Proposition 114 would direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope by the end of 2023.
A simple majority vote is required for the proposition to pass.
Colorado has not been home to a viable population of gray wolves since the 1930s or 1940s. The eradication of the species was no accident. Ranchers and government agencies offered wolf bounties to stop the animals from harassing or killing livestock.
In the 1990s, the federal government released wolves in Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho in an effort to restore the endangered species. Those original packs have since multiplied and spread, recolonizing parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, California and Oregon. A few wolves have even made it to Colorado.
Supporters say it’s highly unlikely those wolves will ever create a self-sustaining population in Colorado. Most scientists agree reintroduction offers the most likely path to wolf recovery, especially since wolves can now be killed across most of Wyoming.
Proponents argue returning wolves offers the chance to “restore the balance” to Colorado’s ecosystems, pointing to Yellowstone as the main example. Prior to reintroduction, elk overgrazed riverbanks, leaving little plant material left for other animals. The return of wolves coincided with the regrowth of aspen and willows. An explosion in biodiversity quickly followed.
While studies initially credit wolves for triggering a beneficial “trophic cascade,” others think the story is far more nuanced. Later research has found additional factors, like drought, bears and mountain lions, impacted the elk in Yellowstone. There are also far more people in Colorado, which could keep wolves from ever reaching densities high enough to significantly affect their prey. In short, ecosystems are complicated. Apex predators support biodiversity in general. Ecologists are reluctant to predict the exact impact of wolves on Colorado.
Opponents worry wolves would harm both livestock and wildlife. While the ballot initiative calls for compensation for lost livestock, ranchers see flaws in similar programs in other parts of the country. As for wildlife, scientists at Colorado State University do not expect wolves would have a large impact on big game statewide. Elk populations and harvests have not declined in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho over the past 20 years, despite wolf reintroduction.
Many opponents object to wolf reintroduction being on the ballot at all. They argue biologists — rather than voters — should make the big decisions about wildlife. In 2016, the Colorado Wildlife Commission voted against reintroduction, but the panel is made up of political appointees, only some of whom are biologists. Some supporters acknowledge the initiative is an attempt to wrest control from the commission since it has a tradition of favoring hunters and ranchers.
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