Call of the wild: Should Colorado bring back the wolf?

By Amanda Paulson

It’s been more than 75 years since native wolves roamed the mountains of Colorado.

And now voters in the state may have a chance to bring them back.

A coalition of wolf advocates has crafted a ballot initiative proposal that, if voters approve, would direct the state wildlife agency to manage a reintroduction program.

How much of a role should people play in the reintroduction of wild species? Colorado is shaping up to be the next battleground over wolf reintroduction.

It’s the latest iteration of a war that’s been playing out for several decades around the wolf and that touches on much deeper questions about how active a role humans should play in nature. Where some feel an obligation to help restore a keystone species that was previously hunted to near extinction in the lower 48 states, others say that humans have meddled enough and should let nature take its own course.

In Colorado, many ranchers and sportsmen are already gearing up to oppose the measure, which they see as both harmful and unnecessary: Wolves, they say, are likely to come back to Colorado on their own. Advocates, meanwhile, see it as the most direct route to restoring a species they say is key to a healthy and balanced ecosystem, in a location that serves a critical role.

“If you can put a viable population of gray wolves in western Colorado, it will serve as the archstone, the final piece, connecting wolves from the high Arctic to the Mexican border,” says Mike Phillips, a wildlife biologist and Montana state senator who is a scientific adviser to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. “There is no other place in the world where you can imagine that completion of [the range] of such a much-maligned carnivore.”
‘Ballot-box biology’

When wolves were listed as an endangered species in 1978, only about 1,000 remained in the lower 48 states, all in Minnesota. Discussions of reintroduction began soon after. The first reintroductions occurred in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996 with 66 animals. Today, some 1,700 wolves live in the Northern Rockies, and they no longer have federal protection in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, or eastern Washington and Oregon. More than 4,000 live in western Great Lakes states, particularly Minnesota. And a much smaller population of Mexican wolves – around 130 – live in New Mexico and Arizona following reintroductions. Citing rebounding populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the gray wolf earlier this year, setting up what’s likely to be a fierce battle.
Courtesy of Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A wolf pauses near the entrance to Artist Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.

Depending who you talk to, the reintroduction efforts have either been wildly successful or hugely detrimental. Within Yellowstone National Park, where wolves enjoy the greatest protection, the ecological effects have been most acute: Elk herds are smaller and stronger, and move more frequently to escape predators, aerating the soil and allowing vegetation to recover. There are fewer coyotes, helping both small rodents and the raptors that prey on them. Beavers, trout, songbirds, and streams have all benefited in various ways.
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That “trophic cascade” may not be as extreme in less protected areas, but it’s what wolf advocates hope the predators will bring to western Colorado as well.

The state has considered and rejected wolf reintroduction in the past, most recently in 2016. In its rationale for opposing reintroduction, Colorado Parks and Wildlife cited a number of concerns, including the high cost of wolf management, a dwindling number of surplus Elk in the southern part of the state, and the fact that the Mexican wolf – the subject of concerted recovery efforts – didn’t historically range this far north. Rather than actively reintroduce wolves, the agency reaffirmed its focus on management plans for wolves if they migrate down on their own.

That scenario is one that many wolf-reintroduction opponents point to as preferable to actively bringing wolves back.

“I’d love to see the migration part of it,” says Jay Fetcher, a cattle rancher near Steamboat Springs. There are too many Elk, he notes, and wolves might keep those in check. And as long as he’s compensated quickly and easily, Mr. Fetcher says he’d be willing to accept some livestock loss. But he worries that reintroduction advocates aren’t considering all the ramifications.

“We have so many more people than the states where they were reintroduced,” says Mr. Fletcher. He worries about conflict between recreationists and wolves, or people’s pets being taken. “Are we going to be able to tolerate this species coming back in?”

Other ranchers are even more adamantly anti-wolf.

“I know we’ll have to deal with it at some point,” says Ernie Etchart, a sheep rancher near Montrose, Colorado, referring to wolves migrating into the state naturally. “But the thought of wolves killing my livestock frightens me. I don’t like it.”

He and other ranchers say that compensation packages don’t do enough: Some killed animals are never found; distressed livestock may lose weight; and the value of a killed animal doesn’t factor in its years of breeding.

“We have a closed herd, we can’t just go out and buy more sheep,” says J. Paul Brown, a sheep and cattle rancher in southwest Colorado who previously served in the Colorado legislature. “I have friends who are dealing with the wolves in Idaho and Wyoming and Montana, and I just cry for them. I don’t know how they stay in business.”

And some sportsmen worry about the effect on deer and Elk populations.

“We’ve been supportive of the natural recolonization of wolves in Colorado,” says Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “If they’re forcibly reintroduced, it sets the stage for conflict.”

Ultimately, he and other opponents say that they see the ballot initiative as a poorly conceived mechanism that allows wolf-lovers in Denver and Boulder to make a decision that would affect ranchers and hunters in the western part of the state. “We’re not in favor of ballot-box biology,” says Mr. Henning.
The myth of the wolf

Those concerns, say advocates, miss the big picture and are more grounded in fear than facts.

The ballot initiative is purposely sparse on details: If it gets enough signatures and makes it onto the 2020 ballot, it would direct the state wildlife commission to begin reintroduction of gray wolves to western Colorado before the end of 2023. It leaves all the details – how many, where, when, and which wolves – to the commission, noting that the plan should take into account the best science, involve public input and statewide hearings, and include compensation for livestock loss and mechanisms to resolve other conflicts.

And the idea that wolves should come back on their own has two major problems, say advocates. Despite occasional sightings of lone wolves, it’s much harder than people think for a viable wolf population to establish itself in Colorado – 400 miles south of current territory, across a major interstate and open space where Wyoming residents can shoot them without repercussion. And whereas a managed reintroduction would allow for livestock compensation and flexible management, any wolves that currently cross the state line into Colorado are protected under the Endangered Species Act and difficult to manage.

“We find from our research that rural Coloradans are just about as excited about this as urban Coloradans, in large part because we want to keep Colorado wild,” says Rick Ridder, a campaign consultant for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which developed the initiative. Every poll has showed a significant majority of Coloradans in favor of bringing back wolves.

John Longhill, who has a horse ranch north of Silverthorne, says he’s excited to see wolves restored to the landscape where, as far as he’s concerned, they belong. They’re “a critical component of a balanced, working natural environment,” says Mr. Longhill. “There’s so much scientific evidence that supports this. We can’t react based on fear.”

Ultimately, say wolf advocates, much of the opposition to wolves is rooted in misperception, rather than science. Wolves aren’t dangerous to humans, and are less dangerous to livestock than many ranchers think, says Eric Washburn, a conservationist who lives near Steamboat Springs. He is a hunter, but says the number of Elk and deer in the state can easily support wolves, and wolves can actually help with issues like chronic wasting disease, a problem for Elk. Mr. Washburn understands ranchers’ concerns, but notes that the predation rates for livestock in the Northern Rockies have been extremely low.

“What we’re confronting is the myth of the wolf,” he says.
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That myth – and a fear deeply ingrained for many ranchers – can be a tough obstacle, but wolf advocates hope education can go a long way to counter it. And for many, the wolf has a strong positive symbolism as well.

Lessons from the Northern Rockies show that there are good tools to deal with all the potential conflicts, says Mr. Phillips, who helped lead the effort to restore wolves to Yellowstone.

“What gets in the way of those objective lessons is the mythical wolf, [where] it’s this devastating monster that exercises its predatory will on a whim.” But, adds Mr. Phillips, “You could make a strong case that the gray wolf represents the beating heart of the wild lands of Colorado.”

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