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Wyoming wolf killings highlight divides as packs push into Colorado

A black wolf in a grassy area
Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith/Flickr Creative Commons

Colorado officials say that three wolves recently shot and killed in Wyoming may be a part of the North Park wolf pack, according to the Associated Press. The pack made headlines last winter after giving birth to Colorado’s first known litter of pups in 80 years.

The killings – legal under Wyoming law – highlight the differences in how Mountain West states treat the polarizing species.

In Wyoming, wolves are considered predatory animals and anyone can shoot a wolf without a license across most of the state, with designated areas outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks being the exceptions. In Colorado, killing a wolf brings a huge fine, and the state plans to reintroduce the species to the Western Slope next year even as wolves begin repopulating northern reaches of the state on their own.

Wildlife conservationist and range scientist Matt Barnes said a pack’s survival can often depend on what side of the state line they’re on.

“What we find West-wide, of course, is that wolf habitat is ultimately determined by people's willingness to live with them,” he said.

Reintroduction of the species is controversial, particularly for ranchers who worry they could lose livestock to predation. In early October, 18 head of cattle were killed near Meeker, Colo. in an apparent wolf attack.

Barnes said there are mitigation strategies ranchers can employ to reduce threats, but nothing is perfect.

“I don't think we're ever going to be at a point where we have a population of wolves that just never kills livestock. I think that would be unrealistic,” he said. “So a big question is, can we live with it?”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife hasn’t yet confirmed that the three wolves killed in Wyoming were from the North Park pack, but they’re continuing to investigate. Wyoming Game and Fish did not respond to requests for comment.

Many wildlife advocates point to research showing that wolves keep populations of deer and elk in check and provide other ecological benefits. Brian Kurzel with the National Wildlife Federation said reintroduction is beneficial as long as major stakeholders in local communities are considered.

“It is critical to listen and to address the concerns of those who are most heavily impacted by the presence of wolves, whether that be livestock producers, [or] hunters and outfitters,” Kurzel said. “Any sustainable wolf management is really about addressing social issues and so I think that's something that Colorado is trying to work into our management plan.”

In 2020 Colorado voters narrowly passed an initiative that directed state wildlife managers to bring wolves back to Colorado's western mountains by 2024.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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