Whether a wolf evokes terror, admiration or curiosity, advocates for the animal are focusing on a single question: Can humans and wolves co-exist in Colorado?
High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project hosted a panel discussion this past Friday that revisited the controversial conversation of wolves in the Western United States.
However, this time around, wolf advocates are taking the question to the ballot rather than federal and state wildlife managers — with hopes of Colorado voters welcoming the animal.
“Colorado is the gap,” said ecologist Delia Malone of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. “We not only need wolves ecologically, but wolves need Colorado to restore connectivity between the population in the Northern Rockies and the populations in New Mexico and Arizona.”
Few issues are as controversial as Canis Lupus, or the gray wolf, in North America. Often hated by hunters who lament sharing the landscape’s prey with another worthy predator and ranchers who fear losing livestock, the wolf has remained in the line of fire for decades as debate over the animal’s presence continues to create a cultural divide.
The ballot proposal submitted last week — known as Initiative 79 — asks voters to approve a law requiring the Colorado Wildlife Commission to craft a plan to re-introduce gray wolves on public lands west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023. The question would be put to voters in the November 2020 election.
“I can absolutely say without doubt that Colorado will be a healthier, more sustainable, more resilient place with wolves,” said Malone.
However, not all in attendance for last week’s HCCA event favor wolves on Colorado’s landscapes.
Fourth generation Coloradan, rancher and outfitter Steven Guerrieri questioned the impacts of re-introducing the apex predator in light of population growth and increasing use on public lands. He also voiced concern for livestock and elk numbers for hunters in coming years.
However, Malone pointed to recent figures from Colorado Parks and Wildlife which show 23 of the 43 total game management units in Colorado are over their population objective, leading wolf advocates to believe the canine could actually help public lands.
States such as Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, all of which have wolves, have not seen a decrease in elk populations after wolf reintroduction, Malone added.
Still, Guerrieri sees wolves as one more factor challenging the well-being of wildlife already impacted by Colorado’s growing population coupled with increasing recreation on public lands.
“There’s a big push to build as many trails as we can across every piece of landscape,” said Guerrieri, noting the effect such fragmentation has on wildlife.
Debate rages on
Wolves have long served as a source of tension in the American West. While the last native wolves in Colorado were killed in the 1940s, numerous efforts have been made to reintroduce the species in the West. That included the release of 41 gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
“Wolf recovery has brought a breath of fresh air to the Yellowstone ecosystem,” said Malone. “We didn't really know what happened until we saw them restored.”
The re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park completely altered the ecosystem — but not as one may expect. Researchers have noted that formerly stationary elk herds began moving more frequently, allowing for growth of willows, which helped beavers. In turn, the number of ponds grew, providing habitat for fish. Songbirds returned, and insects were abundant. Such changes to the ecosystem are referred to as a “trophic cascade.”
However, re-introduction didn't come without complications. For one, wolves do not share the same recognition of boundaries as humans — and soon after being released, the canines traveled outside park boundaries, angering the neighboring ranching communities.
Guerrieri also pointed out that Colorado doesn't appear to see the same level of degradation to the environment, particularly in the Gunnison Valley, from elk or other species as compared to Yellowstone.
“I would agree with you that we don't see decimation by elk everywhere in Colorado. There are some places in very good shape,” said panelist John C. Emerick of the Colorado School of Mines.
‘We’re the biggest problem’
Emerick noted his own observations of the changing ecosystem after the arrival of wolves in places such as Yellowstone National Park — serving to stabilize what was once a degraded environment, due in large part to an “overuse of resources” by elk.
Beavers offer a prime example, added Emerick. In the 1940s, there were approximately 300 beaver families located in Rocky Mountain National Park. Today, there are maybe a half dozen.
Gunnison resident and wolf advocate Kevin Chedd expressed support for reintroduction. Chedd believes there is enough open space on public lands west of the Continental Divide for wolves and humans to co-exist in peace.
“The Western Slope of Colorado still has enough area to reintroduce the wolf,” said Chedd.
Still, there is the looming question of whether the species would thrive in a state rife with a combination of agriculture, sportsmen and women, and other wildlife with which to compete.
“Our ecosystem is unbalanced, and it’s not just because we don’t have apex predators,” added Guerrieri. “We’re the biggest problem.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)