Conservation groups submitted a plan this week that would establish a robust wolf population in western Colorado, while accusing the state of undermining current reintroduction efforts that were spurred by a controversial 2020 voter referendum.

If successful, the plan would bring one of the largest wolf populations in the continental U.S. to Colorado over the coming years, aiming for a minimum threshold of 150 packs, amounting to 750 wolves with a population varying from 600 to 1,500.

Only Idaho, Montana and, by some estimates, Minnesota have more wolves.

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Does Colorado have wolves?

Passed via voter referendum in November 2020, Proposition 114 directs Colorado wildlife officials to develop a plan to reintroduce wolves to the state’s western slope by 2023.

Wolves were wiped out in Colorado by 1940, though numerous sightings followed. Colorado has one active wolf pack in the northern reaches of the state, responsible for at least five cattle deaths in the past year.

Dubbed the North Park pack, the group was identified in 2020, almost as if they were aware of the contentious referendum headed for voters in November of that year.

The ballot measure passed along thin margins with 50.4% in favor and 49.6% against, one of the more public displays of the urban-rural tensions over wolves that has played out for decades.

Why rural America matters

Urban centers along Colorado’s front range overwhelmingly supported reintroduction, while rural voters came out against the proposal.

By the end of 2023, wildlife officials will roll out a plan to bring back wolves to Western Colorado, after holding statewide hearings, considering public input and using state funds to determine compensation for livestock losses.

On Monday, a group of 14 conservation and wildlife organizations, led by WildEarth Guardians and includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project and Endangered Species Coalition, submitted the “Colorado Wolf Restoration Plan” that they hope the state will adopt when reintroducing the species.

Conservation groups cry foul in new plan

Conservation groups in their plan say “the spirit” of the proposition has been “lost or undermined” by focusing more of the negative impacts of wolves, not the positive ones.

“Colorado needs a plan that focuses on wolf restoration, not wolf ‘management,’” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director of WildEarth Guardians, in a news release. “... Colorado has an incredible opportunity to change the narrative for treatment of wolves across the West, and we wanted to show what was possible through this plan.”

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The plan requires the state to maintain a “self sustaining” population of gray wolves that will “help restore the critical balance in nature” by highlighting four elements — reintroduction areas, a population goal, management guidelines and compensation consideration for when livestock are killed.

The plan’s goal of 150 packs, totaling a population of 750 wolves, “is not a cap, but a minimum requirement for future state delisting from ‘threatened’ to ‘nongame’ status,” reads a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Nongame status generally precludes hunting, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife has said that once wolves have an established population, hunting could factor into the management plans.

You can legally hunt wolves in three Mountain West states — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Wisconsin had permitted a wolf hunt, although the fall 2022 season was put on hold in December after animal rights groups sued. Wolf hunting has been legal in Alaska for years, the only state in the U.S. where wolves have never been threatened or endangered.

More Yellowstone wolves killed this season than any since the species was reintroduced in 1995

Preventing livestock loss is another major feature of the plan, which emphasizes “nonlethal deterrents and conflict minimization.”

“This plan is critical to ensuring Colorado recovers wolves the right way, the first time,” Michelle Lute, who has a doctorate in wolf conservation and is carnivore conservation director for Project Coyote, said in a statement. “All other wolf recovery efforts are mired in controversy because ineffective and counterproductive lethal methods are allowed. Nonlethal tools allow wolf populations at ecologically effective densities and coexistence with humans and domestic animals.”