Colorado Can Sustain a Large Wolf Population

Gray wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A recent NPR radio story titled: “Is Colorado Too Crowded To Support Wolves” suggested that with 6 million residents, there wasn’t enough habitat to sustain wolves.

I’ve been involved with wolf restoration since the 1980s, first in Montana and Idaho, then later in Oregon.

I have heard the same argument ever since wolf restoration was initiated. There wasn’t enough room for wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. It’s always the same argument—there isn’t enough space for a wide-ranging predator.

While the argument might sound plausible to those who know little about wolves, the argument is easily refuted.

For instance, Italy has a human population of 59 million, more than the combined population of all western states (if you exclude CA), and there are more than 3000 wolves in that country.

Romania has a human population of 20 million. Colorado has 6 million. Romania has 2500-3000 wolves. And it also has 6000 grizzly bears. I once asked a Romanian bear biologist how he could explain that Romania has many more bears than the entire western US. He said average people in Romania don’t have guns.

Minnesota has 51 million acres and has 5.7 million people. Colorado has 67 million acres and is approaching 6 million residents. Minnesota supports 2700 wolves. One could assume that if Colorado is more than 16 million acres bigger than Minnesota, it could sustain at least 3,000 wolves.

Years ago, I estimated the number of wolves Oregon could support (Oregon and Colorado are nearly the same size, though CO has a few more people). Based on factors like prey base, etc. I estimated that Oregon could support 2000 or more wolves.

One of the things that people ignore is geography. The human population in all these states is concentrated in specific locations with vast areas with limited human residency. Most of Colorado’s population resides along the Front Range in cities like Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and other communities.

The majority of public land and, thus, wolf habitat in Colorado is west of the Front Range in the Western Slope. There are no large cities on Colorado’s western slope.

By comparison, Montana supports over 1000 wolves. The bulk of Montana’s human population lies in western Montana counties that include cities like Missoula, Kalispell, Helena, Bozeman, Butte, and other communities that hold vastly more human populations than any town on Colorado’s western slope. Yet this is precisely where the bulk of Montana’s wolf packs are found—in the most densely populated portion of the state.

The most important thing for successful wolf restoration is the prey base. Colorado has nearly 300,000 elk and hundreds of thousands of mule deer. By comparison, Montana only supports 143,000 elk, sufficient to provide prey for over a thousand wolves.

Another critical advantage of Colorado over Montana is that much of the lower elevation lands of the western slope are in public ownership, principally by the Bureau of Land Management. This provides winter range for elk and deer that is unavailable across much of Montana, where the Forest Service manages most of the higher elevations in western Montana, while most valleys and foothills are in private ownership.

So the next time you hear someone say Colorado has too many people to support wolves, please inform them that they need to do a bit more scholarship—Colorado, based on both prey base and available habitat, can support hundreds if not at least a thousand wolves.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy