My home state of Colorado is quickly becoming a hotbed of arguments over the subject of wolves even though we don’t even have an established population yet. Two decades after the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness, the controversy surrounding the management of this predator continues without any signs of letting up. The battle rages wherever wolves are found in the Lower 48, especially where they are dispersing into new areas where wolves haven’t been seen for many years. And now a new version of this old battle over wolves has made its way to Colorado.
Before we consider what’s happening in Colorado, let’s take a look at what’s going on with wolves in other parts of the country.
- Red Wolves– Red wolves are native to portions of the eastern and southeastern United States. They came very close to becoming extinct in the 1960’s and were designated an endangered species after the Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973. Decades of federal protections and captive breeding saved the species from extinction. Currently, around 50 wild red wolves are found in North Carolina. Because 200 red wolves live in captivity, wild red wolves are considered a nonessential experimental population with protected status. The reintroduction of red wolves here has led to a convoluted showdown between environmentalists, private landowners, the State of North Carolina, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Red wolves are expanding their range and hybridizing with coyotes which introduces the potential for more conflicts with people. However, we’re a long ways from hunting becoming a necessary red wolf management tool.
- Mexican Gray Wolves- Mexican gray wolves were once common in the American Southwest but by the 1970’s they were considered extirpated in the United States and a recovery plan was implemented shortly thereafter. In 1998 reintroductions of wolves trapped in Mexico began in the Blue Range area of New Mexico and Arizona. Since then, their numbers have grown slowly but steadily. Current estimates put the population close to 150 wolves but recovery goals have not yet been met. Human/wolf conflicts such as livestock predation in the area are not yet significant nor has there been any severe impacts on elk or deer numbers. They remain federally protected and hunting is not currently a necessary management tool for Mexican Gray Wolves.
- Western Great Lakes Gray Wolves– The northern reaches of the western Great Lakes region of the United States is the only portion of the country where gray wolves were never completely extirpated. For decades, they hung on here in low numbers. In 1974, all gray wolves in the United States were listed as a single Endangered Species; management of separate regional populations would come later. Since becoming federally protected, gray wolf numbers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan have rebounded to nearly 4,000 animals. By all accounts, there are plenty of wolves here. Livestock predation is increasing and deer and moose numbers are being impacted significantly in some areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Great Lakes population fully recovered as far back as 2004, but the legal protection status of wolves here have vacillated back and forth for over a decade. Just in the past few years, their legal status has been changed from a protected species to a huntable game animal managed by state agencies, back to being federally protected. Animal rights groups have used minor technicalities to battle the delisting process in the courts. For now, the states do not have the right to use regulated hunting as a tool for managing wolves in the upper Midwest, despite overwhelming evidence showing that gray wolves can be managed successfully as a game animal in the northern Great Lakes.
- Northern Rockies Gray Wolves- No other wolf management project has received more national attention than the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. For over twenty years, environmentalists have lauded it as a conservation success story. Meanwhile, many ranchers and hunters are harshly critical of livestock and elk predation. Northern Rockies gray wolf populations that grew out of initial reintroductions into Yellowstone and Idaho now sit somewhere between 1500 and 2000 individual animals in nearly 300 separate packs. Their population and range expanded rapidly in the years following reintroductions and recovery goals were easily exceeded. But like the western Great Lakes wolves, the status of the Northern Rockies wolves was locked up in court for many years. Finally, management of gray wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming is now in the hands of those states. Hunting is now an important and necessary part of successfully managing these wolves.
- Outliers– Because Northern Rockies gray wolves have expanded well beyond the Yellowstone region and Idaho where they were originally re-introduced, other states are now faced with emerging populations of wolves. Breeding packs made up of descendants of reintroduced wolves have been documented in Oregon, Washington, and California. Their presence shows outliers that break away from packs in the recovery area will travel significant distances to find new areas with appropriate habitat. Environmentalists pushing for more reintroductions should take note of these naturally emerging populations which are a growing concern for rural livestock owners, hunters, and wildlife managers. Wolves that travel naturally into states outside the recovery area in the northern Rockies remain federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. Wolf hunting in these states is not legal at this time but it may become a necessary management tool in the future. Elsewhere, individual wolves are periodically wandering into Nevada, Utah, North and South Dakota, and Colorado.
And in Colorado, there is a new wolf management storm brewing. The state currently lacks an established population of wolves but has plenty of good habitat and a large ungulate prey base, which, some environmentalist groups say, makes it an ideal location for a reintroduction. In the past few months, there’s been a renewed and vigorous push from these groups advocating for the reintroduction of wolves in the state of Colorado. But is reintroduction a good management decision, and is it even necessary?
Those who think so are making an organized effort to gather support for reintroductions. Their presentations tend to target college campuses, urban audiences, and second-home owners in mountain resort towns. These people are the least likely to be affected by wolf reintroductions but the most likely to support them. It’s an intentional and effective tactic to gather support from people whose only understanding of wolves is based on sympathetic nature documentaries that are often biased and rarely tell the whole story. These groups commonly use emotionally charged, scientifically vague arguments that target places like Rocky Mountain National Park for reintroduction. Here, they say, “There are too many elk and they’re starving to death because there are no wolves to control their numbers.” Reintroduce wolves into the park, their argument goes, and nature will quickly return to a natural balance that benefits the entire ecosystem. This “top-down trophic cascade” theory sounds good and looks great on television but it is also one that is being challenged by some ecologists.
But even if there are too many elk inside Rocky Mountain National Park, hunters have been successfully managing Colorado elk populations for decades outside. And keep in mind, Rocky Mountain National Park is one-tenth the size of Yellowstone. When wolves were reintroduced there, the predators increased their range and numbers at unforeseen rates. The consequences of such rapid expansion resulted in costly management problems that would likely be repeated in Colorado. The people pushing for wolf reintroductions may truly care for nature and wildlife, but in many ways they don’t have any skin in a game that could have huge impacts on ranchers, hunters, local wildlife populations, and our state fish and game agency’s ability to manage wildlife in the best interest of everyone. Therefore, our state fish and game agency should be making the complicated management decisions that involve wolf reintroductions.
In response to reintroduction efforts, anti-wolf activists are fighting back. And pro-wolf advocacy groups aren’t the only ones guilty of using emotional arguments to plead their case. Anti-wolf activists also use hyperbole instead of science to argue against wolf reintroductions and naturally spreading wolf populations. You’ll often hear wolves characterized by these folks as vicious, cold-blooded killers that are solely responsible for widespread, precipitous reductions in elk and deer numbers. They’re likely to tacitly or even brazenly approve of the most mythical and certainly unethical form of wolf control known as the three S’s, or “Shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
To be fair, wolves have certainly had major impacts on some elk and moose herds in the northern Rockies. But it’s likely wolves are only one of many factors, including habitat loss, that are contributing to falling elk numbers in some areas. In other areas where wolves and elk co-exist, elk numbers haven’t taken a nosedive. These elk have adjusted to the presence of wolves by changing their behavior, which in turn makes them more difficult for hunters to find. Many of these hunters then assume wolves have wiped out the elk. And hunters that think big game animals and wolves can’t coexist should take a careful look at the state of Alaska. Here wolves are managed through hunting and trapping. Alaskan wolves exist in virtually all of their historic range alongside sustainable, huntable populations of caribou, moose, and other big game animals.
What about livestock predation? It’s often said wolves are innately cruel predators who target domestic animals just for the fun of surplus killing. But imagine a wild wolf that’s used to working its ass off, often unsuccessfully for days on end, to chase down a single elk. Then imagine that same wolf running into a group of ten domestic sheep that don’t exhibit the instinct to flee or defend themselves, even after they’ve seen one of their buddies get eaten alive. Yes, it’s a tough hit for the sheep rancher and they deserve compensation for their losses but it’s an anthropomorphic misfire to place human motivations into the mind of a wild predator that encounters that situation. It’s likely the wolf is simply doing what it’s instinctually programmed to do. Using the human concepts of vicious, savage, cruel, or fun in order to rationalize a wolf’s (or any other predator’s) actions is problematic at best. It might be tough for a rancher not to hate the wolf that kills livestock and it’s understandable for a hunter to curse the wolf who runs off the elk he’s stalking, but consider the wolf’s point of view.
I try hard to understand both sides of the human debate along with the side of the wolf who is caught in the middle, because wolves and the surrounding arguments over their presence are headed my way. I live in northwestern Colorado about sixty miles from the Wyoming state line. I’m pretty much spitting distance for a traveling pack of wolves coming from Wyoming. Nearby mountain ranges straddle the border between the two states, providing ideal travel corridors for wolves. So I’ll admit that for now, it’s nice to not have to compete with wolves that are hunting the same elk I’m hunting. On the other hand, I have no ill-will towards wolves. When I’m in a place where they live, I desperately hope I’ll see or even hear one.
Someday, I may see wolves here in Colorado. Although considered extirpated here seventy years ago, it’s been confirmed that a handful of wolves have wandered south into northern Colorado and unconfirmed sightings are on the rise. So far, no established packs have been discovered. Even so, Colorado Parks and Wildlife knew wolves were knocking on the door over a decade ago. A task force was formed which developed Colorado’s 2005 Wolf Management Plan. Their recommendations were based on a host of management and conservation issues in order to “…understand (and monitor) wolf populations, livestock depredation, wild ungulate populations, and human attitudes.” Ultimately, the state’s plan advised against any reintroduction of gray wolves, including Mexican gray wolves. But it also acknowledged that it is likely, even inevitable, that an emergent population of wolves will become established in Colorado. In response, Colorado’s policy is take a “live and let live” approach towards wolves that aren’t causing trouble. In the case of wolves that do cause problems such as domestic livestock predation, managers would have the ability to lethally remove those wolves under the proposed management plan.
Image Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife
No matter which side of the debate you support, the management of wolves as game animals by state game agencies is a working solution for everyone-including wolves. Sustainable numbers of wolves can be maintained while still allowing for active control to minimize conflicts with livestock producers and hunters. In Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, where wolves have exceeded recovery goals, they are managed as game animals. The same policy should be implemented with recovered populations in the upper Midwest. We agree with The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s wolf position which states, “… individual states should manage wolves as they do every other species—elk, deer, bears, antelope, lions, etc…RMEF staunchly supports wolf management in the form of hunting and trapping, especially in undermanaged predator populations that have a more significant impact on elk and other wildlife. Biologists agree there is no science to refute the viability of managing wolves as with other species.” And hopefully, the descendants of those traveling outliers will eventually be managed in this manner.
The wolf debate is one we’ll continue to have for many years. Steve and his guests have talked about wolves a lot on the MeatEater Podcast and the subject never fails to get people riled up. But both Colorado’s management plan and RMEF’s position take a smart, reasonable approach to a very complicated and difficult situation. If wolves are to inhabit Colorado, then let it happen naturally at a slow, manageable pace. Wolf reintroductions aren’t necessary here. Just take a look at Oregon and Washington, or even California, where wolves have come back without reintroductions. If and when wolves do re-establish themselves here in Colorado, we’ll all need to learn to live with them. And by all, I mean nature lovers, environmentalists, ranchers, and hunters alike. And as wolf numbers grow, our state fish and game agency should be given the chance to manage them accordingly.
Brody Henderson is a writer, hunter, fly fishing guide, MeatEater’s Community Manager and Content Contributor