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Will wolf-watchers flock to Colorado? Tourism leaders have mixed opinions

A large group of people stand above a riverbank looking through tall spotting scopes on tripods.
Nathan Varley
Yellowstone Wolf Tracker
Tourists and biologists scan for wolves and other wildlife along the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park in August 2020. Nathan Varley started a guided wildlife viewing company 17 years ago.

Wolves don’t just fascinate or intrigue Nathan Varley. They’re his livelihood.

Varley and his wife, Linda Thurston, run a wolf-watching business called Yellowstone Wolf Tracker. For 17 years they’ve helped hundreds of tourists glimpse and photograph the national park’s famous wolf packs. Customers also see bison, grizzly bears and other wildlife. But it’s the wolves that most tourists travel for—and pay specifically to see.

“If there weren’t wolves, we wouldn’t have a business,” Varley said last month near his home in Gardiner, Montana.

Raised in Yellowstone by park ranger parents, Varley is a biologist who volunteered to help with the park’s gray wolf recovery project in 1995. He’s since studied and advocated for wolves while building a business around the opportunities to view them.

Varley said his customers come from all over the globe and will spend as many as six days on wolf watching trips that start before dawn.

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Some of his customers are profoundly affected by their wolf watching experiences. One of Varley's wolf-watching students was so inspired by the experience, he went on to write and research what would become a New York Times bestseller about Yellowstone's wolves.

“They're the type of people that not just want to see a wolf in Yellowstone, but want to see lions in Kenya, and whales in the Puget Sound,” Varley said of his clients.

And they pay a lot to see the wildlife.

Guided hikes with Varley and his half dozen naturalists start at $800. A six-day wildlife viewing package with lodging on the banks of the Yellowstone River can run around $2,750 per person.

People in winter coats stand in snow behind cameras on tripods looking toward snow- and tree-covered mountains in the distance.
Nathan Varley
Yellowstone Wolf Tracker
Wolf-watchers view a wolf in Yellowstone National Park on March 28, 2014. Economic studies have shown that wolf watching generates an estimated $82 million a year for the communities that serve as gateways to Yellowstone.

“The value of wolves in Yellowstone to all the gateway communities around the park is somewhere on the order of $82 million each year,” Varley said, citing the most recent economic studies of the tourism benefits of wolf watching in Montana.

So Varley sounded surprised last month when he heard some tourism leaders on Colorado’s West Slope said they would never market the state’s newly-introduced wolves, citing their predatory nature.

Varley sees Colorado’s wolves as an attraction that should be protected. He points to the state’s abundance of open land and wide valleys as a reason wolf-watching could develop organically.

“You have North Park and South Park. Big, wide open spaces in the mountains that might be great for wolf watching if there's the right kind of roads and access,” he said. “I think wolves will be an attraction in Colorado…They're just kind of this extra quality of the wild landscape that you have. It’s like, ‘Oh, we could see a wolf. We could hear one howling at our campsite.’”

But so far, at the dawn of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction project, tourism leaders in mountain towns are offering mixed views on the animals. Some are fearful or indifferent, while others are cautiously optimistic they could become an attraction.

Attraction or detriment?

In Glenwood Springs, tourism director Lisa Langer told KUNC in December she wouldn’t put wolves on marketing brochures.

“No, I don't think the wolf introduction will be a boon to tourism,” Langer said. “I think that it may be a detriment in some ways.”

Langer said she worries that because wolves are predators, they might scare away some visitors from the hiking trails near Glenwood Springs, just as mountain lions do.

And tourism leaders in the nearby Vail Valley also appear skeptical of the potential for wolves to draw crowds. Chris Romer, the president of the Vail Valley Partnership, said there had been “zero” conversations about wolf tourism. Instead he raised the fear of wolves killing livestock in the area.

“It does impact our ranchers and farming community,” Romer said. “We’ve seen zero discussion or impact or momentum or anything in regards to tourism.”

But in Grand County, where the first wolves from Oregon were released in December, tourism board leader Gaylene Ore isn’t ruling out the possibility of marketing the wolves.

People stand behind a large black kennel in open golden grasslands with a black wolf racing away from them.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Colorado Parks and Wildlife releases five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County, Colorado, on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. Pictured is wolf 2302-OR.

She said if packs establish themselves in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park and officials there choose to promote wolf-watching with the backing of wildlife officials, she’d “get on the bandwagon, for sure.”

“There’s just something alluring about them,” Ore said of wolves in the wild. “It's kind of what you think about when you think of the West.”

Ore said she shares the concerns about wolves impacts on the ranching community. And she said any potential marketing of wolves would need to be done “responsibly” with an emphasis on how to view them safely without clogging roads and trespassing on private property.

“I don’t think it’s anything that would happen soon,” she said. “It’s so early, you know, packs haven't even formed or anything like that."

Last year, Ore traveled to Yellowstone and went on a wildlife viewing tour in part to get a better understanding of the impacts of wolf reintroduction.

“It was fascinating to go to Yellowstone, but it's a little bit different situation there than it is here,” Ore said. “We just don't have the land space that they have to do such tours like that. I think (wolves) are amazing creatures to watch. But, again, I think as a county, we just really want to be respectful and do what's right by all of our stakeholders.”

Interest building

Whether an organized tourism industry develops or not, Colorado’s wolves are already drawing crowds, both in person and online.

Ore said when one of Colorado’s new wolves was spotted on a remote road near Kremmling earlier this year, there was an uptick in vehicle traffic in the area.

“And it just flooded that area,” she said.

There are other signs of growing interest in the state’s wolves. Wolf tracking pages are popping up on social media, with followers being not only wolf enthusiasts but also ranchers who want to know where the wolves are to protect their livestock.

In Cripple Creek, wildlife photographer Steve Krull said he’s planning to try and photograph the wolves this summer. He said snapping shots of the wolves is a bucket list item for many photographers.

“I'm also just fascinated with their intelligence and the expressions on their faces, and the way they live,” he said.

Back in Montana, wolf tracker Nathan Varley also sees wolf watching opportunities developing for Coloradans.

A map with a large swath of purple in the center.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
A map released in March 2024 shows the most recent watersheds gray wolves have visited in Colorado. Parks and Wildlife officials say they expect to know by mid-April whether any of the wolves have had pups.

“As soon as, maybe on social media, there starts to be regular sightings, then all of a sudden you'll get people showing up,” he said. “So even if you don't have a more formalized industry going where people are taking people out to see them, I think wolves will be an attraction.”

Meanwhile, there have been no reported livestock deaths from the newly introduced wolves so far. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is also planning to hire new wildlife conflict specialists who can help ranchers deploy fencing and other wolf deterrents.

Now, wildlife officials are readying themselves for another potential milestone: It’s breeding season, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials say they’ll know soon whether any of the new wolves have had pups.

"Around mid-April is when we would probably have more information about whether a den has been dug and reproduction has happened," said Reid DeWalt, who is overseeing the state's wolf reintroduction program. "So stay tuned."

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.

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