Alex Baumhardt

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) Oregon has agreed to transfer wolves to Colorado after other states declined to participate in that state’s new program.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will allow Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife Department to trap and transfer up to 10 gray wolves from northeastern Oregon to Colorado. Oregon officials agreed to the plan after their counterparts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming declined to help Colorado over concerns that a growing wolf population could migrate to their states.

Colorado conservationists have celebrated the state’s efforts to establish a healthy wolf population for the first time in more than 80 years, while ranching and farming groups have criticized the plans, fearful their livestock will become prey to wolves.

Gray wolves historically inhabited most of Colorado, but essentially disappeared after the 1940s due to a government-sponsored extermination campaign. In 2020, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to restore the population by a narrow margin.

Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plan was finalized in May, and includes the release of 10 to 15 wolves each year for up to five years. When 50 or more wolves are in the state, the population could go from being “endangered” to “threatened” under the state and federal Endangered Species Act, according to the plan. Animals listed under the acts receive special protections meant to preserve their habitat and prevent unlawful killing. The wolves could be delisted and lose protections when there are 150 or more of them in Colorado for two years, or 200 wolves at any point, according to the plan.

Oregon has agreed to let Colorado officials capture and transport the wolves between December and March and pay any associated expenses. Oregon Fish and Wildlife will share wolf location information and methods for best capturing the animals. Once trapped, the wolves will gradually be introduced to Colorado’s Western Slope, encompassing Vail and Aspen.

“Removing 10 wolves from this area (northeast Oregon) is not expected to have a detrimental impact on the wolf population,” said Michelle Dennehy, a spokesperson for Oregon Fish and Wildlife, in an email. “The intent is for Colorado to take wolves 1- to 5-years old from a mix of larger established packs. This is the age that wolves normally disperse anyway, striking out on their own to find new territory and a mate.”

Oregon Fish and Wildlife will not allow the transfer of known breeding males and females from any pack, which should keep Oregon packs stable, according to Dennehy.

Adam Bronstein, Oregon director of the nonprofit conservation group Western Watersheds, said he supports the Colorado wolf reintroduction and Oregon’s contribution, but said Oregon still has a long way to go to boost its own population. A 2006 study led by Oregon State University researchers found the state could support a wolf population of nearly 1,500, more than eight times larger than the current population.

“ODFW continues to recklessly kill our wolves at a dizzying rate at the behest of the livestock industry, stifling the recovery in defiance of what the science is telling us. We still have a long way to go in Oregon,” he said in an email.

Oregon’s population of gray wolves has only recently returned and grown following decades of absence. The first gray wolves to return to Oregon wandered into the eastern part of the state in the late 1990s, more than 50 years after they had been effectively hunted and pushed out of the U.S. By 2009, the wolf population in eastern Oregon became more established, but growth has leveled off.

Until 2021, gray wolves in Oregon were on the federal Endangered Species List, and as of late 2022, there were 178 in the state, up from just 173 in 2020 and 175 in 2021, according to Oregon Fish and Wildlife. In 2021, more wolves were killed by humans in Oregon than any year since 2009, according to the department.