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Wildlife officials release 5 wolves from Oregon into Colorado as reintroduction begins

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GRAND COUNTY — The wolf loped through the snowy meadow into a copse of aspens, her fur blending with the browns, grays and whites of the remote corner of state land.

She turned for a moment to look back at the about 45 people gathered around the crates before trotting into the forest. In the meadow of spruce, pinyon and aspens, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials released five wolves Monday morning in Grand County.

It was the first time a state — not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — had introduced an endangered species into wildland in the U.S. It was the culmination of more than three years of work after Colorado voters in 2020 directed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce wolves to the Western Slope by the end of 2023. 

While momentous and historic, the occasion was bigger than five wolves, said Joanna Lambert, a professor of wildlife ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado.

“This is a moment of re-wilding,” she said. “Of doing something to stave off the biodiversity extinction crisis we are living in … to make a difference in this era of extinction. And moreover, this is a source of hope not only for all of us standing here but for our younger generations as well.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County, Colorado on Monday, December 18, 2023. Pictured is wolf 2303-OR.
Photo:  Jerry Neal, Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Lambert said she lost her breath when she saw the wolves gallop into the woods. For years, Lambert and wolf advocates have been working to get wolf “paws on the ground” and she felt herself gasp when “all of the sudden, it happened.”

“It was exquisite in every way,” she said. 

The animals — two male and two female yearlings under 100 pounds and one older, 108-pound male from three different packs — were captured Sunday in Oregon and flown to Colorado early Monday morning. They spent less than a day in the metal crates.

Wildlife officers, many of them with holstered guns on their hips, flanked the crates. A few held handle-mounted sheets of plywood to keep the animals from turning into the crowd. A few officers held their phones toward the crates. There were cameras positioned in front of the crates and to the side. A drone buzzed overhead. 

For the first release, a 76-pound mottled gray-and-brown male darted from the crate but slowed to a lope as he followed a track up a small hill. A gray female — sister to the first male — took some time to saunter out of the cage and turned atop a small hill to look back.

The next two were another pair of siblings from the same pack. When the door swung open for the crate holding a 93-pound juvenile male, he didn’t move.  Officers opened the door for the second crate and a gray-brown, 76-pound female bounded through the grass, glancing sideways and backward as she trotted into the woods. The male, after several minutes, finally bounded from the cage.

An adult male — the only adult among the five — was released last and swerved immediately into heavy timber. 

“I’ve seen wolves before but they have been in zoos and at rescue, but to see them in their natural habitat and turn and look curiously at us before darting into the forest is really really a special moment that I will treasure for my entire life,” said Gov. Jared Polis, who stood behind the crates with his husband, Marlon Reis, as officials swung the doors open.

The Colorado Sun agreed with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife request to not reveal the exact location of the wolf release until after a second round of releases is complete in the coming months. The location was on state-owned public land in Grand County. 

There were 13 Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials in Oregon participating in the collection of five wolves. Wildlife managers in Oregon knew the general locations of the state’s wolf packs and a spotting plane provided precise coordinates from above. A helicopter with a wildlife official armed with a gun firing tranquilizing darts hovered over three packs Sunday and shot two younger wolves from two packs and an older wolf from a third pack. The helicopter would hover as low as 10 feet above the animals as the gunner fired.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife veterinarian Pauline Nol and biologist Ellen Brandell examine 2307-OR on December 17, 2023.
Photo:  Jerry Neal, Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Eric Odell is the species conservation program manager at Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has shepherded the wolf introduction plan since 2020. He was among CPW employees in Oregon helping to locate, dart, crate and ship five wolves.  

After being darted, the animals were down within minutes. They were loaded into the helicopter and flown to a processing station where the wolves were weighed and collared. Veterinarians took blood samples and provided any treatments and vaccinations, Odell said. 

The wolves were flown on a single-engine Pilatus PC-12 from Oregon to Colorado using LightHawk, a conservation flying organization that provides planes and pilots for wildlife conservation projects.  

Oregon officials warned their Colorado counterparts that finding and collecting wolves can be a slow process. They were told to expect days without any sightings and a good day would involve darting two animals. They got five on Sunday. 

“We just had really good luck,” said Odell, who credited the team effort with both a helicopter and spotting plane. 

Odell heads back to Oregon this week to collect five more wolves. Oregon has offered a total of 10 wolves to relocate to Colorado by the end of March next year. The Colorado plan calls for releasing 30 to 50 wolves on the Western Slope in the next three to five years.

The second group of five will be released in the same area, somewhere in Eagle, Grand or Summit counties. Reid DeWalt, the assistant director for the aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources branch of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, started looking at potential release sites this summer, using state lands as a filter but also considering the populations of elk, deer and pronghorn so the wolf can find prey. Other considerations include proximity to airports to speedily deliver animals back into the wild and the ability to reach the sites in the middle of winter.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife ended up with a list of about five locations inside Eagle, Grand and Summit counties and DeWalt said the next release could be at any of those. 

The female yearlings could be too young to mate this spring and time will tell if these wolves disperse, Lambert said. Wolves can roam hundreds of miles. 

“I couldn’t say whether these wolves will do that but they have that capacity,” Lambert said. “But also given the abundance of prey and just how quiet it is here this would be a great place to hang around.”

Dan Gibbs, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources who lives in Summit County, said “it’s been blood, sweat and tears” to reach the release Monday. He said if any wildlife agency in the country was capable of being the first to release an endangered species, it’s his team. 

“I could not be more proud,” he said.

His team worked to gather input from many stakeholders, he said.

“That consensus-driven process really sets us apart,” said Gibbs, noting that the state plan offers ranchers who lose livestock or working dogs to wolves up to $15,000 for every animal, the most of any compensation program in the country. 

Two ranching groups last week sued to block Colorado Parks and Wildlife from releasing wolves, arguing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not follow federal rules when partnering with the state to manage endangered species like gray wolves. A federal judge on Friday declined to suspend the reintroduction plan, greenlighting Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s underway wolf-capturing mission in Oregon.

Another lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver last week by the Colorado Conservation Alliance argued the federal service’s environmental review of the Colorado reintroduction plan failed to closely study potential impacts of gray wolves from Oregon mingling and breeding with protected Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. The alliance — a nonprofit that “seeks to preserve the heritage and lifestyle of farmers, ranchers, landowners, livestock producers, outfitters and sportsmen” — also argues that the entire wolf plan needs review under the National Environmental Policy Act. 

Gibbs said he was expecting lawsuits and the process of developing the reintroduction plan was about finding “the sweet spot” between the people who support wolves and those who don’t. 

“My hope and my philosophy is really that we will learn to live with wolves and not against wolves,” Gibbs said. 

Now his team at the Department of Natural Resources will begin working on re-establishing wolverines in Colorado. 

“DNR is really focused on biodiversity and we are working to become the nation’s leader on biodiversity,” Gibbs said. “We are going to continue to work to bring back species that used to be native to Colorado. It’s fun to be part of history right now.”

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