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By Riley Dehr
Living in a hyper-divided post-election nation, it’s easy to forget the feeling of unity that existed at the beginning of the pandemic. Whether it was rallying around our essential workers or sharing our desperate search for toilet paper, a common enemy seemed to unite us, if only for a moment. Perhaps my favorite example of this is the strangest. Throughout the spring and early summer, in Denver, where I am spending my semester, people let out their inner wolf for a minute each evening.
At 8 p.m., as the sun would begin to set, a series of scattered howls would slowly rise into a cacophony that echoed through the entire city. Originally intended as a sign of support for essential workers, it slowly grew to become a community-bonding event. As we all felt the grueling effects of social isolation, calling out to each other, especially in such an unconventional way, felt like the perfect way to express frustration and solidarity during a pandemic. While this habit has since ended, the howling effect may have had a lasting effect on some Coloradans as they were casting their ballots this election.
On Nov. 3, Colorado citizens voted for the reintroduction of gray wolves into their state. Proposition 114, which requires the Colorado government to reintroduce wolves into the Western Rockies by 2024, was the first successful voter-based initiative to reintroduce wolves into any U.S. state. Colorado will join the rest of the Northern Rockies states, as well as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, the Carolinas and Michigan to be one of the few remaining states with wolf populations.
Before European colonization, wolves lived in every U.S. state except Hawaii. Centuries of deforestation and the carrying out of programs aimed at their total elimination pushed wolves out of every region but two slivers of northern Minnesota and Michigan by the 1930s. After being declared an endangered species in 1978, gray wolves slowly began to repopulate the Northern Great Lakes. Wolves immigrating from Canada or introduced through conservation projects expanded the gray wolf population to include the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin.
With an estimated population of 4,400, about two-thirds of the U.S’s wolves now live in these three states. Nearly 700 wolves in 143 packs currently roam the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They have so far remained in this sparsely populated section of the state, yet to resettle the Lower Peninsula. Even so, wolves have been found in the Lower Peninsula in two incidences in the past few decades — the most recent in 2015. With studies indicating that the Upper Peninsula has nearly reached the maximum number of wolves that it can sustain, the likelihood that these rare examples may one day result in the recolonization of the Lower Peninsula is increasing.
If wolves were to reestablish themselves on the Lower Peninsula, researchers guess that they might end up in one of the various state parks that line the tip of the mitten. Already home to red foxes, whitetail deer and black bears, the area contains vast forested territories that the wolves would need to survive. In their absence, much of the nation has experienced an overexpansion of deer populations and the dominance of the invasive coyote as a primary predator. Here, they would once again fulfill their role as the ecosystem’s top predators, keeping both populations in check. Despite these benefits, spending centuries teaching people to hate wolves has made convincing them to welcome wolves into their communities an expectedly daunting task.
Even in Colorado, where Republicans were heavily outvoted by Democrats, Proposition 114 passed by 1.2 percentage points. Proponents of the initiative were surprised by the slim margins, expecting Denver and its liberal suburbs to push it to an overwhelming victory. It reflects people’s widespread suspicions toward an animal many of us are first introduced to as “big” and “bad.” Republican politicians have long played into these misconceived notions in order to persecute the canines. When they were briefly stripped of their endangered species classification, and the federal protection that comes with it, in 2012, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seized the opportunity to drastically reduce his state’s wolf population and there was even an anti-wolf committee in the Dep. of Natural Resources. During the three hunting seasons the state carried out before a federal judge redesignated their endangered status in 2014, more than half of the state’s wolves were killed.
On Oct. 29, the Trump administration once again stripped gray wolves of their Endangered Species Act protections. Aimed at exciting rural voters in the closing days of the election, the move will give the responsibility of managing gray wolves back to the states, allowing the resumption of wolf culls. Experts worry that, without federal protections, the gray wolf will be unable to establish new populations in places like Colorado and California and will continue to straddle the line of endangerment.
Farmers have been supportive of culls, claiming that they will reduce the number of livestock killed by wolves. Even so, the frequency of these attacks is relatively low, with only an average of about 110 depredation claims filed in Minnesota each year, a state with 2,000 wolves, in 2019. There are also a variety of nonlethal means to fend off gray wolves, including everything from electric fences to guard donkeys. Delisting the species ignores these alternatives for a method that encourages cruelty over science that will only erase decades of hard work on the part of conservationists and other organizations to restabilize our environment.
While the howling across Denver may have ceased, these ancient calls will soon once again ring out across the western part of the state. The unprecedented vote by Colorado citizens to reintroduce wolves represents a major step forward in our society’s understanding of these creatures. New policies aimed at harassing and killing these beautiful creatures, however, continue to threaten its remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction. If wolf culls are reinstated, the health of everybody’s ecosystem is irreparably degraded. While the forests in the rural northern parts of the Lower Peninsula seem idyllic and untouched, there is nothing natural about a forest without wolves.
Instead of culling wolves, we should encourage their expansion and refine their management to encourage our coexistence. Until these opinions are popular and the frameworks are in place though, federal protections are this amazing animal’s best chance at maintaining its progress and avoiding unwarranted hysteria. Without federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, gray wolves will once again face the human menace that pushed them from their homeland a century ago.