Should Wolves be Reintroduced to Colorado?

Should Wolves be Reintroduced to Colorado?

My home state of Colorado is ground zero for the latest battle over wolves. A proposal to reintroduce wolves here has garnered enough signatures to make the ballot this fall. Voters will be asked to approve a measure to bring wolves back to the state. Now there’s a wildlife management storm brewing that has divided the state into passionate but predictable factions. But first, a little history lesson.

Will History Repeat Itself?
Two decades have passed since the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness. There are no signs the controversy surrounding the management of this predator is letting up. It’s the same story wherever wolves are found in the Lower 48, from a handful of red wolves in the Southeast, to growing numbers of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest, to the Upper Midwest where, by all accounts, the gray wolf population greatly exceeds recovery goals set forth by the Endangered Species Act, yet remains federally protected.

In just 20 years, gray wolves in the Rockies have expanded well beyond the three-state region where they were originally reintroduced. Emerging populations made up of descendants of those reintroductions have been documented in Oregon, Washington, and California. They also periodically wander into Nevada, Utah, and the Dakotas. Several wolves have been verified in Colorado over the past decade. Their presence shows that individuals break away from packs in the recovery area, traveling hundreds of miles to find territory in areas with appropriate habitat.

Environmentalists are pushing for wolf reintroductions in Colorado. I believe they should take note of these naturally emerging populations, which are a growing concern for rural livestock owners, hunters, and wildlife managers.  Wolf experts agree that gray wolves will inevitably establish a breeding population here.

Diane Boyd, a large carnivore specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, told The Coloradoan, “Wolves will disperse just about anywhere they can avoid being shot. Natural recolonization is already happening in Colorado.”

In fact, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is currently investigating evidence of multiple wolves feeding on an elk carcass in the northwestern corner of the state where hunters recorded video of two wolves earlier in the fall. CPW Public Information Officer Mike Porras told the Craig Daily Press, “The tracks are consistent with wolves. In addition, the condition of the carcass is consistent with known wolf predation.”

Porras also said CPW is confident a pack of at least six wolves is active in the area. While it hasn’t yet been officially confirmed that Colorado already has an established population of wolves, the writing on the wall is being ignored by pro-wolf advocates. Because the state has plenty of good habitat and a large ungulate prey base, these groups say Colorado is an ideal location for a reintroduction. In the past couple years, there’s been a vigorous push from these groups to bring wolves back. But is reintroduction a good management decision, and is it even necessary?

Those in favor of reintroductions are making an organized effort to gather support. 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. These groups commonly use emotionally charged, scientifically vague arguments that target places like Rocky Mountain National Park for reintroduction.

If we reintroduce wolves into the park to control an overabundance of elk, their argument goes, the landscape will quickly return to a harmonic, natural balance that benefits the entire ecosystem. This “top-down” trophic cascade theory is an easy sell for wolf advocates promoting a kumbaya view of ecology to people who are completely detached from nature. It doesn’t hurt that it looks great on television, but some ecologists don’t believe it’s that simple or accurate.

However, even if there are too many elk inside Rocky Mountain National Park, hunters have been successfully managing elk populations in the rest of the state for decades.  Also bear in mind that Rocky Mountain National Park is one-tenth the size of Yellowstone. When wolves were reintroduced there, the predators increased their range and numbers at drastic rates, resulting in costly management challenges that would likely be repeated in Rocky Mountain National Park and wherever wolves ultimately end up. Other proposed reintroductions target areas include the San Juan Mountains, the White River National Forest, and the Grand Mesa, all of which harbor large elk herds and support sheep and cattle ranching.

It’s worth noting that gray wolves are managed in Colorado by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service due to their protected status under the Endangered Species Act. Ironically, this may work against Colorado’s ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves in the state. Even if voters approve the measure in this year’s elections, under the current administration, it is unlikely the Department of the Interior will approve wolf reintroductions in Colorado.

I have no doubt that the people pushing for wolf reintroductions truly care for nature and wildlife, but in many ways, they don’t have any skin in the game. This could have negative impacts on ranchers, local wildlife populations, hunters, and our state agency’s ability to manage wildlife. And, keep in mind, the cost for managing these wolves would fall squarely on the shoulders of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which is funded largely through the sale of hunting licenses. So the question is, should hunters be forced to bear the brunt of the expenses associated with reintroductions?

In response to reintroduction efforts in Colorado, 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. Detractors 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 predators that kill for fun. Wolves, they say, are solely responsible for widespread, precipitous reductions in elk and deer numbers. They’re also likely to tacitly or even brazenly approve of the most unethical form of wolf control, known as “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

To be fair, wolves do kill and harass livestock at significant cost and hardship to ranchers. They are also responsible for major declines in some elk and moose herds in the northern Rockies, though there are areas where the two species co-exist and elk numbers haven’t bottomed out.

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 who think big game animals and wolves can’t coexist should take a careful look at the state of Alaska. There, wolves are managed through aggressive hunting and trapping and exist in virtually all of their historic range alongside sustainable, huntable populations of caribou, moose, and blacktail deer.

Still, it would be foolish and irresponsible to suggest reintroducing wolves in Colorado would not have long-term impacts on the state’s elk population, which is far and away the largest in the country. No one can say with any amount of certainty how significant the impact of establishing a population goal of 250 wolves might be for Colorado’s wildlife, its ranching community, or to the massive influx of money elk hunting provides the state. There’s also no guarantee that, despite the best efforts of wildlife managers, a new population of wolves in Colorado won’t balloon above objective numbers as they did in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

The Future
I try hard to understand both sides of the human debate, along with the side of the wolf that is caught in the middle, because wolves and the surrounding arguments over their presence are headed my way. I live in northwestern Colorado, about 60 miles from the Wyoming state line. Nearby mountain ranges straddle the border between the two states, providing ideal travel corridors for wolves. I’ll admit that for now, it’s nice to not have to compete with wolves hunting the same elk I’m hunting. On the other hand, I have no ill-will towards wolves as a species. When I’m in a place where they live, I desperately hope I’ll see or even hear one.

Someday, maybe sooner than some people think possible, I might see one here in Colorado. Although considered extirpated 70 years ago, a handful of wolves have been witnessed wandering into northern Colorado for years. This past summer, a young collared male wolf was photographed just a few miles from where I killed a Shiras moose a couple years back. He was running with another wolf, possibly a mate. And now evidence verified by experts proves a bonafide pack of wolves has set up shop in far northwestern Colorado. It’s clear the same thing that’s happening in Washington, Oregon, and California is taking place in Colorado.

It’s not exactly surprising. CPW 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 reintroductions. Since then, the agency has repeatedly reiterated that position.

CPW has also acknowledged as a foregone conclusion that an emergent population of wolves will become established in Colorado without any further help from humans. In response, the agency’s policy is take a “live and let live” approach towards wolves that aren’t causing trouble. In the case of wolves that engage in domestic livestock predation, managers have the ability to lethally remove those wolves under the proposed management plan.

The debate over wolves is heated and messy, but the wise choice is to toss out the extreme arguments on both sides and lean on the opinion of wildlife management experts. No matter which side of the debate you support, the eventual management of wolves as game animals by Colorado is a working solution for everyone—including wolves. In Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, where wolves have exceeded recovery goals, they are managed as game animals while still allowing for active control to minimize conflicts with livestock producers and hunters.

I agree with The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s wolf position: “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 under-managed 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.”

At MeatEater, we don’t typically support ballot box biology policies that are engineered through misguided voter referendums over hard science. The history of ballot box biology isn’t one that favors the hunters that foot the bill for wildlife management.

If wolves are to inhabit Colorado, then let it happen naturally at a slow, manageable pace. Wolf reintroductions simply aren’t necessary here. Just take a look at Oregon and Washington, or even California, where wolves have come back without reintroductions. When wolves do re-establish themselves here, we’ll all need to learn to live with them. And as Colorado’s wolf numbers grow, our state should be given the chance to make science-based decisions in order to manage them accordingly.

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