Wolf Reintroduction in Colorado: Unpacking Biology and Social Values

Wolves sometimes stand more as an embodiment of ideological narratives and politics than a species on the landscape. We often talk about wolves-the-symbol rather than wolves-the-species. When this happens, people and organizations frame wolves in terms of economic and political interests rather than the biological aspects of the species and their role on the landscape. Questions about wolf reintroductions bring together a complex intersection of biology and social values. If we can collectively be more transparent about how we create knowledge and make decisions, we may just be able to do what’s right for wolves and their ecosystems.

If we think about some of the history of wolves (Canis spp.) in North America – their massive decline through targeted extermination programs through to more contemporary reimaginings of their value and contributions to conservation efforts – they tell quite a story about North Americans’ perspective and understanding of conservation. In Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, Professor of history and environment and society at Brown University, Bathsheba Demuth, writes that “in the 1920s, some ecologists began theorizing that wolves provided, in Olaus Murie’s words, ‘a certain balance between predatory species and game.’ Aldo Leopold wrote wolves into his land ethic. In 1963, Farley Mowat’s gloss on lupine ecology Never Cry Wolf made it popular to see packs as guardians of a natural equilibrium that humans destroyed.”

There is a lot of history packed into that little passage. Olaus Murie played an instrumental role in the research and advocacy that created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Aldo Leopold’s ideas have become the backbone of conservation identity for many hunters. Farley Mowat was a Canadian writer and conservationist who, after being sent to the Northwest Territories to shoot and poison wolves, became an advocate for their conservation.

Any time I write about a wildlife management or conservation issue that is specific to a time and place, I wonder if it will be relevant once everyone’s attention has moved on to the next story. However, the specific example of wolf reintroductions touches on many broad questions that we will continue to face in the public and decision-making arenas around conservation. As wildlife declines and extinctions continue, we will also need to continue to grapple with the complex social-ecological considerations around species reintroductions. Therefore, while this content is localized in time and place, we can better understand foundational conservation questions by exploring case studies like this. Hopefully, we can be better prepared to answer them next time.

Wolf Reintroduction Ballot Passes

Gray wolves (Canis lupus) were extirpated from Colorado in the 1940s. In November 2020, Proposition 114, titled Reintroduction and Management of Gray Wolves, was put to Colorado voters to consider whether they wanted wolves reintroduced into Colorado. The bill passed with 50.91% voting “yes” and 49.09% voting “no”. Proposition 114 (now state statute 33-2-105.8) tasked Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) with developing and implementing a plan to reintroduce gray wolves into Colorado by 2023. CPW planned to reintroduce wolves in the lands west of the continental divide.

Several competing priorities and perspectives have arisen over the debate about wolf reintroduction in Colorado, not all of which are scientifically valid, but all of which are worth our consideration and sympathy because we live in a democracy. The principles of public trust and democracy articulated in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation wildlife management extend beyond hunting, and once we acknowledge that wildlife is held in trust by a democratic government, the perspectives and opinions and priorities and needs of all citizens deserve consideration, even if we don’t agree with them.

As with any story related to wolves, the issue of wolf conservation in Colorado is embedded in a wider continental history of wolves. Understanding the debate in Colorado involves unpacking wolf ecology and the social-political arguments that support and oppose wolf reintroduction. It also requires us to deal with misinformation.

Background: Wolves in Colorado

Wolves were hunted to extirpation in Colorado by the 1940s, and from somewhere around 95% of their historic range in North America. Since biologists and managers reintroduced 41 wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, wolves in the Rocky Mountains now number somewhere around 6,000 individuals and were removed from the endangered species list in October 2020.

Taxonomists recognize about 30 subspecies of gray wolves across North America. Colorado was historically home to two subspecies of the gray wolf. The Great Plains wolf (Canis lupus nubilus) ranged in the eastern parts of the state and went extinct in 1926. The southern Rocky Mountain wolf (Canis lupus youngi) ranged in the western parts of the state and was extinct by 1935.

calm fluffy wolf lying near pond of forest
Photo by David Selbert on Pexels.com

Wolf subspecies, historically, exhibited a lot of contact and overlap in their ranges. Wolf subspecies were generally not separated by impassable barriers. Rather, there was a lot of contact and interbreeding, and recent genetic analyses have shown that there was a great deal of genetic exchange between different subspecies.

Therefore, while the great plains and southern Rocky Mountain subspecies existed in Colorado historically, they also had contact and genetic overlap with other subspecies of wolves that still exist, including the northern Rocky Mountain wolves (Canis lupus irremotus) and others further to the north. Colorado wolves would have also had historic contact with the wolves that lived in southern Canada and were eventually used as the source population for the Yellowstone reintroductions, which is the MacKenzie Valley wolf or the Canadian timber wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis). As reintroductions proceed, the MacKenzie Valley subspecies will be used as a seed population for reintroduction.

“Science-informed” Wildlife Management

If hunters and conservationists from different perspectives say they want science-informed management, we need to hold that as a principle. Science-informed management means selecting the tools that are most appropriate for the context, but it does not mean cherry-picking only the science that supports our individual social, political, and ideological goals.

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The process of scientific knowledge production is never objective and value-free. When we choose to ask a question to to design a scientific study, we make a subjective decision about what knowledge we create and, conversely, what knowledge we do not create. We make decisions about the methods we use to gather certain types of information, and therefore, we also make decisions about what information to exclude. We’re always making decisions about what we include and what we exclude in the production of scientific information. Science is not value-free. Nor is the process of deciding how we apply that knowledge to decision making.

Once we have science available, it is also humans who make conscious, subjective choices about what to do with the science. Organizations denounce what they call “ballot box biology” and the use of “emotion over science” when decisions don’t align with what they want, but this is also a misunderstanding and mischaracterization of how science and management work. All management decisions include considerations of politics and social values. We conduct knowledge production activities and science, and then we decide how to apply that information and knowledge to get to the outcomes we want.

The question is really, to what intended outcome do we want to apply our use and understanding of science?

A Repudiation of the Term “Ballot Box Biology”

If we are truly dedicated to conservation, we need to challenge both the underlying ideas and the pejorative use of the term “ballot box biology.” First of all, when it comes to wolves in Colorado, the biology exists. Proposition 114 was not asking people for their opinions to inform biological conclusions about wolves. The biology already exists and it is clear that wolves existed historically in Colorado and that the landscape currently supports wolves in Colorado.

Second, ballot initiatives do not change the biology itself; they tell us what people want and what decisions are likely to be supported by social values. Ballot initiatives intend to gather people’s perspectives about a management direction, and that often goes by another term: democracy. So make no mistake, when organizations invent value-loaded terms like “ballot box biology,” that is purely a political lobbying tactic and not a meaningful or substantive contribution to the design or application of scientific studies.

Third, wolf “management” in North America has always been driven by social values, with science informing us how best to achieve our goals. Social, political, and economic values – and not ecological theory – are what led to the wolf extirpations across this continent. The campaigns to poison, and shoot, and kill, and trap wolves were all led by social, economic, and political values and implemented by the people that represented those interests. And past decisions about wolves couldn’t be called “ballot box biology” because they weren’t even made through democratic processes, they were just made to represent powerful economic and colonial interests. So it’s not a new idea for social, political, and economic considerations to inform decisions about wolf restoration and reintroduction.

I want to be clear that I’m not arguing for emotion over logic in decision-making. Rather, I reject the premise that emotion and logic are dichotomous, hierarchical, and that we should strive to separate them in either our own internal cognitive processes or the public governance processes we have designed in our societies. Emotion and social values have always been a part of formal decision-making and are a fundamental part of how we make every decision as humans.

grass field under blue sky
Photo by Kerry on Pexels.com

In fact, in a paper published in the journal Science Advances, Jonathan Mawdsley and colleagues (including several of the authors who originally articulated the principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation) argue that “conservation actions by state and provincial agencies are science-informed, meaning that decisions are typically made using best available information and insight from ecological and social science, while also incorporating expertise and wisdom of agency staff, subject experts, stakeholders interested in or affected by the issue, and decision-makers.” Note that the authors identify input from members of the public affected by an issue as being part of the science informing conservation.

Instead of advocating for some fanciful notion of completely removing emotion and personal values from decision-making, we might be better off calling for the use of management tools and policy options that are consistent with the biology we have and the ecological needs of species and their habitats.

Wolf Reintroduction Plan

In May 2023, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, which outlines every aspect of wolf reintroduction implementation and ongoing management.

According to the plan, CPW will capture 10-15 wolves from different packs and release them in the state each year for the next three to five years, with the ultimate goal of reaching 30-50 wolves by the end of that timeframe. CPW is currently looking to other northern Rockies states (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) or other Western states (Oregon or Washington) for source populations.

Currently, wolves would come with Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. However, according to the plan, “the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has embarked on a rulemaking process designed to provide management flexibility by designating Colorado’s wolves as an experimental population under section 10(j) of the federal ESA.” A 10(j) rule designation would classify Colorado wolves as an “experimental” population and give CPW “authority to lethally remove wolves for management purposes.”

Without the 10(j) rule under the ESA, the state would need to achieve specific population parameters for wolves to be delisted from the ESA before it can fully take over management from the federal government. In this case, wolves would be downlisted from Endangered to Threatened when CPW documents a “minimum wintertime count of 50 wolves anywhere in the state for four successive years.” Wolves could be removed from the Endangered Species list when a “minimum count of at least 150 wolves anywhere in Colorado is observed for 2 successive years, or a minimum count of at least 200 wolves anywhere in Colorado is observed.”

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Which Wolves Belong?

Voters have faced challenges in trying to understand what wolf reintroduction would really mean for Colorado ecosystems and public safety. As wolf reintroduction conversations grew, coalitions of conservative political and economic interests emerged playing dress-up as biologists. Groups such as “Stop the Wolf PAC” led by former Colorado Senator Ted Harvey have been vocal about opposing wolf reintroduction, cherry-picking science and sensational news stories to discourage voters from supporting reintroductions. Hunt organizations that frequently promote themselves as conservation organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), and others that explicitly represent the interests of wealthy big game hunters, such as the Safari Club International (SCI), have taken the path of hyperbolic fear-mongering and raised money to lobby against wolf reintroduction.

“Aldo Leopold wrote wolves into his land ethic. In 1963, Farley Mowat’s gloss on lupine ecology Never Cry Wolf made it popular to see packs as guardians of a natural equilibrium that humans destroyed.”

Dr. Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

Over the course of this debate, several of these opponents have talked about the “Canadian gray wolf” and suggest that this subspecies never existed in Colorado historically. Minor issues with nomenclature aside, when people talk about the “Canadian gray wolf,” they are referring to the MacKenzie Valley wolf, Canis lupus occidentalis, mentioned above. Since that subspecies did not historically exist in Colorado, the argument is that it does not belong in Colorado, or that if it is brought to Colorado, it would be an introduction rather than a reintroduction, meaning they would not receive ESA protection. These arguments against reintroduction rest on some tricky, circular logic based on either scientific misunderstandings or purposeful manipulations.

Biologists recognize several wolf subspecies across the continent. Government and management agency policies used poison, trapping, and hunting across the continent throughout the 1800s and 1900s to exterminate many of those subspecies. So, the Great Plains wolf and the southern Rocky Mountain wolf that historically ranged in Colorado do not exist anymore. It is misleading to argue against wolf reintroduction in Colorado only because it will not be the two historical Colorado subspecies.

Opponents have also claimed that the MacKenzie Valley wolves are larger and more aggressive than Colorado’s historically native subspecies. However, the Great Plains wolf, was also a large subspecies. Arguing in bad faith and showing their hands as simply being opposed to wolf reintroductions at all, politicians and organizations using the size argument are splitting hairs around a subspecies that is potentially a few centimeters or pounds larger.

snowy mountain
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Consider another species that was extirpated from much of its range and has seen considerable public expense and effort devoted to its restoration. We celebrate bison reintroductions even though we know that all wild bison contain domestic cattle genes. Bison genetics are not pure, but we still do our best to reintroduce bison into parts of their former historical range. The purpose of reintroducing species is to restore the ecological relationships that co-evolved in those landscapes. Genetically, the wolves that would be reintroduced into Colorado – the same ones that were brought into Yellowstone – are part of the same overall gray wolf species in North America.

Unpacking Proposition 114

As humans debated Proposition 114 and all manner of philosophical musings about reintroductions, wolves have been doing what wildlife has always done: move. CPW has confirmed that wolves have begun to naturally recolonize Colorado.

Being anti-wolf reintroduction is not the same thing as being anti-wolf. I have spoken to people in Colorado who recognize the value of wolves in Colorado but do not agree with the current reintroduction plans. There are voices expressing a wealth of beautiful and patient nuance around this issue. Part of the uncertainty around reintroduction comes down to whether or not the state should use public funds to reintroduce wolves when they are already doing that work. But Proposition 114 concerned whether or not the state should develop and implement a coordinated plan for wolf reintroduction.

Still, should we spend taxpayer money to reintroduce wolves when they’re already there?

This is a worthy question and a poignant consideration when there is limited funding available to address a range of important conservation issues. Truthfully, I don’t know. I do not have a solid understanding of all the criteria that would need to be considered to determine whether managers in Colorado should devote the funding needed to actively reintroduce wolves or them time to continue doing what they are already doing. It may be that wolves will successfully re-establish themselves in Colorado in time, or it may be that restoring wildlife and ecological relationships is worth the funds and effort now. (Thank you to Mateen Hessami for pointing out the need to explore the deeper nuance of this question and my need to explain my own limitations in being able to answer it.)

Having said that, the fact that wolves are beginning to naturally re-establish themselves in Colorado does not automatically mean a reintroduction and management plan is unnecessary. Reintroduction plans are more than loading a bunch of animals in the back of a truck, driving them down to a field, and opening the gate. A great deal of planning and careful strategy goes into bringing a species back to a habitat. When Proposition 114 passed, it enabled a three-year reintroduction plan that contained several components, including reintroducing wolves by 2023, and holding state-wide hearings about scientific, economic, and social considerations. The state needed to determine locations, methods, and timing of reintroductions, and design programs and mechanisms to assist livestock owners to prevent conflicts and pay compensation in the event of predation.

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Reintroduction would cost taxpayers money. The reintroduction plan was set to increase state spending by $300,000 in the 2021-22 fiscal year, $500,000 in the 2022-23 fiscal year, and then $800,000 a year in 2023-24 for implementation of the plan. The funds would primarily come from hunting and fishing license fees or state appropriations. We are also all well familiar with the hunting community boasting about how much we contribute to the funding used for wildlife conservation, so it should be a point of pride that hunting and fishing fees were being used to support wildlife reintroduction and the various expenses related to its implementation.

Management and Livestock Conflict

We know there are wolves in Colorado because on December 19, 2021, in Jackson County, an individual wolf killed an individual livestock. This was the first time a wolf killed livestock in Colorado in 70 years. While a single incident doesn’t quite signal the canid apocalypse, the potential for livestock predation is an important socio-economic considerations in wolf reintroduction.

To give some perspective, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, have populations of wolves and have managed them at the state level since wolves were de-listed in that region in 2017. Those three states combined have about 6,010,000 cattle. There are roughly 300 livestock losses (across all livestock species) per year in those three states combined. In terms of managing the economic impacts of livestock losses, these are not insurmountable economic problems to deal with. Further, the wolf reintroduction program requires the state to dedicate funds to assist livestock owners with compensation for livestock losses. There are dedicated funds to ongoing monitoring both the biological and socio-political aspects of wolf reintroduction.

Planning for how to deal with wolf-livestock conflicts goes back to at least a 2004 report by Wolf Management Working Group comprising multiple stakeholders, including hunters and livestock producers. That working group’s report recommended that CPW should manage healthy wildlife populations and be directed by a species management plan with information about predator management and strategies to implement predator control.

herd of cattle on brown grass mountain under white sky
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

The new Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan outlines compensation for livestock losses. The plan specifies that ranchers can be eligible for up to $15,000 per animal (seven times the market value) for cattle, sheep, or other domestic animals killed by wolves. Ranchers can receive an additional $15,000 per animal for veterinary expenses. The plan does not require livestock owners to demonstrate that they have taken any actions to minimize conflicts.

I have talked about my perspective on predator hunting in the past. I do not support repulsive events like predator killing contests, but I support management agencies’ ability to mobilize the tools for wildlife management needed. I am critical of political lobbyists and hunting organizations that use trumped up rhetoric to oppose all forms of wolf conservation. I am also critical of organizations that work to limit the tools available and needed to facilitate human-wildlife coexistence and address social and economic issues. If wolves are going to be reintroduced to Colorado, the state needs to have at its disposal all wildlife management tools available, including both protective measures and hunting.


I like to be clear about my biases and positionality. I will always focus on what is best for the landscape, ecology, and wildlife species. I’m interested in the complex array of political, economic, and social considerations. At the same time, when a species existed on a landscape for millions of years and was removed from that landscape through colonial policies to deliberately exterminate that species, I advocate for ecology, the landscape, and the species.

We all have values in the game. Some actors and organizations want to see wolves reintroduced to Colorado and protected from all hunting; others want to see wolves kept off the landscape to protect livestock and enhance ungulate hunting opportunities. One of the problems is that those at more extreme ends of the public opinion spectrum are not transparent about their motivations, instead wanting us to believe that their position is the only logical conclusion supported by science.

Presenting conservation issues along a binary defined by pro- vs. anti- is not entirely consistent with calls for management based on the best available knowledge. Science is not inherently pro- or anti- in the information it provides. Science is used to predict the likelihood of outcomes and support the rationale for certain choices by social-political actors. I think what we should do is to look at the information we have from the biological and social sciences, and use that knowledge to create linkages with the non-hunting community to make the point that we can support species reintroductions and continue to advocate for hunting opportunities.

At the end of the day, wolves co-evolved and co-existed with ecosystems in Colorado for much longer than they have been absent. Human actions extirpated wolves from Colorado, and there is no ecological or biological basis for opposition to wolf reintroduction. Successfully reintroducing wolves and their role in predator-prey dynamics would be a resounding success for conservation.

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