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Are there too many people in Colorado for gray wolves to thrive?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Gray wolves were once plentiful in Colorado before they were wiped out by hunting. They played an important role in the ecosystem. And in 2020, Coloradans voted to reintroduce gray wolves to the state. Now, the first group is set to be released onto the west slope of the Rocky Mountains, but it's not clear whether there are too many people in Colorado for wolves to thrive. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DENVER")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) The bright lights of Denver are shining like diamonds.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Few Western states have been romanticized more for their beauty than Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WILD COLORADO")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) You wild Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GUESS HE'D RATHER BE IN COLORADO")

JOHN DENVER: (Singing) Guess he'd rather be in Colorado.

SIEGLER: Back in John Denver's 1970s heyday, there were barely 2 million Coloradans. But in the last decade alone, the state's population grew at twice the national rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES DRIVING)

SIEGLER: Tens of thousands of cars a day drive these crowded mountain highways. So could a wolf that may have to roam 30 miles a day to find food survive here now?

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES DRIVING)

SIEGLER: Lots of barriers. I mean, just thinking about how wolves would try to even cross Interstate 70 through this canyon right here with all these trucks and cars racing by.

West of Glenwood Canyon, Perry Will, a retired Colorado game warden of 40 years, is standing at a popular fishing area along the interstate.

PERRY WILL: I'll be quite honest. We're crowding 6 million people in the state of Colorado. We're not Wyoming. We're not Idaho. We're not Montana. I wish we were, right?

SIEGLER: In a black cowboy hat and horseshoe mustache, Will is talking about those more rural states where the federal government reintroduced wolves in the 1990s after decades of studies. But he calls what happened here biology by ballot box. In 2020, Colorado voters passed a proposition requiring wolves to be reintroduced to the land within three years.

WILL: I've been a wildlife advocate my whole life. It doesn't really matter whether you love wolves or hate wolves, right? It's not about that. I don't think it's fair to the species. I think they're going to be in constant conflict in this state.

SIEGLER: For skeptics like Will, there's irony. Colorado used to be a red state where wolf reintroduction never would have flown. Now its booming population is liberal enough to support it. But is it now too crowded for wolves to have a chance? Joanna Lambert doesn't think so. In Boulder, she's a wildlife biology professor at the University of Colorado and helped write the ballot measure.

JOANNA LAMBERT: Wolves are superb dispersers. Wolves are highly intelligent. They're adaptable. They're flexible. And if given half a chance, they do well.

SIEGLER: Lambert is also a well-known expert on wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where she says the human population has also grown a lot since the '90s. But generally, the wolves have adapted. It turns out they don't like to be around humans.

LAMBERT: They're not going to be running around in neighborhoods, right? And they're not going to be running around in the streets of Aspen. They're going to be remaining in areas where they can access their prey base.

SIEGLER: Like elk, which Colorado happens to have more of than any other Western state - some 300,000. The wolves that will initially be relocated here from Oregon are adapted to eating elk. State wildlife officials spent the last three years holding public forums. They convened a citizen group with polar-opposite views on the wild canines, which helped write a management plan that's widely seen as a compromise.

REID DEWALT: We know that wolves will do well here.

SIEGLER: Reid DeWalt with Colorado Parks and Wildlife is helping lead the reintroduction.

DEWALT: We wanted to make sure this was from the get-go done with the citizens of Colorado and not done to the citizens of Colorado.

SIEGLER: The wolves will be considered experimental under the federal Endangered Species Act, meaning they can be harassed or killed if they're causing problems with, say, livestock. But the story of wolves in Colorado today feels a lot different than the clashes between ranchers and environmentalists that have dominated headlines in the West for years.

ORION VIERTEL: It is chilly this morning.

SIEGLER: One frigid morning near the Breckenridge Ski Resort, Orion Viertel stood at a favorite trailhead at the edge of a neighborhood of condos, restaurants and a Whole Foods.

VIERTEL: It's frightening. It's frightening to think of taking your children, your family, your pets and just trying to go on a day hike. Even if you bring a weapon, they come in packs. You'd better be quick.

SIEGLER: In the 30 years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, they've never attacked humans. Still Viertel, a local real estate agent, says he'll think twice about taking his young son backpacking if wolves will be around. He thinks voters were ill informed and thought the canines would get released into some faraway wilderness.

VIERTEL: I don't think anybody was thinking that they would be released anywhere near residential areas.

SIEGLER: There's still a lot of trepidation, if not fear, here over wolves returning to a land that's radically changed since the 1940s. Some of the best wolf habitat also happens to be fragmented by luxury homes, resorts and other legacy development, like ranches.

FRANCIE JACOBER: Oh, there's a deer.

SIEGLER: This is gorgeous.

JACOBER: Yeah. It really is.

SIEGLER: In the Crystal River Valley near Aspen, rancher Francie Jacober keeps close tabs on a resident elk herd. With few predators around, they've grown accustomed to grazing leisurely on the cattle pastures beneath the towering Mount Sopris.

JACOBER: Then they drop down into the river, which you can see is right over the edge there. You can see the cottonwoods.

SIEGLER: Jacober chairs the Pitkin County Commission and also sat on that state wolf group. She's an outlier in the ranching world in that she's a reintroduction supporter.

JACOBER: I'm hoping that they will scatter the elk, make them move, return them to their migratory habits.

SIEGLER: The national forests that surround this picturesque valley are among the most visited in the nation. Elk hunting, mountain biking and internationally famous ski resorts are all big business here. But Jacober says it's wilder than it looks.

JACOBER: You know, along the highways we have a lot of development. But if you get in an airplane and you fly over out here, there's a lot of wilderness, a lot of untouched area. And that's where the wolves are going to be.

SIEGLER: And like it or not, wolves are coming back to Colorado. A few have already migrated down from Yellowstone. Lately, one was spotted just over the New Mexico border, too. This natural dispersion comes as the state plans to reintroduce 10 more by December 31.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Carbondale, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: November 28, 2023 at 8:00 PM AKST
An earlier audio version of this story indicated that gray wolves once were wiped out by hunting in Colorado. The corrected version reports only that they were wiped out before they were reintroduced in 2020.
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.