A lone gray wolf stares directly into your eyes, its ears pricked forward, alert and curious, as it slowly takes a step toward you. Stars twinkle above the mountains that loom behind it.
But this wolf isn’t out in the woods, and you’re not about to meet it face to face. You’re idling in traffic, and the wolf is staring out at you from the Colorado license plate on the car in front of you. The words “Born to be wild,” in all caps, are emblazoned below its image.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, an all-volunteer nonprofit, launched the specialty license plate at the start of 2024, shortly after Colorado’s voter-approved wolf reintroduction program released its first five wolves. Drivers who want the plate must pay an initial fee of $118, followed by a $50 annual fee; $50 of that initial fee and all the annual fees will go to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state agency overseeing the reintroduction. Before the designer who volunteered to create the plate could start working on it, the project had to win the support of the Colorado Legislature. The legislation, which was signed into law last spring, stipulates that the funds it raises will be dedicated to nonlethal measures that promote coexistence between livestock, ranchers and the recently reintroduced wolves.
Such measures include the use of fladry — strings of colored flags that are hung along fence lines to deter wolves — as well as guardian dogs that are trained to protect livestock; horseback riders, whose presence can keep wolves at a distance; and temporary electric fencing — “anything that is going to help keep wolves and livestock apart, and help ranchers make that adaptation to this new reality,” said Rob Edward, a strategic advisor to the wolf project. The first two weeks that the new wolf plates were available, drivers purchased 450 of them.
License plates that signal, or even hint at, political inclinations sometimes draw unwanted attention. In the summer of 2023, for example, biologist Audrey Benedict returned from a hike with her two dogs in Jackson County, Colorado, only to find that the side of her car had been deliberately scratched from front to rear. Tucked under her windshield was a card warning that people who voted for wolf reintroduction weren’t welcome there. “That freaked me out,” said Benedict, who has not been back to the area.
Benedict believes she was targeted because her plates bore the prefix for Boulder County, the majority of whose residents voted in favor of Proposition 114, the wolf reintroduction measure on the November 2020 ballot. (Benedict, who feared that the reintroduced wolves would be killed by hostile humans, voted no.)
The new wolf plate may or may not provoke such extreme reactions. In any case, it joins the long tradition of license plates created to fund conservation, funneling money from drivers to state agencies and nonprofits across the West.
Here are some of our favorites.
Under Montana’s “Sponsored Plate” program, nonprofit organizations can design their own specialty plates for a fee of $4,000. As of 2022, Montana drivers could choose from 235 different plates. If you’ve got a favorite environmental nonprofit, chances are there’s a plate for it: There are 34 different plates in the “wildlife and other animals” category, and 30 more in the “parks and environment” section. Many include slogans like “Wolves Belong” (sponsored by the Bear Creek Council, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council), “Think Habitat” (sponsored by Pheasants Forever), and “Let Buffalo Roam” (sponsored by the Buffalo Field Campaign).
One of Montana’s most popular plates funds the Vital Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that purchases land to create movement corridors between areas of grizzly bear habitat. The plate costs $35, $20 of which supports the foundation; the annual renewal fee of $20 also goes to the foundation. The plate, emblazoned with a grizzly bear image donated by Missoula artist Monte Dolack, has raised more than $1 million for the foundation’s conservation work since it was first offered in 2008.
Want to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions? If you live in Wyoming, you can help by purchasing the state’s wildlife conservation plate for an initial fee of $180. The license plate, which was established by state legislation in 2019, had raised a total of about $930,000 as of Nov. 1, 2023. The money helps fund Wyoming Department of Transportation projects, including overpasses, underpasses and fencing, that are designed to reduce the number of vehicle-wildlife collisions. An annual fee of $50 keeps money rolling in for conservation, and drivers who have the plate are eligible for discounts at some Wyoming hotels, tire and gear shops.
License plates that fund conservation have a long history in Washington, where personalized or “vanity” license plates — your “LUVBUG” and “EV MOM” jokes — became an option more than 50 years ago. From the start, the fees charged for these plates have supported the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Since fiscal year 2018, personalized plates have generated an average of $3.9 million each year for the agency’s wildlife rehabilitation and wildlife diversity programs. According to the agency, the funds have been “instrumental” in the conservation of bald eagles, sea otters and marbled murrelets. In recent years, $10 of each personalized plate fee has gone to wolf management and conservation, including the prevention of wolf-livestock conflicts and compensation of ranchers for livestock losses.
Six specialty wildlife plates, available for $28 each, support WDFW activities; the orca plate, for example, helps fund programs that protect whales and other endangered and threatened species, such as sage grouse. Whale plate sales in fiscal year 2021 generated more than $183,000 in revenue. The steelhead license plate, which helps fund the conservation of native trout, raised about $58,000 in FY 2021, while the bald eagle plate, which funds trail maintenance and other programs that encourage wildlife viewing, raised about $161,000 in FY 2021.
Idaho’s first wildlife specialty license plates were established by state statute in 1993. Today, elk, trout and bluebird plates help fund the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s work with native plants and wildlife species that aren’t hunted, fished or trapped. Game species that share the same habitat also benefit from the plates, which cost $35 more than regular registration fees and $25 to renew every seven years.
Since 2013, Idaho’s wildlife license plates have raised almost $13 million for agency programs that research and manage vulnerable species, rehabilitate wildlife, and educate students and others about conservation. A portion of the money from the elk plate goes to the state’s wildlife disease laboratory, while the trout plate funds nonmotorized boating access for anglers.
Dear readers: If you live in Colorado, would you consider buying this new wolf license plate? And no matter where you live, what’s your pick for the prettiest/cutest/most majestic conservation plate in the West? We’d love to hear from you! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your license plate stories.
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