Western Slope ranchers who overwhelmingly opposed Colorado’s wolf reintroduction nerd initiative have repeatedly said they hoped wolves show up on the doorsteps of those living on the Front Range who highly favored the measure.
Wildlife experts agree those ranchers will likely get their wish.
Wolves are mandated to be reintroduced into Colorado west of the Continental Divide by the end of next year, but wildlife officials said wolves will wander widely and may be seen even along the Front Range.
“We expect wolves to migrate east of the Continental Divide and anticipate wolves to end up anywhere in the state,” said Eric Odell, Colorado Parks and Wildlife species conservation program manager in charge of the agency’s reintroduction effort, at last month’s Colorado Wildlife Commission meeting.
Lone wolves are known to wander far and wide, easily roaming 200 miles or more. The adult female of Colorado’s only known pack, the North Park pack, wandered more than 350 miles from near Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming to north of Walden.
The Front Range is within 100 to 150 miles of likely reintroduction release sites on the Western Slope. Previous studies identified three areas with the highest release potential as:
- White River and Routt national forests and Flattops Wilderness, roughly located north of Glenwood Springs and southwest of Steamboat Springs.
- Grand Mesa and Gunnison national forests, roughly located south of Glenwood Springs, southwest of Aspen and east of Grand Junction.
- San Juan Mountains and Weminuche Wilderness, tucked between Silverton and Pagosa Springs.
Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park could also have the chance to see wolves either reintroduced or coming from the North Park pack, whose territory is about 30 miles northwest of the park.
Because of their wandering nature, the state wildlife agency said wolves will not be released any closer than 60 to 70 miles from another state line or tribal land border.
Hard-release reintroduced wolves are expected to wander 40 to 50 miles from the release site, the state wildlife agency said. Wolves generally travel 20 to 50 miles per day in search of food.
Hard release means the animals are captured, transported to the release site and released immediately to find their own way. Colorado officials have said it will hard-release wolves.
Ed Bangs, who oversaw the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf recovery program in the Northern Rocky Mountains before retiring in 2011, said released wolves tend to scatter, trying to return to their home until they find habitat and prey similar to from where they came .
He said it’s important release sites are similar from where the wolves were captured to minimize movement.
“They will go everywhere, and wolves can go everywhere, and trying to predict where wolves will set up shop is a fool’s errand,” he said. “They are disoriented when you first release them, and some will go a long ways. After a couple of months of bouncing around not knowing how to get back home, they tend to go back to where they were released, and it’s amazing how they find each other.”
He said wolves wandering to the Front Range and beyond would be susceptible to being struck by vehicles or shot.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said at last month’s commission meeting that conservatively, Colorado could become home to 25 packs with a pack averaging eight wolves, for a total of 200 wolves. Each pack is expected to have a territory around 180 square miles, similar to pack territories in northwest Montana, which often is said to most closely compare to Colorado’s reintroduction sites.
That equates to 4,500 square miles, which is 10% of the area of the Western Slope or more than 10 times larger than Rocky Mountain National Park.
The North Park pack’s movements had been tracked until the last of the pack members’ three collars failed in recent weeks. It showed the pack moving in an oblong territory from northeast of Walden into southern Wyoming and to the southern edges of North Park.
“It’s important for us to maintain collars on as many packs possible to get these minimum counts for thresholds,” Odell said at the meeting, referring to reintroduced wolves.
A technical working group comprised of wolf experts and others from Colorado and around the West is helping the state establish a wolf reintroduction plan. At last month’s commission meeting, the group presented its recommendations on wolf population thresholds for the purposes of delisting them.
The recommendation said if Colorado attains a minimum count of 50 wolves anywhere in Colorado for four successive years, wolves should be down-listed from endangered to threatened. If there’s a minimum count of 150 wolves anywhere in Colorado for two successive years or a minimum count of 200 wolves anywhere in Colorado in any time frame, the animal should be delisted.
The commission is scheduled to give final approval of the recovery plan in May.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife also has hired a new wolf researcher and new wolf conflict coordinator but has put on hold hiring a wolf coordinator.
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