s only known pack began when a wolf migrated from outside Yellowstone National Park to Jackson County, Colorado. The female has since found a mate and has given birth to a litter of pups.
But Mark Ditmer, an ecologist researcher with the US Forest Service and lead author of the study, said the data shows southwestern Colorado is likely a more welcoming landscape. His research highlights the high elevation mountains between Aspen and Durango as an area with ample prey and higher levels of social acceptance.
“There are large wilderness areas around ski resorts that offer a combination of low livestock and places that tend to support the ballot initiative,” Ditmer said.
Since wolves are legendary travelers, Ditmer said his maps should be seen as a guide to maintaining a viable wolf population. Over the next few years, wildlife managers could use the research to help them identify potential conflict zones and safe migration corridors.
“I hope they will be useful as a tool to determine where to release wolves and where they might cause problems as the population grows,” Ditmer said.