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By Spencer McKee
The debate over whether or not wolves should be reintroduced into Colorado’s landscape is a hot one right now. Both sides seem to have plenty of support behind how they feel from potential impact on the local ecosystem to whether or not humans will be at risk.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the arguments that each side tends to use in this debate.
Arguments for Reintroduction
Several groups around Colorado are quite outspoken regarding their support for wolf reintroduction in the Centennial State. These groups have made a number of claims regarding why Colorado should bring back the gray wolf.
Restoring the Ecosystem
One claim made by Sierra Club is that the presence of wolves would help to restore a more natural method of population control among Colorado’s big game. This group states that current population control efforts tend to fall on human hunters instead of natural predators, citing that human hunters killed 41,900 elk in Colorado during the 2015 season.
While human hunters can be an effective means of population control, the group expresses concern that human hunters tend to seek out healthier members of an animal population, thus stunting the overall health of an animal group. Wolves, on the other hand, tend to target weaker members of a herd, in turn, making the herd stronger overall.
Think of it like the saying goes, “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
Some suggest that this could point to a solution for Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal disease that’s spreading through Colorado’s cervid populations and is often transmitted by sick animals that die over a long period of time. One of the major factors that makes chronic wasting disease so transmittable is that infect animals will hang around their herd long before the disease stops them from doing so completely. The thought is that by thinning these animals out of the herf naturally, the disease will spread less.
In an article published by the Colorado Springs Gazette, Liz Forster writes about how wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park was considered a success by some scientists as an example of something called “trophic cascade.” By definition, this is “an ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Forster writes of Yellowstone: “The wolves killed some of the elk, which allowed formerly stunted willows, aspens, and cottonwoods to replenish along river beds and attracted hordes of songbirds and beavers. Soon, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and other wildlife were seen perusing the valleys, and stream health markedly improved.”
Eliminating the “Missing Link”
Another point that frequently gets brought up in favor of wolf reintroduction is the idea that reintroducing wolves will eliminate a “missing link” in the range of the gray wolf species. According to Rocky Mountain Wolf Project , the gray wolf species range currently stretches the extent of the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to the Mexican border, with one exception – Colorado. This group seems to feel as if filling this gap along the Western Slope of the state would benefit the entire species.
In the same article written by Liz Forster and published on the Gazette, it’s mentioned that the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund believes that the gray wolf’s reintroduction into this gap would “trigger a ripple of benefits among wildlife, plants, and other organisms and restore ecosystemic balance.”
A Boosted Ecotourism Economy
Wolf-inspired tourism is also a reason why some support the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado. One 2011 article published by My Yellowstone Park indicates that wolf introduction in the Yellowstone area boosted the local economy by $5 million per year thanks to people traveling to spot these creatures. This boosted ecotourism economy based on the presence of a big predator has been seen in other parts of the world with other species. According to the Smithsonian , shark tourism brings in $314 million annually around the globe, a number that’s growing and expected to double by 2035.
Just like several groups in Colorado are campaigning in support of wolf reintroduction, several groups are also campaigning against it.
Most of these groups seem to have opinions based on the idea that “Wolves were eradicated for a reason, and people seem to forget that.”
An Impact on the Livestock Industry
One big fear of many against wolf reintroduction is the impact that reintroduction could have on livestock.
In 2015, wolves were responsible for 158 cattle deaths, 218 sheep deaths, 5 dog deaths, and 3 dead horses across 5 states included in the study where wild wolves roam. In attempt to compensate the farmers that were facing losses, the government handed out more than $500,000.
Idaho has also had issues with wolves getting to livestock. In 2016, 76 animals fell to wolves. As a result, 70 of the state’s roughly 700 wolves were killed.
An Impact on the Hunting Industry
Another big concern of reintroduction could be the potential impact on the hunting industry. One Colorado Sun article states that Colorado’s hunting economy brings in $919 million to the state each year – much of which gets spent in small, remote towns that rely on this income to exist. Some are concerned that if wolves are reintroduced, they’ll reduce the population of big game, thus reduce the hunting appeal of small rural towns in the Centennial State.
It’s worth mentioning that Colorado Parks and Wildlife seems to take this concern seriously. In 2016, they implemented a plan to trap and kill bears and mountain lions in certain parts of the state in an attempt to boost a struggling local mule deer population.
Some of those against wolf reintroduction in Colorado also find issue with the assumption that wolves will only eat the sick and dying animals in a herd, claiming that wolves are more likely to be opportunistic, eating whatever they’re able to catch.
Impact on the Ecosystem
It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a portion of the anti-reintroduction camp that believes that while wolves might belong in the local ecosystem, they should be allowed to reintroduce themselves naturally through the continual expansion of their range. The belief is that this natural reintroduction will be slower, reducing the chance of any abrupt impact that a systematic reintroduction might have.
The positive impact of reintroduction on the ecosystem is also called into question at times. While many praise the Yellowstone reintroduction, others doubt that it will ever fully restore the ecosystem.
Some, including professor Tom Hobbs of Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, believe that the impact of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone has been overestimated. Hobbs believes that factors like changes in precipitation and water tables were more of a factor in the betterment of the landscape, with research he’s published indicating that wolf reintroduction had a very limited impact.
Humans at Risk?
Another common concern that often gets raised with wolf reintroduction is that humans will be put at risk. Though many anti-reintroduction groups seem to avoid this argument, as wolf attacks on humans are rare, some believe that it could be a real concern.
In an article written by the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Richard Connell, a member of the Colorado Farm Bureau, believes that wolves will be likely to learn the habits of humans if reintroduced into the heavily populated state of Colorado. This could be similar to how bears, deer, and other wildlife have adjusted their own behavior to be bolder around people, at times changing their eating habits in the process.
If this happens, some fear a dangerous situation could develop.
In the same piece , Connell expresses concern that other wolf reintroductions often used to exemplify success took place in a landscape very different from Colorado – more vast and far more sparsely populated. He seems to believe that human-wolf interactions will become unavoidable as wolf populations develop and adapt over time coupled with the continued expansion of human civilization in Colorado.
Will wolf reintroduction be a good thing or a bad thing for Colorado? That could soon be up to you to decide depending on whether or not the topic is put on the state’s 2020 ballot.