Wolves Are Coming to Colorado Ski Country. Here’s What You Need to Know
The reintroduction of wolves in Colorado is fueling complicated emotions and questions about skier-wildlife interactions.
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Last month, the state of Colorado announced its plan for wolf reintroduction, including where the state plans to release the animals: a southwestern slice of the state that stretches across some familiar places, including Aspen, Vail, Crested Butte, and all the way down to Telluride.
Wolves are complex apex predators (animals at the top of the food chain with no natural predators of their own) that roam big ranges, which is just one of the reasons the issue of reintroduction has been controversial since the idea was brought up years ago. Ranchers are worried about their livestock. Some skiers, meanwhile, are wondering if they’ll have to outski wolves at ski areas and in the backcountry of this part of Colorado.
The answer is likely no.
While the wolves are set to be released into an area full of prime ski terrain by the end of 2023, experts say that the impacts to skiers should be negligible. First, wolves generally avoid humans—they only become dangerous when they’re habituated in unhealthy ways, or if they’re provoked. Plus, they don’t want to hang out with us anyway. Wolves have to eat, so in the winter they want to be in low valley bottoms where their prey is, instead of on steep slopes high up in the mountains.
“We talk with the ski areas about it a lot,” says Eric Odell, the Species Conservation Project Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We’re not releasing wolves into areas where there are conflicts.”
Odell says they picked this specific slice of ski country through a complicated study that considered both social and scientific aspects. Researchers from federal wildlife agencies and state universities weighed ecological suitability with conflict risk, aka human tolerance, to triangulate the best place to reintroduce wolves.
For instance, they found that if they were just to look at biological factors, the Western Slope of the state north of Interstate 70 would be the best wolf habitat thanks to its high density of prey. But because most voters in the region were against wolf reintroduction, they decided that bringing wolves to that zone would cause conflict. Instead, the researchers found that the mountains between Aspen and Durango had both ample prey and a human population with an accepting attitude, so they recommended that area instead.
This is where we’re at now, trying to assess the calculus on humans and habitat and hobbies. The introduction of wolves is just the newest of many potential wildlife-skier interactions that brings up the issue of co-managing wildlife and recreation, which is both an emotional and logistical challenge.
Yet wolves have gotten a lot of attention in this discussion because they loom large as threatening predators in many peoples’ minds and bring up complex emotions and prejudices, both warranted and not. Yes, wolves do occasionally eat livestock because they look similar to their natural prey. But no, they’re not coming for you on the ski slopes. Scientists are actually much more interested in how skiers and lynx impact each other, says Odell, because they share terrain, and because they’ve found that the lynx use the mountains differently when skiers are around, so experts can tell that there is impact.
North of the mountains of Colorado, you hit one of the most heated hotspots for skier-animal conflict: the Tetons, where Teton bighorn sheep and backcountry skiers have been vying for territory for years.
Those Teton sheep, whose numbers are down to around 175 (nearly too few to reproduce), have been pushed high into the mountains by development in the valley. Their population is fragile. But their range is exactly the same space that backcountry skiers, who have formed an industry and a culture around skiing in those peaks, covet. And the researchers who study the animals have found that even just slow, quiet backcountry skiers can push fragile sheep out of their range.
The Teton Sheep working group, an amalgam of biologists from the national parks and government agencies in the area, has spent more than 30 years trying to figure out how to protect the species. Like the Colorado wolf project, they wanted to address both social and ecological stopping points, so in recent years they held more than 40 community meetings in an effort to come up with closures that would both protect the sheep and preserve ski access. In 2021 they devised a plan to close 21,233 acres to backcountry skiers—including 2,833 acres inside the park that was deemed high-value ski terrain—to try and mitigate impacts on the herd.
It felt like a compromise, but some skiers still weren’t happy, and the sheep still don’t have unfettered access to their best range.
There’s no perfect overlay of habitat and recreation, and it’s increasingly complicated as habitat shrinks from climate change, development, and increased backcountry use, and skiers want to venture out farther.
That’s the heart of the gordian knot of managing wildlife in terrain that we also use for recreation. Part of why so many of us are drawn to the mountains is that we want biodiversity and wildness. But our impacts travel with us, and we have to be aware of that.
Even if we don’t see those impacts explicitly, they’re there. A recent study from Routt County Colorado, home to Steamboat, found that recreation was pushing elk away from 60 percent of their natural habitat. Because of that, the population of two major elk herds in the area have declined by 50 percent.
Many studies have focused on the charismatic megafauna like elk and wolves, but diminishing habitat from human development and climate change impacts the entire chain of flora and fauna.
The Colorado wolves are just the latest example. Our interactions are only going to get more complicated, so it’s up to us to think ahead and try to overlay our social biases and desires with real ecological needs to come up with a compromise. We have to consider our impact, which might not always sound appealing to skiers, but which is necessary for sustainable biodiversity.
“We need to have an understanding that it’s a multi-use landscape and wildlife need their space and protection.” Odell says. “There’s always a balance to be sought.”