Colorado and California Prepare for More Wolves

It’s an opportunity, advocates say, to do wolf management right

By Juliet Grable

April 18, 2021


OR-93, seen near Yosemite National Park in February | Photo by AP/California Department of Fish and Wildlife

On February 25, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced that a radio-collared wolf had wandered into the state from Oregon. While that in itself was not unusual, OR-93 was detected east of Yosemite National Park, farther south than any wandering wolf before him. The news coverage recalled the excitement over OR-7, who earned fans 10 years ago by journeying hundreds of miles in California and Oregon.

Since then, OR-93 has continued to roam the Golden State, first traveling south toward Fresno, then westward to the coast. He was last detected by CDFW on April 6 in San Luis Obispo County.

For Pam Flick, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, news of OR-93’s travels was thrilling.

“Whether or not OR-93 becomes part of a pack remains to be seen,” says Flick. “But once one wolf makes the trek, others will follow.” While most of California’s wolves descend from the Rogue Pack in southern Oregon, OR-93 hails from the White River pack near Mt. Hood, potentially bringing more genetic diversity to the state’s tiny wolf population.

A couple of states away, also in February, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) fitted a wolf with a radio collar for the first time. The state is preparing to implement Proposition 114, which charges the Parks and Wildlife Commission to begin actively reintroducing wolves west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023.

With more wolves arriving at their front doors, California and Colorado have the opportunity to avoid mistakes made elsewhere. For both states, success will rest not only on how effectively agencies handle the newcomers, but also on how well they address the human dynamics that come with more wolves on the landscape.

The task falls at a challenging time. Stripped of federal protections in January 2021, wolves are subject to a patchwork of state management plans. In Colorado and California, the wolf is still listed as endangered, but other states offer much less protection, and several have implemented or are considering retrograde policies driven more by politics than sound science. Adding to this is the uncertainty over whether the federal delisting, orchestrated by the Trump administration, will be reversed.

Both California and Colorado have a solid foundation on which to build. In 2011, OR-7, easily Oregon’s most famous wolf, forayed into California before settling down in Oregon and founding the Rogue Pack. Soon after, California established a Stakeholder Working Group and several subgroups. A series of meetings held over a period of years helped inform the state’s conservation plan.

After a wolf wandered into Colorado in 2004, CPW invited livestock producers, wildlife advocates, biologists, and local government reps to form the Colorado Wolf Management Working Group, which culminated in a wolf management plan. Now that the state is tasked with reintroducing wolves, CPW is establishing a Stakeholder Advisory Committee and a Technical Working Group.

That’s not to say there aren’t potential pitfalls ahead. Some advocacy groups have criticized Colorado’s plan, arguing that the Parks and Wildlife Commission is using a cumbersome process to delay reintroduction until the end of 2023. Several groups sent a letter to Governor Jared Polis in February, expressing their fear that the consensus-based approach will favor wolf opponents and urging that decisions be based on the best available science.

“We are concerned that the process will be taken over by oppositional interests, and that it won’t be transparent,” says Delia Malone, ecologist and wildlife chair for the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club. “CPW is not known for its appreciation for carnivores, and instead is driven by an interest in growing ungulate herds for the benefit of hunters.”

Dr. Rebecca Niemiec, assistant professor in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Department at Colorado State University, is more hopeful. CPW “had an open application process for participants, which I think is an innovative and exciting approach because it has the potential to engage a really diverse set of stakeholders,” she says.

Niemiec has been conducting research with the Center for Human Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University, including media analyses, surveys, and interviews, to learn more about people’s attitudes toward wolf reintroduction. Her lab also held a stakeholder workshop in 2020, which included environmental and animal advocacy NGOs, livestock producers, hunters, agency reps, and a tribal representative.

Although wolf advocates and foes are often lumped into two groups—urban liberals versus ranchers—the reality is more nuanced, says Niemiec.

“Even within, say, groups supporting wolf reintroduction, you might have animal welfare groups and different types of conservation organizations, each of which might have different opinions on management approaches.”

Niemiec hopes her work will inform the state’s process going forward, and that agencies will continue to include a diversity of perspectives, especially tribal bodies and organizations representing Indigenous stakeholders.

During the 2020 workshop, Niemiec observed, people from opposing groups started to understand that they had similar concerns, such as being left out of the process.

“It all comes down to human needs and whether people feel like they're being heard, that they belong, and that others care about them,” says Niemiec. “If we don't address those needs, I think the wolf will continue to cause huge amounts of contention.”

Wildlife managers and scientists engaging with the media will be especially important, Niemiec adds. Her media analyses show that negative reporting on wolves outweighed positive reporting, and that voters relied heavily on news when making up their minds on Prop 114. Studies in other parts of the West show a similar negative bias in media coverage, especially when wolves are new to an area.

California’s wolf population is small, with one officially established pack and one pair in the state’s northeast counties.

The Lassen Pack, which formed in 2017, occupies a portion of southwest Lassen County in summer and drops to lower altitudes in Plumas County in summer—a large territory that’s “full of cattle,” says Kent Laudon, wolf specialist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Whaleback pair, formally named by CDFW this year, represents a “classic scenario,” says Laudon. “First you have a wolf; then you have a pair; then you have pups.” The pair is currently inhabiting a forested area in Siskiyou County, where several livestock producers have grazing allotments.

The state has logged a handful of depredations linked to wolves since 2015, including a cluster of kills last fall. Wolves in California are protected by their state ESA status and can’t be killed for depredating livestock.

California doesn’t have a livestock compensation program. “What we do have are some nonlethal tools, and we have communication,” says Laudon. One of his most important tasks is helping people understand what it means to have a wolf in the area.

Sometimes a wolf is just passing through, but a cluster of GPS locations from a radio-collared wolf might mean a wolf has made a kill and is sticking around for a while.

When a wolf is detected, Laudon contacts the county board of supervisors and the county agriculture commissioner, and, if the wolf is near a livestock operation, the individual rancher.

“A lot of it is just visiting and having conversations,” says Laudon. “They know the lay of the land; I know the wolf part.” Laudon shares strategies that other ranchers have used to make stock less vulnerable—removing carcasses, bringing in sick or injured animals, and feeding them at night, which encourages them to bunch up. Sometimes he deploys “scare boxes”—radio-activated devices that emit siren wails when they detect a radio-collared wolf.

USDA Wildlife Services works with CDFW on depredation investigations, and increasingly on deploying nonlethal strategies to reduce conflicts.

Flick of Defenders of Wildlife collaborates with Wildlife Services agents to help get tools into the hands of livestock producers—ranchers generally trust the agents more than someone from an NGO, she says. These include foxlights, which flash random patterns of light, and turbo-fladry, electrified flagging that can be used to create enclosures that dissuade wolves.

While fladry works when maintained correctly, it’s unrealistic to fence in sprawling grazing allotments. Instead, the tool is used to reduce vulnerability when risk is highest: when cows are calving or to protect injured animals.

After wolves from the Lassen Pack attacked several heifers on a leased allotment late last summer, the owner moved the animals to their home pasture.

“They did the right thing,” says Laudon. “But it came at a cost.” In addition to the time, labor, and logistics required to move the heifers, the rancher was paying to lease ground he was no longer using. Laudon says it’s important for people to realize that ranchers bear tangible costs for coexisting with wolves.

"If we can reduce [conflicts] to the extent that we keep them at low levels for as long as possible, and find ways to support folks so that low levels [of depredation] are tolerated,” says Laudon. “That’s as good as can be expected.”

Wolves account for a tiny fraction of livestock deaths; however, their presence makes life more complicated. The top reason people cited for voting against wolf reintroduction in Colorado was the potential negative impact on ranchers. The ballot initiative process was contentious, and Prop 114 passed by a smaller margin than was expected.

The initiative requires the creation of a compensation fund for livestock producers. Defenders of Wildlife has been supporting bipartisan legislation that secures funding for reintroduction, including livestock compensation, and which excludes hunting and fishing license fees as a funding source.

“We want this to be a plan for all Coloradans,” says John Murtaugh, a representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Agriculture is a big part of the state’s culture and economy.” Defenders has also been cohosting “coexistence workshops” in the state, although the effort was scaled back in 2020 because of COVID-19.

The federal delisting means that in Colorado, the Parks and Wildlife Commission can proceed with plans for reintroduction without approval from the US Fish and Wildlife Services. This could change if the federal delisting is reversed. For this reason, advocates are pushing to get “paws on the ground” as soon as possible.

Advocates there argue that active reintroduction is necessary in part because of aggressive wolf management in adjacent states. In most of Wyoming, wolves can be shot on sight without a tag, and several Western states are promoting aggressive policies to curb wolf populations. Montana recently passed bills extending the wolf-trapping season and allowing the use of neck snares. And earlier this year in Wisconsin, a court order forced the state to hold a wolf hunt with just a few days left in the season. Hunters, some using dogs, killed 216 wolves, nearly twice the quota set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

These state policies will have repercussions beyond their borders, says Flick.

“The fact that we have wolves in California is because we had federal protection,” she says. Now, wolves are subject “to a patchwork of unaligned state laws, some of which have hostile wolf policies.” For some, the federal delisting casts a shadow over the wolf’s future, especially in places where they have only just begun to make inroads.

Most of California’s wolves have migrated from Oregon, and most of Oregon’s wolves originated from Idaho. Dispersing is in their blood.

As of mid-April, OR-93 has traveled 914 air miles, crossing highways and farmlands in an odyssey that could just as easily end in tragedy as in triumph. Wolves still only occupy a fraction of their historic range. While both California and Colorado could potentially support hundreds of wolves, population levels will likely be determined by human tolerance as much as ecology.