As Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) works to develop a wolf restoration and management plan for the state, a first of its kind, it will take a diverse and passionate group of wildlife experts to execute the steps needed to establish a viable, self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado.
One brave individual who sits on the state’s frontline to accomplish this challenging conservation work is Ellen Brandell, a CPW wildlife research scientist, who was specifically hired to study wolf ecology for the state. Brandell has been researching wolves for more than a decade now, including work in Yellowstone National Park, where she studied wolf population and disease dynamics and published a series of scientific papers that showcased her specialization in carnivore research and planning.
Ellen’s passion for her scientific work radiates. She wants to share her findings so others can be awed and intrigued by wildlife ecosystems. “During my Ph.D., I became focused on the intersection between disease, predator-prey dynamics and population dynamics. This combination gave me a good understanding of different ecological processes without being super focused on just one aspect of wolf ecology. I think that background is going to be helpful in planning research here in Colorado,” said Brandell.
So where did this passion for wildlife come from? Ellen Brandell, originally from an urban area near Detroit, Mich., said her fascination with working with wildlife started at a young age when she daydreamed about a career in wildlife biology.
“I remember watching wildlife shows on TV and being mesmerized that there is this whole world out there where people can study wildlife,” said Brandell. “It felt so far away to me, but I felt a pull that I wanted to learn about wildlife and understand their lives and worlds.” Down the rabbit hole of wildlife research she fell, earning a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology with minors in Climate Change Studies and Communication Studies with a thesis on “Wolf-Cougar Co-occurrence in the Central Canadian Rocky Mountains” from the University of Montana. Brandell then continued her education at Pennsylvania State University to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology and completed a thesis on “Disease invasion in Yellowstone: Exploring the effects of wolf social organization and trophic interactions.”
“I think a common misconception people have about wolves — especially wolves in Yellowstone — is that there is a standard blueprint on how wolves will behave no matter where they live. But based on my experience and research, it’s not that simple. Wolves in Yellowstone have only been studied there since 1995, so there is still a lot to learn about that particular ecosystem,” said Brandell. “It’s important that we keep a broad scope when designing research – for example, by incorporating information about wolves that have inhabited areas for thousands of years, like in Canada and Alaska.”
Although studying wolves comes with a cloud of wanderlust, the job itself is incredibly difficult and not for the faint of heart. Long hours, intense weather conditions, public scrutiny and unpredictable days in the field, which can generate limited data are just a few unique challenges that come with the job.
“It takes a lot of resilience to study wolves. It is challenging to enter their habitat or pack environment and try to see the world through their eyes. Wolves are going to be wolves whether we are there to witness them or not. There are days our team goes out into the field, and we don’t see anything. It can be disheartening at times, but it is also that much more rewarding and thrilling when we do see wolves on the landscapes and can collect data that will help us better understand the ebb and flow of wolf populations in our state both now and in years to come,” said Brandell. Colorado is part of the gray wolf’s native range, but wolves were eradicated by the 1940s. Over the past decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) restored gray wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona. Individual wolves, including two wolves that have since mated and produced pups in Jackson County, have been periodically migrating into Colorado. Wolves from the south may do so someday as well.
As CPW works to reintroduce 30 to 50 wolves in total over the next three to five years (10-15 animals per year), Brandell’s specialization in carnivore research and planning will help CPW set up both short-term and long-term wolf research projects.
“Ellen is a dedicated professional who will objectively address research questions to enhance our understanding of wolves as they reestablish in Colorado,” said CPW’s Mammal Research Leader Chuck Anderson. “She is a great asset to our agency and brings a unique perspective to our research programs.”
There is still a lot of uncertainty about wolves in Colorado as the state waits for the Parks and Wildlife Commission to approve a Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. The state has also requested that the federal government approve a 10(j) rule that would provide CPW with broader flexibility in managing wolves, which are currently listed as federally endangered species. “Developing the wolf program in Colorado is a playground for a researcher — there is so much possibility and many things to discover,” said Brandell. “This truly is a natural experiment and the opportunity for Coloradans to observe, learn and embrace the opportunity to witness wolves like never before in our state’s history.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a series profiling Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff involved in gray wolf reintroduction in Colorado. Read part 1 – Wolf Update: CPW’s Adam Baca brings a history of success using non-lethal mitigation tools. CPW is proud of the work of its highly trained experts coordinating reintroduction efforts following the passage of Colorado Proposition 114, now state statute 33-2-105.8, that directed CPW to develop a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves in designated areas in Colorado west of the Continental Divide no later than Dec. 31, 2023.
Written by Bridget O’Rourke. Bridget is a Statewide Public Information Officer and Marketing and Communication Specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.