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Wolf myth-busting with wildlife biologist Kevin Crooks

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Colorado Parks and Wildlife released 10 wolves in December 2023 as part of reintroduction efforts approved by Colorado voters in 2020. 
Photo: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Rocky Mountain PBS will be covering wolf reintroduction as part of production for Colorado Experience season 11, set to premiere this fall. Stayed tuned for more stories on the topic.

DENVER — Mention wolves in Colorado and you’ll get a wide range of passionate responses.

“Most of the conflict around wolves isn't necessarily that direct conflict between people and wolves, but rather it's conflict among people, among stakeholders with very differing opinions about wolves,” said Kevin Crooks, wildlife professor at Colorado State University with a Ph.D. in biology.

In December 2023, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) experts released 10 gray wolves at undisclosed locations onto public land throughout Summit and Grand counties. The release came after voters in 2020 narrowly passed a ballot initiative to officially reintroduce the wolves.

Now that there have been dozens of sightings of wild wolves, the debate over the apex predators has taken on a new dimension.

Crooks, who directs the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence (CHCC) at CSU, sat down with Rocky Mountain PBS to talk about wolf reintroduction and clear up rumors and urban legends about the near-mythical animals.

The Science and Politics of Wolf Release

CHCC brings together experts from several departments to find the best ways “to reduce conflict and facilitate coexistence between people and predators, including wolves in Colorado.”

In practice, the academics consider the biological, natural and sociological impact of whichever situation they’re addressing.

After voters passed the wolf reintegration ballot initiative, CHCC and CPW conducted ecological studies to develop a map that predicted the most suitable habitat for the released Colorado wolves. The team considered things such as hunting grounds, prey availability and proximity to people.

CPW then used the map to decide in which areas they would release the wolves.

“What we know from the releases of wolves up in Yellowstone National Park is those wolves, once released, traveled easily up to 60 miles within a short time period,” said Crooks.

“So, Colorado Parks and Wildlife used our habitat models and created a buffer of 60 miles around the borders of the state to help constrain where they might release wolves into an interior that was hopefully of far enough distance away from the borders that wolves wouldn't leave Colorado,” he said.

To address the impact on ranchers, CHCC started the Wolf Conflict Reduction Fund, which is set up to help ranchers so they can implement non-lethal deterrents for wolves who might otherwise kill their livestock.

Humane deterrents can include fencing, fladry or flagging, scare devices, guardian dogs, carcass removal programs, range riders and livestock management practices.  

For livestock owners, wolf deterrents have become a permanent cost of business.  

“There's no magic silver bullet. There's no one tool that's going to be 100% effective. In reality, these different approaches have to be used in combination. They have to be used in the right context, in the right systems for them to be effective. They won't be 100% effective,” said Crooks.

The resolution fund is completely funded through donations and Crooks hopes people on all sides of the re-introduction debate will give, if they can.

“When wolves attack or kill livestock, the conflict has already happened. So, the livestock have been impacted. The ranchers have been impacted. And if livestock are killed by wolves, often those wolves are killed themselves. And so, the wolves are impacted as well. And so, what we're trying to do is to promote more proactive tools to prevent the conflict in the first place,” said Crooks.

Kevin Crooks, Ph.D., is the director for the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence which looks to help people learn more about and live with wildlife. Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS. 

History of gray wolves 

Gray wolves, known by their scientific name as canis lupus, were historically spread all across the world. Crooks said they were the “most widely distributed land mammal on the planet.”

Many Native American tribes coexisted with wolves and revered them, seeing them as relatives. When white settlers pushed further west into what is now Colorado and other states, they saw wolves as a dangerous enemy.

Starting in the late 1800s when increasing numbers of white settlers moved west, the U.S. government sponsored campaigns to shoot, trap and poison wolves. By the 1940s, gray wolves were eradicated from Colorado and by the 1960s the only remaining wolves in the continental U.S. were living in the upper Great Lake states.

“There is a lot of mythology and frankly, misinformation about the potential for wolves threatening human safety. So, I think that was also part of the eradication campaign for wolves,” said Crooks.

Still, the years of Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf propaganda didn’t scare off conservationists’ efforts to save the wolves. Two different species of wolves made the original Endangered Species Act list in 1966 but have bounced on and off the list in the decades since.  

Wolves on the Endangered Species Act list 

Currently, wolves in Colorado are protected as an endangered species, both by the State Endangered Species Act, as well as the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife had to secure a permit to re-introduce the wolves from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the federal agency manages wolves because they're listed under the Endangered Species Act. That permit in part had a special provision called a 10(j) Rule, that allows Colorado Parks and Wildlife more wolf-management flexibility once they're restored in the state.

Crooks said individual people are not allowed to, “take an endangered species,” which means killing the wolves. But the 10(j) rule allows Colorado officials to put down wolves who have killed livestock repeatedly only once CPW has done an investigation and made the decision to take lethal action.

“Whether or not wolves are considered an endangered species or not is partially a scientific decision, but it's also certainly a legal decision and a political decision as well,” said Crooks.

“So, over the last several decades, wolves have been in and out of the courts and have been on and off the federal Endangered Species Act,” he said.

Wolves aren't listed as an endangered species in the northern Rocky Mountain states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. Management of the wolf population in that region falls solely on the state wildlife services. 

Wolves in the ecosystem 

Predators at the top of the food chain are called apex predators and they generate ripples through the food web called trophic cascades. One example of the phenomenon, according to Crooks, is that the wolf population can reduce how much vegetation big game elk, deer and moose browse leading to regrowth.

However, part of the complication surrounding wolves is that it’s hard to attribute ecosystem changes solely to their presence.

Recent data published by researchers at Colorado State University suggested that although wolves might play an important top-down role in ecosystems and the removal of wolves might cause ecosystem level impacts, the restoration of wolves back to systems that have been highly degraded doesn't necessarily result in a quick fix for ecosystems.

“I think that's an important point to consider. It's much easier to prevent harm to ecosystems by retaining apex predators than it is to try to restore damage to ecosystems by reintroducing apex predators,” said Crooks.

However, with the recent reintroduction of wolves, he said we might expect some noticeable ecological effects in areas of wolves with higher density.  

Wolves’ impact on hunting 

When considering the potential impact on hunting in Colorado from wolf reintroduction, Crooks said data from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho tell us that the number of elk in those states following wolf reintroduction has remained the same. He said in some cases there are slightly more elk now compared to 30 years ago when wolves were reintroduced.

“Multiple studies have suggested that wolves can cause local declines in big game populations, particularly when wolf predation is acting in conjunction with other factors that are also limiting big game like severe winters or drought or other predators or human hunting,” said Crooks.

Colorado’s latest post-hunting season population reports from 2022 show more than 300,000 elk and nearly 400,000 deer live in the state. Crooks said those numbers make it sustainable for wolves and for hunting to exist here. 

He also said other studies have also shown wolves can affect the behavior of big game. In some circumstances, wolves might make hunting a bit harder by moving the elk or deer around more. Still, Crooks believes overall that robust hunting opportunities for humans can coexist with wolves. 

Crooks has been a wildlife biologist studying carnivores for nearly 30 years and full-time professor at CSU since 2012. Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS. 

Human safety with wolves 

Livestock, hunting and human safety: Crooks said those three topics are usually his main discussions with the public when talking about the impact of wolves on humans. Since 1900, wild wolves have not attacked any humans in the contiguous United States, Crooks said. This includes Yellowstone, which has received more than three million visitors every year for the last 17 years.

“Wolves don't pose a major risk to human safety. Now, it's important, like all wildlife, for people to act wisely around wolves or really any predators or any wildlife they might encounter,” said Crooks.

In the rare case that someone does encounter a wolf in Colorado, they should keep their distance and make loud noises to scare the wolf away, Crooks said. Wolves can be as small at 70 pounds and as big as 120 pounds, and they will travel in packs of up to 10 with their breeding partners and offspring, which are typically born in the spring.

Crooks said it’s important to remember not to leave food out or feed any wildlife.  

Wildlife management is actually human management 

Crooks has studied wildlife for more than 30 years. After earning his Ph.D. in biology in 1999, he spent the following decades teaching wildlife management and conservation biology. He said over the years he has learned that, ultimately, wildlife management is more about people than it is about wildlife.

“Wolves are really just a symbol of unresolved societal debates like the urban-rural divide or rural livelihoods or tradition or culture or federal versus state government or public versus private land,” he said.

Rocky Mountain PBS will be covering wolf reintroduction as part of production for Colorado Experience season 11, set to premiere this fall. Stayed tuned for more stories on the topic. If you have thoughts or questions, email Amanda Horvath, the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS, at

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