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WESTCLIFFE — Kent Weber entered the enclosure with his gaze averted from the 112-pound, 2½-foot-tall animal. He walked confidently toward a log and took a seat. The creature appeared excited to see him and Weber was careful to stay calm. Then he and the wolf met eyes and he smiled as if greeting an old friend.
“I never thought I would see the day that we’d have wolves in Colorado,” said Weber, the executive director and co-founder of Mission: Wolf, a nature center that provides sanctuary for captive-born wolves and horses in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains not far from Westcliffe.
Though Weber has spent the past 35 years protecting and getting to know wolves, his respect for them and other large predators began early in his childhood when he lived near Yellowstone National Park. He understood at a very young age that the wild does not operate by human rules and it was his job to keep himself safe.
“When I came across a wolf in a cage, I was like you gotta be kidding me — let’s turn it loose,” Weber said.
But with a little research, he learned that it was not possible to let a captive wolf back into the wild.Weber believes “a wolf born in a cage is trapped in a cage. It’s like they’re imprinted — and that seems really sad,” he added. So in 1988, he decided to create a space where wolves and wolf-dog hybrids, all captive born, could live outside a cage, in a suitable home. This led to the creation of Mission: Wolf, a sanctuary with room for as many as 20 animals at a time to live in half-acre enclosures, fed with dead livestock and horses donated by supporters.
“We give them a natural enclosure to live as big and as simply as possible, and try to replicate the wild the best we can in captivity — and that’s a feast-and-famine feeding schedule,” Weber said.
The sanctuary, co-founded by Tracy Ane Brooks, cares for animals that came from mistaken or illegal adoptions, zoos that couldn’t keep them or abandoned film and TV projects — for example, one of the wolves was to be used in a “Twilight” spinoff, but when the project was canceled, the animal needed a new home.
But it also provides space for humans to observe and learn from wolves.
Depending on how receptive the wolves are to the visitors, caretakers at Mission: Wolf may facilitate a behavioral interaction between the visitor and an ambassador wolf, one that has become comfortable enough around humans to physically interact with them safely. Weber believes that this experience can provide a healing opportunity for people who may have gone through challenging times.
He has observed people who arrived at the sanctuary with a more guarded nature open up after interacting with the wolves. Weber suspects that the interaction forced people to be present physically and mentally, as the wolves would mimic the person’s energy. When the person was calm, for example, the wolves acted calm. But when they were scared, the wolves acted scared.
Although Weber has a natural deep empathy for these predators, he says has witnessed people who start their visit to the sanctuary with a negative perception of wolves. By the end of their visit, though, he says many have changed their mind.
“Our job here would be to put ourselves out of business,” Weber said. “The day that we are obsolete is the day people no longer have to come see a wolf in a cage to learn respect and admiration.”
That day may be sooner than Weber expected — if Colorado Parks and Wildlife can cross the first high barrier to restoring wolves in the West and persuade one of its neighbors to donate animals.
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How the reintroduction effort affects others
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, following the direction of voters who narrowly approved Proposition 114 in 2020, in May finalized a plan to reintroduce wolves in Colorado west of the Continental Divide. If all goes according to plan — and that’s a big if — wolf restoration will begin by Dec. 31. While wildlife biologists were developing the plan, wolves were already finding their own way into Colorado, with a breeding pair and pups identified near ranches in North Park, just south of the Wyoming border.
An initiative to craft a plan and reintroduce wolves on the Western Slope by the end of 2023. CPW has hosted a series of statewide meetings and organized two groups to create a management plan.
Proposition 114 has been highly contentious. While some say it re-establishes the natural order in Colorado, because “Colorado isn’t Colorado without wolves,” others are worried about their personal livelihood. Ranchers, outfitters and agriculturalists have opposed the bill and its implementation, fearing wolves will prey on their livestock or on elk, deer and pronghorn herds.
“I have been working in conservation for over 30 years on various species,” said Joanna Lambert, a University of Colorado professor and advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which advocates for the reintroduction of gray wolves to Colorado, “and I have never dealt with a more socio-culturally contentious species than gray wolves.”
Since the vote, Lambert has been working to educate as many groups as she can about what restoring the wolf population, absent from Colorado since the 1940s, will look like, and trying to learn as much as possible from the people who could be most affected by their return. This is a landmark conservation project — the result of 50 years of work — and Lambert says she understands the importance of doing it correctly.
The final plan has gone through multiple revisions, and has included the input of state wildlife agencies, conservation experts, people who worked with Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction project, outfitters, hunters, agriculture and livestock producers, Indigenous groups and anyone who wanted to submit a public comment.
Lambert has led focus groups, workshops and lectures around the state along with other educators and nonprofits. Colorado State University’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence has also provided resources regarding the wolf reintroduction.
How the reintroduction is supposed to go. How it is going.
Over the course of a few years, 30 to 50 gray wolves are supposed to be introduced west of the Continental Divide. The working group advising CPW on the plan recommended using gray wolves captured from several different packs in the Northern Rockies of Idaho or Montana, or from sites in Oregon and Washington. The states are so far reluctant to help.
Idaho, which has a wolf population of about 1,337 animals, formally declined a request sent by CPW Director Jeff Davis. The denial came not long after a unanimous decision by the Idaho Fish and Game commission in May to approve a wolf reduction management plan.
CPW spokesman Joey Livingston said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where Davis previously worked, and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission “are continuing to consider whether they may be able to provide wolves to Colorado at some point.”
Requests also were sent to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
There is no guarantee that Montana, with about 1,087 wolves, Oregon, with about 178, or Washington, with 216, will agree to donate animals. Still, CPW is confident there will be wolves to release by the Dec. 31 deadline.
That work towards just showing up for others and listening, that building trust between individuals is critical.
— Joanna Lambert, a University of Colorado professor and advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project
Colorado did not request wolves from Wyoming, but Gov. Mark Gordon said the state would decline if asked, in part because the reintroduction plan contradicts the state’s own wolf management program. Gordon said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily that “it is likely that Wyoming wolves may very well desire to return to their home ranges, once again putting them in danger as they would likely traverse unsuitable areas of potential conflict.”
The breeding pair near North Park includes a collared male from Wyoming’s Snake River Pack. Their pups were spotted in June 2021 and a female from the litter was darted and collared in January 2022. Nine months later, three wolves believed to be from the Colorado pack were shot and killed in Wyoming, where hunting wolves is legal.
“Our border with Colorado is an unsuitable area for wolves,” Gordon wrote, “and that would mean more human conflicts. Resolutions of conflicts are almost always deadly to wolves.”
150 to 200 wolves needed for a self-sustaining population
If the CPW can find a donor site, the plan defines benchmarks the wolf population must reach in order for the wolves to move up in status on the Colorado Threatened and Endangered Species list. The thresholds correspond to three phases; phase one starts when the wolves are released and ends once wolves can be downlisted from endangered to threatened.
This three-phase approach provides flexibility for unforeseen challenges and fluctuations in population, and allows CPW to move back into a phase if the population declines.
Phase three, when wolves will be delisted but given nongame status, meaning they can’t be hunted, begins when there are around 150 to 200 wolves in the state with adequate range. These numbers are the population biologists believe is necessary for wolves to be self-sustaining. The plan says 200 wolves translates to about 25 packs across 2.8 million acres of habitat.
Once in phase three, a conversation about long-term wolf management can open.
Ranchers in the area of reintroduction are nervous about the released wolves preying on their livestock.
But compensation for lost livestock or guard or herding animals is included in the plan. Ranchers can claim up to $15,000 per animal, but not more than fair market value, three times more than the $5,000 state law allows for livestock injured or killed by big game wildlife, such as mountain lions and bears. Additionally, veterinarian expenses for injured livestock and guard or herding animals can also be reimbursed up to $15,000.
Ranchers who use devices such as electrified fladry, or shell crackers, propane cannons and fox lights to scare away wolves are entitled to more compensation for missing calves, sheep or yearlings. CPW will provide these materials on a case-by-case basis. It will also educate ranchers about other strategies, such as managing herd composition, a tool used to reduce the risk of predation by mixing different age classes and breeds of livestock.
Lethal and nonlethal take management — the decision to kill a wolf or not based on its behavior — are included in the final plan, but so long as the animals are considered endangered, lethal take is permitted only under limited circumstances, such as when a wolf is attacking a human, livestock or working dogs.
Our job here would be to put ourselves out of business. The day that we are obsolete is the day people no longer have to come see a wolf in a cage to learn respect and admiration.
— Kent Weber, executive director and co-founder of Mission: Wolf
Wildlife biologists say livestock is not the natural prey of wolves, but when they do hunt cattle and sheep, they learn to target the same ranch over and over again — causing substantial, concentrated economic damage. Recent confirmed depredations in North Park prove that wolves are attacking livestock, which is one of the reasons a proper compensation plan was critical to the success of the plan.
“If a livestock producer is hit once, they tend to get hit over and over again so it’s really, really salient and really economically challenging, emotionally traumatizing,” Lambert said. “In no way should we discount that: the impact on people that are trying to make a living off of the land.”
Elusive, and yet very feared
When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, they quickly ranged anywhere from 20 to 140 miles from their drop site. Colorado wolves are expected to do the same, based on wolf biology. Because of this, the wolves will be introduced at least 60 miles from Colorado’s border with Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and any tribal lands in southwestern Colorado.
Weber says unlike the animals at Mission: Wolf, wolves in the wild tend to steer clear of humans. Still, when Coloradans are recreating in the wild, or if they live in habitat favored by mountain lions, bears or moose, they must pay attention to their surroundings. That means that while outdoors, remove one or both headphones and remember to look around and take note of your environment, he said.
“If we can teach people proper behavior, we’re not going to see any human conflicts whatsoever,” Weber said with the confidence of someone who has lived peacefully among wolves for decades.
Even though wolves are fairly elusive, they’re one of the most feared predators in the United States.
Population of wolves in other states
- Idaho: 1,337 wolves
- Montana: 1,087 wolves
- Wyoming: 338 wolves
- Washington: 216 wolves
- Oregon: 178 wolves
Lambert credits the negative perception of wolves to a much older source: the colonization of North America.
“When white, colonizing Europeans hit North America, they were kind of shocked to encounter animals that they had completely extirpated in Western Europe,” she said.
The extermination of predators in North America, especially wolves, started as a byproduct of Western European settlers appropriating Indigenous land upon their arrival. Environmental destruction was subsequent to the mass genocide of Indigenous peoples by European colonists.
CPW has prioritized input from the two tribes with land in Colorado, the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes, with sovereignty to manage their land. While drafting the reintroduction plan, CPW went through a formal tribal consultation process.
At a commission meeting Feb. 22 in Steamboat Springs, Vanessa Torres, a council member of the Southern Ute Tribe, expressed the tribe’s support for long-term stable funding for wolf restoration and openness to work in collaboration with CPW to manage possible issues that may affect tribal lands and the Brunot Area. The Ute people have reserved rights to hunting, fishing and gathering activities in the Brunot Area as well as an agreement with the state of Colorado to cooperatively manage the hunting, fishing and wildlife law enforcement in the 3.7 million acres located in the San Juan Mountains.
In a statement of support for Colorado’s wolf reintroduction, Tom Rodgers, president of the Global Indigenous Council, said: “Many of this land’s First People have a symbiotic relationship with the wolf. The wolf taught us many things, from how to survive to our societal structures to spiritual knowledge.”
Stories by Indigenous peoples in the Great Plains and Intermountain West describe wolves as guides, protectors or entities that directly taught or showed humans how to survive on the land.
“Like us, the wolf was removed from the land for cows and industry by slaughter and what might be termed eviction,” Rodgers said. “We have an opportunity to come together to begin a healing process. Returning the wolf to these lands is part of that. We must return the balance.”
People advocating for reestablishing wolves here argue that the predators are the missing piece to the Rocky Mountain ecosystem, pointing to the healthy wolf populations in the Rockies both north and south of Colorado.
“Colorado is the last natural place where wolves used to live where they aren’t currently fully established. So Colorado should have wolves, and that’ll help with a healthy ecosystem,” Mission: Wolf director Mike Gaarde said.
“They’re actually a very important part of a healthy ecosystem,” Gaarde continued. “It’s a science called the trophic cascade. It’s looking at the food chain, not from the bottom up, but actually from the top down. And so the existence — or lack thereof — of the apex predator and how that actually cascades down to all the other trophic levels.”
Weber used Yellowstone as an example of the predator’s role in the trophic cascade. Without wolves, there was an increase in the number of elk and a drop in the abundance of vegetation. Although there are many theories for why this could happen, including climate change, there was a notable reversal when wolves were reintroduced.
Weber recalled attending scientific conferences at Yellowstone where he heard from people working at the institute and affiliated professors at Oregon State University, Robert Beschta and William Ripple, about the changes observed in Yellowstone’s ecosystem after reintroducing wolves in 1995.
“The trees started growing. The willows came back. That brought the beaver back,” Weber said. “When the elk ran they aerated the ground — more water retention. Now the trees are big and they’re shading the ground. All of a sudden the waters were getting cold and next, 50 species of songbirds returned in five years.”
There now are about 338 wolves in 41 packs in Wyoming, the state Game and Fish Department estimates.
It remains to be seen what effects wolves will have in Colorado, but ecologists, conservationists and environmentalists are hopeful.
“I think that learning compassion and empathy for the natural world is going to be very important for the future of humans to be able to just exist in general,” Gaarde said.
“I think the connection between humans and animals,” Ane Brooks added, “is the most important thing on the planet.”
University of Colorado Boulder Master’s of Journalism student Maddy Heath contributed to this report.