It’s official: Oregon will supply wolves for Colorado’s reintroduction project

Colorado announced a one-year agreement with Oregon on Friday to acquire up to 10 gray wolves for its ground-breaking reintroduction project. 

Those releases are set to begin before the end of the year, meeting a deadline included in the original ballot initiative Colorado voters narrowly approved in 2020. The project marks the first time U.S. voters have ordered the reintroduction of an endangered species. 

After the state secured a signal of federal approval to manage wolves last month, the agreement removes the final barrier facing Colorado's reintroduction efforts. In a press release issued by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Gov. Jared Polis said wildlife officials have worked "tirelessly" to collect input from Colorado residents for its reintroduction plan. 

"We are deeply grateful for Oregon’s partnership in this endeavor, and we are now one step closer to fulfilling the will of the voters in time,” Polis said.

Colorado will contract helicopter crews and spotter planes to capture Oregon's wolves in December. The state will avoid wolves with injuries, diseases or an established history of preying on livestock, according to state wildlife officials. Each individual animal will also be fitted with a tracking collar prior to release. 

Eric Odell, the wolf conservation program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, added the state plans to capture an equal number of males and females. To establish a sustainable population, the state plans to reintroduce 30 to 50 individual wolves over the next three to five years. 

"We anticipate that the majority of animals will be in the 1- to 5-year-old range, which is the age that animals would typically disperse from the pack they were born in,” Odell said. 

The state plans to reintroduce the first batch of wolves in a broad region around Vail, Aspen and Gunnison. Officials haven't disclosed more specific locations, but it has committed to meet with nearby landowners before releasing the animals this winter.

Oregon wasn't Colorado's first option as a wolf source. The original reintroduction plan identified populations in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana as ideal seed stock since those wolves were accustomed to hunting elk and deer on similar landscapes. But each of those Republican-led states refused to assist Colorado due to concerns those wolves would eventually cross state boundaries, killing livestock and game populations along the way. 

That left the Pacific Northwest as the next best candidate to supply wolves for Colorado's reintroduction project. While wildlife officials in Washington haven't closed the door on the idea, they're waiting on final approval from state wildlife commissions.

Julia Smith, the wolf policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, also said her state only captures wolves later in the winter after snow cover makes it easier to spot the predators from the air. That rules out providing any wolves in time to meet Colorado's deadline, she said. 

One final option is to secure wolves from the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, which is now considering whether to assist with Colorado’s effort as well. 

It's unclear if any efforts to capture wolves in Oregon could face pushback from conservationists worried about the number of animals there. The state’s latest survey counted 178 wolves in 2022 — only three more individuals than the previous year — leading wildlife groups to call for more aggressive efforts to protect the population.

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