The people of Colorado have spoken: gray wolves are returning to the state. Last week, Colorado voted to approve Proposition 114, a ballot measure that will see the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission reintroduce and manage gray wolves on designated lands west of the continental divide by the end of 2023. It's the first time in the US the public has ever been asked to make the call over the reintroduction of a wildlife species through a ballot box as the decision is usually left up to state wildlife authorities.
However, it was an extremely tight race, with 1,543,102 (50.64 percent) voting in favor of the initiative and 1,504,228 (49.36 percent) voting to oppose. While many are welcoming the reintroduction of this iconic species, others fear the challenges it might bring.
Wolves were once common across much of North America, not least in Colorado, before the arrival of European colonizers. Overhunting and persecution by farmers reached boiling point by the 1930s when the species started to disappear from many of the Rocky Mountains states, including Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. It’s thought that no wolves remained in the state of Colorado by 1940.
Many conservationists are happy to see the reintroduction of wolves in the state because they play a crucial role in the ecosystem’s food webs. As case studies have shown, bringing wolves back to their natural environments can have a positive knock-on effect on the distribution, abundance, and interactions of a wide range of different species, from insects and vegetation to birds and other mammals. Reintroducing wolves back to Colorado would also establish a critical link in the geographical wolf range of North America.
“Re-establishing wolves in western Colorado could connect the entire North American wolf population from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan through Canada and Alaska, down the Rocky Mountains into Mexico. It would be difficult to overestimate the biological and conservation value of this achievement,” L David Mech, renowned wolf expert and senior research scientist for the Biological Resources Division, US Geological Survey, has previously said.
As the tight vote suggests, not everyone is happy with the plan. Rick Enstrom, 2012 Republican candidate for District 23 of Colorado, who served as Colorado State Wildlife Commissioner from 2000 to 2008, has argued that the reintroduction measure will increase the risk of predation on livestock and pets.
Others have dismissed this as scaremongering. Mike Phillips, a wildlife biologist and wolf expert who serves in the Montana Legislature wrote in a recent op-ed article: “It is the atypical wolf that kills livestock, and losses to wolves represent an insignificant percentage of livestock on public and private range. Consequently, nowhere do depredations represent a threat to livestock industries.”
The recent ballot vote is likely to be made more complicated by the Trump administration's recent decision to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. NPR suggests this could mean the state won't be able to receive federal grants for the project, but it’s unclear how this twist in the story will pan out just yet.