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A Tale of Two Revivals: How Yellowstone Helped Return Wolves to Colorado

In 1995, the gray wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. Nearly 30 years later, Colorado has done the same. How will it play out?

The gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and is considered the most famous wildlife reintroduction in history. Now, Colorado is doing the same, stemming from Proposition 114, America's first voter-led wildlife revival. Here "Mr. Blue," or 755M as he's known to scientists by his collar number, presides. Photo by Ronan Donovan
The gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and is considered the most famous wildlife reintroduction in history. Now, Colorado is doing the same, stemming from Proposition 114, America's first voter-led wildlife revival. Here "Mr. Blue," or 755M as he's known to scientists by his collar number, presides. Photo by Ronan Donovan
by Ben Goldfarb

Since late last December, 10 wolves, captured in eastern Oregon and transported to Grand and Summit counties by plane, have roamed western Colorado. They’re among the first of their kind to inhabit the Centennial State since the 1940s, when wolves were exterminated to make room for livestock. All wear satellite collars, which broadly tell biologists where the animals have been headed since their release: west into Moffat County, and north toward Wyoming. Sightings have been scant, but presumably they’ve been chasing elk through snowdrifts, scrounging rodents and other small prey, howling across sagebrush steppes and pinyon forests. In short, they’re being wolves.

The return of wolves to Colorado is the beginning of a story, one that will be written in the coming years. Where the carnivores will disperse, how quickly their numbers will grow, and, crucially, the extent to which we humans will accommodate them: all these questions, and many others, will unfold over decades.

But “paws on the ground” in Colorado isn’t just an opening scene—it’s also a culmination. In 2020, the state’s voters passed Proposition 114, a ballot measure that required Colorado Parks and Wildlife to “develop a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves.” It was America's first-ever voter-led wildlife reintroduction.

Yet even that fateful ballot measure isn’t the story’s true beginning. In many ways, the movement to return Canis lupus to Colorado began in 1995, hundreds of miles north, with the most famous wildlife reintroduction in historythe release of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set the stage for reintroduction in 1974, when the agency listed gray wolves, which had been effectively eradicated from the Lower 48 by ranchers and government trappers, under the federal Endangered Species Act. Not that it happened quickly. In 1987, the Service proposed releasing wolves into Yellowstone, where the last lobo had been killed six decades earlier. Four years later, in 1991, Congress finally agreed to fund an Environmental Impact Statement on wolf reintroduction, a voluminous study that ultimately garnered 160,000 public comments—at the time the most that any federal proposal had ever received.
 
“It was probably the best thought-out government action that had been seen to date,” says Norm Bishop, then a resource management specialist with the National Park Service. “People from all 50 states and 41 countries around the world commented on the EIS.”
Wolves won’t be alone in Colorado. They’ll be cohabitating the state with nearly 6 million humans, more than Wyoming, Idaho and Montana put together. 
Reintroduction finally became a reality on January 12, 1995, when eight wolves, live-trapped and imported from Canada, arrived in crates in Yellowstone National Park. Bishop helped to carry the crate containing the alpha male; Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, who’d signed off on the EIS a year earlier, carried the alpha female, at Bishop’s direction. “A sixth-level federal employee generally doesn’t get to tell the secretary of the interior where to go and what to do,” Bishop recalls with a laugh. The new wolves were released into holding pens to acclimate. A little more than two months later, the pen gates were opened and the wolves wandered free.
 
Yellowstone’s wolves, and others released into Idaho around the same time, thrived upon their release. As the population multiplied in the years following 1995, the descendants of those first colonists dispersed far and wide. Wolves roamed west into Washington, where their presence was confirmed by a roadkilled animal in 2008, and into Oregon, where they stalked elk in the Blue Mountains. In 2015 the canids reached California, now home to around eight packs.
January 12, 1995. The first wolf arrives in Yellowstone National Park at the Crystal Bench Pen (Mike Phillips - YNP Wolf Project Leader, Jim Evanoff - YNP, Molly Beattie - USFWS Director, Mike Finley - YNP Superintendent, Bruce Babbitt - Secretary of Interior). Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
January 12, 1995. The first wolf arrives in Yellowstone National Park at the Crystal Bench Pen (Mike Phillips - YNP Wolf Project Leader, Jim Evanoff - YNP, Molly Beattie - USFWS Director, Mike Finley - YNP Superintendent, Bruce Babbitt - Secretary of Interior). Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS
One place they failed to thoroughly colonize, however, was Colorado. Although plenty of wolves roamed northwestern Wyoming, most of the state was a wolf-killing free-for-all where the animals could be shot on sight regardless of age, sex or season. Few southward-dispersing wolves survived this gauntlet. After wolves did settle in northern Colorado in 2019, hunters lured several back across the Wyoming border and legally shot them.
 
That was a problem because, in the words of Mike Phillips, the restoration ecologist who led the Yellowstone reintroduction, Colorado offered perhaps “the best unoccupied wolf habitat in the world.” The state is blessed with around 25 million acres of public land, and its human population is concentrated in eastern cities like Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. West of the Continental Divide, at least in theory, wolves could thrive without frequently running afoul of people. Best of all, from a hungry wolf’s perspective, is the prey base: Colorado is home to around 300,000 elk, the largest herd in the world. 
 
“It’s this tremendous opportunity,” Phillips says. “We weren’t going to walk away from it.”
 
But how to get wolves back to Colorado? Neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the state’s government were keen to bring back the controversial carnivores: In 2016, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission passed a resolution officially “oppos[ing] the intentional release of any wolves” into the state. Phillips and other wolf advocates decided that a ballot initiative was the best remaining approach. “There’s only one way to force an executive entity to go forward,” he says. “The voters gotta tell them to do it.”

The campaign to bring wolves back to Colorado ramped up in earnest in 2019. That year, wolf supporters gathered more than 200,000 signatures on a petition, written by Phillips, to put reintroduction to a direct vote. A year later the measure, by then known as Proposition 114, appeared on the ballot. The vote that autumn was a narrow one, reflecting the issue’s polarizing nature. Residents of Colorado’s liberal eastern cities generally supported wolves, while rural westerners, many of whom feared livestock damage or reduced elk numbers, opposed them. In the end reintroduction prevailed, receiving around 51 percent of the vote. Wolves would return to Colorado.
“One out of every 10,000 cows are killed by wolves, and three out of every 10,000 sheep are taken. It has not put anybody in the livestock industry out of business.” – Norm Bishop, former resource management specialist, National Park Service 
In a sense, the measure represented the culmination of a process that kicked off in Yellowstone a quarter-century earlier: At long last, wolves would refill the best remaining habitat in the Rocky Mountains. Yet the two reintroductions also differed in crucial ways. The Yellowstone release, after all, had been a top-down agency action compelled by one of the country’s most powerful federal laws. Colorado’s wolves, by contrast, were the product of a bottom-up, grassroots campaign—the ultimate in direct democracy.

“Colorado is doing this differently,” says Rob Edward, director of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, “and there’s a really interesting story that’s going to play out.”
 
***
 
An aerial photograph of the 8-Mile Wolf Pack crossing the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. The collared gray wolf in front, known to the scientists as 689M, was previously the alpha male of the neighboring Cougar Creek Pack. Scientists suspect the Cougar Creek Pack killed the alpha male of the 8-Mile Pack, 871M. 689M was shot by a hunter outside of the park one week after this photo was taken on November 5, 2014.Photo by Ronan Donovan
An aerial photograph of the 8-Mile Wolf Pack crossing the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. The collared gray wolf in front, known to the scientists as 689M, was previously the alpha male of the neighboring Cougar Creek Pack. Scientists suspect the Cougar Creek Pack killed the alpha male of the 8-Mile Pack, 871M. 689M was shot by a hunter outside of the park one week after this photo was taken on November 5, 2014.Photo by Ronan Donovan
After voters decided to reintroduce wolves, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state’s lead wildlife management agency, was tasked with a big question: how to accomplish it? 
 
The state convened a pair of groups to help inform their plan. The first was the Technical Working Group, or TWG, a panel of wolf biologists, wildlife managers, agricultural experts and others. Between June 2021 and August 2022, the group met almost monthly over Zoom to hash out the details of reintroduction: where the wolves should come from and how they should be transported; how they should be handled; when and where they should be released; and so on.

“They really approached this in a very thorough, detailed way,” says Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s longtime wolf biologist, who served on the TWG. “They didn’t leave any stone unturned.”
 
Throughout TWG’s deliberations, the Northern Rockies reintroduction loomed large. For example, whereas the wolves released into Yellowstone had first been held in pens to habituate to the park’s environs, the ones freed into Idaho around the same time had simply been turned loose without an acclimation period. The different protocols didn’t appear to affect the wolves’ success—as Mike Phillips, who also served on the working group, puts it, “It’s a pain in the ass to retain wolves in captivity.” TWG recommended a quick release, so Colorado flew its wolves from Oregon immediately and released them the day after their capture.
“Colorado is doing this differently, and there’s a really interesting story that’s going to play out.” – Rob Edward, director, Rocky Mountain Wolf Project
Meanwhile, another body was also meeting in parallel to the TWG: the Stakeholder Advisory Group, or SAG. The SAG, which included ranchers, hunting guides, conservationists, and others, was tasked with synthesizing its diverse viewpoints into a set of recommendations that would guide the state’s management plan. One particular issue loomed especially large in its discussions: what to do if, or when, a wolf attacked livestock. Proposition 114 required the state not only to reintroduce wolves, but to “pay fair compensation for livestock losses” that the animals may incur.

“I think voters saw that as a very reasonable approach to the question of putting wolves back on the ground,” said Rob Edward, the project’s director. “It helped at least some of them make the decision to vote yes.

Figuring out precisely what “fair compensation” would entail occupied much of SAG’s time. The group’s ranchers were especially concerned with how to deal with missing livestock, since inspectors are unlikely to find every dead animal that wolves kill. Ultimately, SAG proposed a two-tiered system that will allow ranchers to receive compensation for up to seven missing calves or sheep for every confirmed depredation, provided they also use coexistence measures like fladry, guard dogs or range riders. Ranchers who don’t deploy such techniques can still claim five missing animals per depredation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife generally adopted the group’s recommendations, and set a per-animal compensation cap of $15,000.
 
“I think it’s a very generous program,” says Francie Jacober, a pro-wolf rancher and Pitkin County commissioner who served on SAG. “If it’s going to keep the ranchers happy and stop so much opposition to wolves, I was OK with it.”
 
Members of the Yellowstone Wolf Project (L to R): Dan Stahler, Erin Stahler, Kira Cassidy and Doug Smith tend to sedated wolves of the Junction Butte Pack during the annual collaring operation in Yellowstone National Park on December 15, 2014. Photo by Ronan Donovan
Members of the Yellowstone Wolf Project (L to R): Dan Stahler, Erin Stahler, Kira Cassidy and Doug Smith tend to sedated wolves of the Junction Butte Pack during the annual collaring operation in Yellowstone National Park on December 15, 2014. Photo by Ronan Donovan
Not every member of SAG was thrilled with how those deliberations went down. Although the two-tiered approach to missing livestock creates some incentive for coexistence, Matt Barnes, a rangeland scientist who served on the group, felt that SAG’s focus on depredation compensation prevented it from adequately discussing how to prevent conflict in the first place. “You can do things to make yourself less vulnerable,” Barnes says. “People get so hung up on compensation, but our focus should be trying to prevent conflicts and minimizing them when they do happen.”

Today, there are fitful signs that such a proactive approach is emerging: Colorado State University’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence is raising funds for fencing, guard dogs and other coexistence techniques, and the state has authorized a new “Born to Be Wild” license plate expected to likewise drum up hundreds of thousands of dollars for nonlethal tools. Just as Montanans have become notably more tolerant of wolves over time, so too may Coloradans, as the dread of hypothetical wolves cedes to the more mundane reality. In the Northern Rockies, fewer than 1 percent of livestock deaths are due to wolves.

“One out of every 10,000 cows are killed by wolves, and three out of every 10,000 sheep are taken,” Bishop says. “It has not put anybody in the livestock industry out of business.”
 
***
 
Two wolves in Yellowstone's Wapiti Lake Pack join their white alpha female as she feeds on a freshly killed bull elk on a cold February morning. The alpha female was the only white wolf known in Yellowstone at the time this image was captured. Photo by Charlie M. Lansche
Two wolves in Yellowstone's Wapiti Lake Pack join their white alpha female as she feeds on a freshly killed bull elk on a cold February morning. The alpha female was the only white wolf known in Yellowstone at the time this image was captured. Photo by Charlie M. Lansche
Now that wolves have been released into Colorado, what will become of them? Their numbers will certainly grow: According to CPW’s management plan, the state will release roughly another 20-40 animals in the coming years, and they’re likely to thrive. As Doug Smith puts it, “Left alone with the largest elk and deer herds in the Western United States, wolves will flourish in Colorado.”

But of course wolves won’t be alone—they’ll be cohabitating the state with nearly 6 million humans, more than Wyoming, Idaho and Montana put together. Moreover, as Smith points out, they’ll be in a high state: Colorado is home to over 50 mountains rising above 14,000 feet, whereas the Northern Rockies states have none. Colorado’s lofty elevation means that much of its public land isn’t stellar winter range, so its elk and deer tend to descend into the valleys occupied by people and livestock. Wolves are likely to follow. “That’s going to be a very interesting dynamic to see play out,” Smith says. And, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has deemed Colorado’s wolves a “nonessential experimental population” under the Endangered Species Act, landowners can kill any wolf caught harassing livestock.
“There’s only one way to force an executive entity to go forward. The voters gotta tell them to do it.” – Mike Phillips, biologist, project leader, 1995 gray wolf reintroduction, Yellowstone National Park
But Colorado’s wolves, compared to their Northern Rockies brethren, are in another sense comparatively safe, at least for now. The petition that led to Proposition 114 characterized wolves as “nongame wildlife,” meaning that the animals can’t be hunted in Colorado. (Granted, the state’s wildlife commission may have the power to alter that designation as the population grows.) “I think Colorado is moving in the direction I always expected: to get it more right with gray wolves than any other state in the country,” Phillips says.
 
As wolves repopulate Colorado, how might they influence its ecosystems? While ample research proposes that the canids triggered a trophic cascade in Yellowstone by reducing elk browsing on riparian plants and thus allowing degraded streams to recover, a recent study published by scientists at institutions including Colorado State University suggests that the return of wolves hasn’t catalyzed dramatic change. Ecological disasters, it turns out, are hard to reverse. After government hunters extirpated wolves from Yellowstone in the 1920s, overpopulated elk devoured streamside willows, squeezing out the beavers whose ponds once irrigated the park’s Northern Range. By the time wolves were reintroduced in 1995, many streams had been beaver-less for so long that they’d eroded into trenches, causing valleys to transition to an “alternate stable state”—a grassland dominated by elk and bison, where neither beavers nor willows have yet been able to thrive as they once did. As Tom Hobbs, the study’s lead author, put it: “[T]here’s not a quick fix for losing top predators from ecosystems.”
 
Does that mean that Colorado won’t reap ecological benefits from wolves? Hardly. For one thing, most of Colorado’s landscapes never became as overbrowsed as Yellowstone’s Northern Range, so the dreaded alternate state might be easier to prevent and reverse. (It helps that Colorado also hosts a robust beaver restoration movement.) For another, as Bishop notes, inducing trophic cascades isn’t the only potential advantage that wolves provide: They also selectively feast on diseased animals, improving the health of ungulate populations, and supply meals for countless scavengers. Ultimately, it will take years, and likely decades, to fully comprehend wolves’ influence on the Centennial State. “Ecosystems are more complex than we think,” Bishop says, “more than we can think.”
 
When, back in January 1995, Bishop helped to release wolves into Yellowstone, he didn’t entirely realize what he’d accomplished. “I was so engrossed in the logistical process that the historical import of the day escaped me,” he recalls. Not until later, while giving a wolf presentation to a local school group, did the momentous nature of the reintroduction hit him. Bishop had delivered hundreds of similar talks over the years, and, as if on autopilot, he read aloud the words, “If wolves are introduced to Yellowstone…” Then he stopped and, to his surprise, choked up. No, he realized, wolves are on the ground in Yellowstone. Finally, it sunk in: He and his colleagues had made history. Nearly 30 years later, Colorado has done the same.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Ben Goldfarb
About Ben Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, and many other publications. He is the author of Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet, named one of the best books of 2023 by The New York Times, and Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. He lives in Colorado with his wife, Elise, and his dog, Kit—which is, of course, what you call a baby beaver.
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