The price of ballot box biology: Forced wolf reintroduction in Colorado

Colorado is home to one of the country’s largest elk herds and a booming economy driven by hunting and outdoor enthusiasts.
Photo courtesy RMEF

The howl of a wolf in a moonlit forest carries far more romance than the economic blow the forced reintroduction would mean to Colorado taxpayers. Mark Holyoak, director of communication for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the economics aren’t being addressed by proponents.

If a ballot initiative were successful, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department, which is already on record opposing the intentional release of wolves, would have a laundry list of items, all at the expense of the state’s taxpayers and, perhaps, reducing funding elsewhere to foot the bill. According to a fiscal note from the department secured through a public records request, the department would be tasked with developing a plan to restore and manage wolves; host statewide hearings to assist in developing the plan; take the steps necessary to reintroduce wolves by Dec. 31, 2023, on public lands west of the Continental Divide; oversee ongoing gray wolf restoration and management; and assist owners of livestock in preventing and resolving conflicts between gray wolves and livestock, as well as reimbursing owners of livestock for losses caused by gray wolves.

As the gray wolf is designated as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, the CPW will only be able to undertake management efforts related to gray wolves with approval from the federal government. Assuming CPW can work with federal agencies to gain the needed approval to implement this initiative, the fiscal note said there will be fiscal impacts to CPW. To meet the requirements of the initiative, CPW would undertake a two-year planning and public outreach period, followed by a five-year implementation process. CPW would then incur annual operating and research costs to manage the ongoing reintroduction program.

In the fiscal note, the CPW projects planning period costs during years one and two to total $790,660; implementation period costs during years three to seven to total $4,115,135; recurring and ongoing costs in year eight and beyond totaling $792,927; with an estimated cost to the CPW over eight years to total $5,698,722.

Holyoak said wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies came with the price tag of about $10 million to get wolves on the ground. On top of that, he said, meeting the requirements of the initiative could be impossible since wolves are still federally protected.

Another biological aspect not being discussed, Holyoak said, is the Mexican wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona that has been restored at a high cost to taxpayers. Holyoak said wolves in Montana have spread to surrounding states and will do the same in Colorado. The larger gray wolves would push the Mexican wolves out of the territory they populate currently and also into genetic extinction.


The potential impact on hunting and recreation is likely to mirror those seen in the northern Rockies with reduced populations of deer, elk and moose herds.

“If you look at central Idaho, the Lolo Zone, in 1992 there were approximately 10,000 elk there, one of the great established herds at that time,” Holyoak said. “By 2017, the size of that herd was less than 1,900. That’s not solely wolves but that’s adding wolves to a predator mix that’s almost a full menu of predators plus some habitat issues as well. It certainly didn’t help the situation.”

In another area of central Idaho, the North Fork of the Clearwater, 16,000 elk were established in the 1980s, wolves were reintroduced in 1995, and the 2010 herd was 2,000. Where elk numbers are reduced, there is less hunting, fewer licenses sold, and less revenue both for conservation and for the small businesses that count on in- and out-of-state hunters to support their businesses.

“Restoring Colorado’s Natural Balance” the aim and motto of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project is misguided, Holyoak said, as Colorado has changed over the past 150 years with a growing population encroaching on what was previously open land.

“It’s our responsibility to manage our forests and it’s also our responsibility to look after the wildlife populations as well,” he said. “There’s not much of an emphasis put on the fact that man lives here today. You have almost 6 million people who live in Colorado, that’s a lot different than up here in the Northern Rockies. So, to release wolves down there and have them spread across a region of the country where there’s a more dense human population, there will be impacts. It’s a matter of math.”

As it stands, an ongoing study in southwestern Colorado is trying to determine why elk recruitment is not as successful as hoped in the area. It is also noteworthy that of the 64 units in Colorado where deer and elk populations are below objective, 54 of those combined units are in western or southwestern Colorado.

Given the state’s population, he said game, livestock and pet depredation as well as forced human interaction are realities of reintroduction. Whether it is unfair to the wolf, he said, he can’t say but it is certainly unnecessary in his mind.

Proponents of reintroduction are primarily backed by out-of-state donors including the California-based Tides Center; Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife; Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and others.

The proponents include 15 members of a science advisory team from out of state, the effort’s lead spokesman Mike Phillips, a politician who is from Montana, the firm hired to gather signatures is from out of state.

The Colorado Secretary of State is currently reviewing signatures to determine if the question of forced reintroduction will appear on the 2020 ballot. Trade organizations opposed to the initiative include the Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Cattleman’s Association, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Outdoor Channel, Colorado Mule Deer Society, Hunter Nation, Big Game Forever, Colorado Traditional Archers Society, Colorado Bowhunters Association, Four Corners Chapter of SCI, Colorado Outfitters Association, Bull Basin Guides and Outfitters, Code of the West Outfitters, Hunt 360, Colorado Wool Growers Association, Colorado Independent CattleGrowers, Southwestern Colorado Livestock Association, La Plata-Archuleta Cattleman’s Association, Gunnison, Eagle, Garfield, and La Plata Colorado Farm Bureau boards, as well as Alamosa, Archuleta, Crowley, Douglas, Fremont, Garfield, Hinsdale, Jackson, Lincoln, Mesa, Moffat, Montezuma, Montrose, Otero, Rio Blanco, Rio Grande, and Routt counties. ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at or (970) 392-4410.