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Every other Friday, the Outside/In team answers a listener question about the natural world. Got a question of your own? The Outside/In team is here to answer your questions. Call 844-GO-OTTER to leave us a message.

Outside/Inbox: Why are wolves released to the wild in the winter?

A pair of grey wolves play at mock combat at the bear and wolf discovery center in West Yellowstone
Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)
A pair of grey wolves play at mock combat at the bear and wolf discovery center in West Yellowstone.

Every other Friday, the Outside/In team answers one listener question about the natural world.

This week, Sarah from Golden, Colo., asked us about wolves and her state's effort to reestablish a wild population.

"They just released wolves for the first time ever in Colorado, but they released them in the winter," Sarah writes. "It seems like they wouldn’t have food or the resources they would need. I assume there’s a reason but I don’t know what it is."

Outside/In’s Justine Paradis and Nate Hegyi looked into it.


This has been edited for length and clarity.

Justine: I think this is a really interesting question! Nate, you actually live in wolf country, in Montana, right now, right?

Nate: I do.

Justine: This is a pretty big issue in the West, right?

Nate: Yes, it can be very contentious. Ranchers say that wolves will kill their cattle. The anger is so palpable that you’ll see bumper stickers that say “Smoke a pack a day.” They really don't like wolves. 

Justine: That says a lot. So for context, wolf populations have rebounded in some states, but in others, they’re still effectively extirpated, like in Colorado. In 2020, voters there approved a state ballot measure to restore and manage a gray wolf population in the state. And, last year, as part of that program, wildlife officials captured 10 wolves in Oregon, and they brought them to Colorado.  To learn more about why they move wolves in winter, I called Eric Odell, the wolf conservation lead at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

Eric Odell: For one thing, capturing wolves is much easier in the winter. If there's snow on the ground, that is very obviously helpful for tracking animals to find out where they are. It keeps them cooler. The cooler temperatures are really good because we don't want the animals to overheat. 

Justine: And another reason is that wolves are social animals, right? 

Nate: Yeah.

Justine: So wildlife officials are actually taking that into account when they relocate them from one state to another. 

Eric Odell: At that time of the year, that's the natural time when wolves would naturally disperse from their packs. And so we take advantage of that to kind of mimic that behavior. 

Nate: Wow, all things I would have not thought about, by the way. I would have just thought food.

Justine: Obviously, it would still be kind of stressful to be a wild wolf and then suddenly get captured and moved thousands of miles.

Nate: Very much so.

Justine: So, they do avoid capturing wolves that are under a year old that would probably have a harder time adapting. They’re kind of inexperienced. They also try to avoid capturing the breeding individuals within a pack, which you can imagine can be pretty disruptive for a pack.

Nate: Yeah.

Justine: And what’s kind of wild is that, because there are less than a couple hundred wolves in Oregon, wildlife officials actually know them pretty well. Breeders are typically the ones in a pack who have already been captured and radio collared. So you can often pick them out, even from a helicopter.

Nate: OK, so if you can see their collars, you’re like, "We’re not going to take those ones." But if you see pretty big ones without collars, "You’re going to Colorado."

Justine: Eric told me the whole process of capturing and moving the animals takes a little less than 24 hours, because they actually do it by plane.

Eric Odell: They were very, very docile, very calm. There was no scratching, no biting at cages, nothing. They were almost silent throughout the whole time.

Justine: On their first release day in December, they transported a group of five animals. Some were a little cautious at first, but after a little coaxing.

Eric Odell: The crates were open, the animals ran out of the crates and right up a hill and within a matter of less than a minute, really, they were out of sight. 

Justine: So it’s been about six months since these wolves were released in the height of winter, and so far, only one has died, killed by a mountain lion.

Nate: That’s nature!

If you’d like to submit a question to the Outside/In team, you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to You can also leave a message on our hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.

Outside/In is a podcast! Subscribe wherever you get yours.

Justine Paradis is a producer and reporter for NHPR's Creative Production Unit, most oftenOutside/In. Before NHPR, she produced Millennial podcast from Radiotopia, contributed to podcasts including Love + Radio, and reported for WCAI & WGBH from her hometown of Nantucket island.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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