The biggest unknown as Colorado prepares to reintroduce wolves to the West Slope as early as December is where the wolves will wander once they're released.
There is a growing concern some may head north into Wyoming and face the same fate as wolves that migrated into the state and were shot just across the state line in Wyoming.
That concern has heightened after a recent WyoFile story depicted how hunters lured into Wyoming and legally shot four wolves from the six-member pack that formed in Moffat County in northwest Colorado. Another three, possibly four, from the original eight-member North Park pack faced a similar fate.
Both of those packs formed in close proximity to the Colorado-Wyoming state line.
Wolves are known to wander far and wide whether released or through natural dispersal, which is why Colorado's wolf recovery plan calls for releasing wolves no closer than 60 miles from state lines and tribal boundaries.
The distance came from studies that showed on average that's how far reintroduced wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s dispersed after release, though some wandered hundreds of miles.
Matt Barnes, a wolf advocate and rangeland and wildlife conservationist with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative who sat on the state-appointed wolf recovery Stakeholders Advisory Group, shares those concerns saying eventually some wolves released in Colorado will cross state lines, including Wyoming.
"That is a real concern, but unfortunately under the current legal structure there is nothing we can do about it,'' he said. "So far, all evidence indicates when wolves leave Colorado and step foot in Wyoming they risk their lives.''
Wolves, those reintroduced and those naturally migrating into Colorado, are listed as federally endangered and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. A 10(j) rule under the ESA, allows for Colorado to kill wolves in certain situations. However, wolves in Wyoming are not listed and can be legally killed year-round in the state's predator zone, which encompasses 85% of the state, including the area just across the border from Colorado.
"The situation on the Colorado-Wyoming state line is unprecedented in modern wildlife policy,'' said Barnes, who lives in southwest Colorado and has explored potential wolf corridors across southwestern Wyoming into Colorado. "A species is protected by state and federal law on one side of an arbitrary line and can be shot on sight, for no reason, on the other. Wyoming's predator zone policy is a transparent attempt to restrict wolves to the mostly federal lands of the Greater Yellowstone area.''
He said by preventing that geographic expansion, Wyoming's policy has effectively prevented progress toward nationwide delisting.
How a wolf expert says wolves typically disperse after being released
Wolves in Colorado will be captured in Oregon then immediately flown to Colorado and released, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Ed Bangs, who oversaw the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's gray wolf recovery program in the Northern Rocky Mountains before retiring in 2011, said wolf movement after a release is unpredictable but that some patterns emerged from the mid-1990s reintroductions in Idaho and Yellowstone.
"Wolves are terrified and nervous and don't know where they are when released,'' he said. "Initially, they tend to want to head in the direction from where they were captured, but they won't make it back to Oregon (nearly 700 miles away). Once they figure out they don't know where they are, they act like normal dispersal wolves looking for the best place to settle and for other wolves because they are very social animals.
"It can take weeks or a month before they start figuring out they might want to stay.''
He said there was a 10% to 20% mortality rate of reintroduced wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone.
What will Colorado do if reintroduced wolves wander into other states?
Colorado's wolf recovery plan says Colorado Parks and Wildlife will monitor transplanted wolves that emigrate into adjacent states and assess management implications on a case-by-case basis in consultation with that state’s wildlife management agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It says those wolves may be captured and relocated back to Colorado in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Initially, the recovery plan also states, reintroduced wolves will be fitted with GPS tracking collars.
The question is will border states such as Wyoming and Utah — likely states through which reintroduced Colorado wolves would leave the state — allow Colorado to recapture the wolves?
Colorado Parks and Wildlife told the Coloradoan that it is has an agreement with Utah, New Mexico and Arizona to recapture and return reintroduced wolves to Colorado. The agency said the agreement was to protect the genetic integrity of the Mexican wolf.
The agency said Wyoming is not one of the states included in the agreement. It added "it is possible and even likely that wolves reintroduced in Colorado, or their progeny, will move into Wyoming.”
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon refused to allows his state to serve as a wolf source for Colorado's reintroduction effort, saying he is against the effort and believes it will only create more conflicts between people and wolves along its border with Colorado.
Wolves are federally protected in much of Utah, save for the northeast corner of the state, where the state has management control, allowing it to capture or kill wolves, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources website.
Also, the Southern Ute Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe on Colorado's southern border, have expressed concerns about the risk wolves pose to its revenue-generating elk and deer hunting.
In the past, state wildlife agencies freely cooperated in helping other states with relocation of wildlife, often trading one species for another.
Wyoming gave Colorado 50 elk in 1916 to help the state reestablish its dwindling elk population, which has grown to the largest elk herd in the U.S.
But times have changed, especially when it comes to wolves.
"I don’t imagine Wyoming would go to any expense to save a wolf, but they might allow Colorado to do so," Barnes said. "It’s really not clear.''
Colorado has tight boundaries on where it can release wolves
The narrowly passed ballot measure that mandated wolves be reintroduced to Colorado by the end of 2023 also stated wolves could only be released west of the Continental Divide.
Colorado's recovery plan further limits release sites to no closer than 60 miles from state and tribal boundaries.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife selected an initial release area given those parameters and a study indicating optimal release sites. The oval shape roughly includes Glenwood Springs on the west, Kremmling on the north, Vail on the east and Aspen on the south. The area includes Interstate 70 running through the middle.
The heart of the preferred release site includes state-owned or private land near designated U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas: Hunter-Fryingpan, Holy Cross, Maroon Bells-Snowmass, and Collegiate Peaks.
That area is roughly 100 miles from the Wyoming border, 125 miles from the Utah border and 150 miles from tribal land.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Concern grows that Colorado wolves could be killed in Wyoming