Will Coloradans free wolves on the state’s public lands?

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Dave Kirby

pair of gray wolves stand on a ridge looking out across an endless alpine expanse of forested valleys that fall from peaks into rivers, searching for a place to live that can provide all that they need — a place, if the experts are right, like Western Colorado. Unfortunately, such a vision is but fantasy in our state. For aside from the rare wolves who end up here by accident — disappearing almost as they appear — Colorado is without a population of wolves.

Powerful pack animals living in groups similar to families or tribes, wolves once coursed across nearly all of North America until hunted to near extinction by the mid-1900s. And although wolf populations still exist in some states, they are absent in Colorado. But that may be about to change.

The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP), a coalition of conservationists, are mobilizing support to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. In the process, they’re spending time educating the public and reaching out to traditional opponents of wolves to explain the lessons learned in the Northern Rockies where wolves have made a comeback while living alongside people in rural areas. Advocates assert hunters and ranchers can coexist with wolves without substantial disruption, and they offer convincing evidence to support their claims.

“Rocky Mountain Wolf Project will give you a way to act,” said Mike Phillips to a full house at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore in December 2017. Phillips is the former project leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project. The event coincided with the release of Nate Blakeslee’s book, American Wolf, and was a joint effort with RMWP and the Defenders of Wildlife to help give Coloradans a powerful voice in reintroducing wolves to their state.

Blakeslee’s book takes as its protagonist a famous Yellowstone wolf known as O-Six and is composed of intimate vignettes drawn from thousands of observational notes about the wolf’s life. In 2012, O-Six was killed by a hunter in Wyoming after wolves were taken off the Endangered Species List (ESL) in that state. O-Six was mourned internationally.

The recent book event blended literature and activism to such a degree that the crowd was howling at the event’s close, beckoning their wild brethren to return. But not everyone is howling with joy over the idea that wolves may return to Colorado.

There is a contingent of opponents to wolf reintroduction headed by the Utah-based lobbying group Big Game Forever (BGF). And at the center of the debate sits the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

In Colorado, BGF is led by its director, Denny Behrens, also President Trump’s Colorado Sportsmen coalition chair. BGF believes wolves deserve no federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and opposes reintroduction.

According to Michael Robinson, BGF has been a leading voice in seeking to destroy the ESA, particularly regarding wolves. Robinson works with RMWP and the Center of Biological Diversity and authored the book Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.

“I don’t hate the wolf,” Behrens says. “It’s an awesome creature but it’s like any other predator. It has to be managed. If not, it’s going to continue doing what it’s doing, and it’s causing havoc in certain states.”

BGF was founded by Don Peay, former owner of Petroleum Environmental Management, Inc. Peay has called public ownership of lands socialism, led the Trump campaign’s Sportsmen Coalition and founded Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (SFW) in 2010. SFW is a Utah conservation group with connections to the oil and gas industry that in 2011 was paid $100,000 by the state of Utah to lobby the federal government to de-list wolves. Because SFW’s tax structure didn’t allow such lobbying, Peay founded BGF, which can apparently accommodate such political activity. Peay did not respond to requests for comment.

Robinson says BGF was the driving force behind a 2011 Congressional budget agreement rider that removed protections and de-listed wolves in Montana, Idaho, north central Utah, eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. That de-listing was the first time Congress stepped in and made a decision on an endangered species that the ESA specified was to be made by biologists within a government agency.

BGF works ostensibly on behalf of the livestock and big game industries. Between 2012-2017, its lobbying in the nation’s capital was funded by $2.1 million coming from Utah taxpayers. BGF’s political activity includes not only working to de-list wolves from the ESA, but also to prevent listing the sage grouse, a species that has gotten in the way of the oil and gas industry of late. 

Consistent with BGF, Behrens believes Trump will help BGF remove wolves from the Endangered Species list in states such as Colorado where they’re still federally protected. And he’s probably right as Trump’s campaign platform states, “Excessive predator populations, wolves and coyotes in particular, have caused once abundant big game herds to decline.”

But there is no evidence in support of this claim and plenty to disprove it. This argument is rhetorically similar to the scientifically debunked claims that have been made by CPW stating black bear and mountain lion predation is damaging mule deer populations in Colorado. As has been previously reported by Boulder Weekly in its Off Target series, loss of habitat due to oil and gas operations and residential sprawl are more likely the primary causes limiting mule deer populations as opposed to predation.

BGF also believes wolves are already establishing themselves in Colorado via naturally occurring recolonization. This is the position CPW also takes. BGF wants wolves controlled like some want public lands controlled: by the states.

Robinson says BGF’s speculation that wolves are here on their own is obviously a tactical effort to reduce the growing public interest in an actual effective means of restoring wolves to Colorado, such as RMWP’s advocating for wolf reintroduction.

Essentially if wolves are reintroduced in Colorado that would mean more wolves for BGF and the taxpayers of Utah to try to “manage” and “control.”

Courtesy colorado Parks and Wildlife
The above photos were captured by a trail cam in Colorado. To date, all known wolves passing through the state like this one have been shot, poisoned or or hit by cars.

And in support of their claim that wolves are recolonizing Colorado without anyone’s help, CPW cites a recent increase in unconfirmed sightings and trail cam photos as evidence. BW obtained the photos in question via an open records request and they do appear to be of a wolf according to Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project lead. But CPW denied BW’s open records request for the location the photos were taken stating they are prohibited from doing so because release would reveal a private landowner’s identity. CPW also didn’t respond to requests for comment on this article and instead referred BW to its website.

In defense of its position not to support wolf reintroduction in Colorado, CPW has previously stated the agency can’t afford to manage wolves and that the presence of wolves in Colorado may be in conflict with the livestock industry and big game management objectives.

“I don’t doubt that CPW is cynically suggesting that wolves are recolonizing based on information that provides no reason to believe there’s any reproduction of wolves in the state of Colorado,” Robinson says. “It seems to me very deliberate to try and sway public opinion away from effective means to ensure that this important animal would return.”

While it’s a known fact wolves have run the gauntlet through Wyoming and Utah into Colorado, across that invisible borderline, all such wolves have been killed by bullets, cars or illegal poisoning. Nevertheless, BGF and CPW both assert wolves are returning to Colorado on their own and need no assistance in doing so.

But because of the evidence above, RMWP and their allies don’t believe that such rare journeys into our state will ever ensure that wolves are successfully re-established.

Wolf advocates cite the ecological phenomenon known as trophic cascade as one justification for reintroducing the predator. The idea is that as wolves return in significant numbers, they will prevent elk and deer from over-browsing riparian areas, particularly willow and aspen stands. By spreading elk and deer out across the landscape, wolves allow willow and aspen to rebound and their roots hold soil, halting erosion.

The resultant taller willows are fit for beavers to build dams, which in turn hold and purify water, thus a naturally occurring hydrological cycle is restored. And when this occurs, songbirds have been known to return in greater abundance and diversity and the ecosystem overall is aided, all because of wolves.

Delia Malone, RMWP member and Sierra Club wildlife team chair, argues wolves cause trophic cascade, saying they have a right to be in Colorado because they are part of the natural community. 

While BGF claims that wolves reduce big game hunting opportunities, evidence from Idaho contradicts these beliefs.

Greg Hill, project coordinator for the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho, cites Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) statistics showing elk hunter harvest numbers have only gone up since wolf reintroduction in the late 1990s.

And according to a 2017 Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) news release, “Idaho big game hunters have been on a roll in recent years with a top-10, all-time deer harvest in 2016, an all-time record whitetail harvest in 2015, and a top-five, all-time elk harvest in 2015.” IDFG statistics also boast a robust population of 786 wolves in 2015. Wolves can also be hunted and trapped in Idaho. 

According to Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife, in the Northern Rockies wolves make elk act like they always have and it benefits everybody, including hunters.

But it’s not just hunting impacts that concern critics of reintroduction. BGF’s Behrens also worries if wolves come back there will be conflicts with livestock and pets. But in many areas where wolves exist, far more livestock are killed by disease and other non-wolf causes than by wolves. Conflicts do occur, however, which is why organizations like Wood River are proactively working to prevent wolf depredation of livestock using nonlethal methods.

According to Hill, Wood River conducts workshops with ranchers and shepherds teaching proper nonlethal coexistence strategies for livestock and wolves and has a book on the subject in the works in both English and Spanish as many shepherds in the Northern and Southern Rockies are Peruvian or Basque.

Hill adds that in their project area, losses of sheep are 90 percent less than in similar areas lacking their efforts, and this success comes without one wolf being lethally removed under their watch.

Hill says between 1990-2015, sheep losses in Idaho dropped by approximately 60 percent, a gradual decline that has occurred since wolf reintroduction. Hill thinks this may be because wolves control coyote populations and since coyotes are the primary predator of sheep, the presence of wolves may actually have reduced sheep loss to predation. Hill adds this number is lower in Idaho than in Colorado where there are no wolves. And, according to USDA statistics, in 2010 total sheep loss from predation in Idaho was 43 percent lower than in Colorado.

Of note to sportsmen and others, wolves may also take a bite out of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD,) a fatal neurological disease affecting deer and elk in many parts of the country including Colorado, where it affects about half of the deer herds and one-third of the elk herds. Because they are coursing predators, honing in on the weak and sick, wolves may be able to see animals that are in the earlier stages of the disease; killing and eating them may cause the decline of CWD prevalence in the wild.

“Wolves are seeing a lot that we don’t see,” says Margaret Wild, chief wildlife veterinarian in the Biological Resources Division for the National Park Service (NPS) and chief author of a study hypothesizing wolves might limit CWD.

Wild says one of the best ways to target deer or elk infected with CWD may not be by using human eyes but with the eyes of a wolf who has evolved over eons to know the most susceptible deer or elk to prey on. “And if you can do that over time then the disease will slowly fade out,” Wild says, which may prove critical because there is no cure or vaccination for CWD.

Wild thinks wolves may already be limiting CWD prevalence in locations where they boast significant numbers, saying that by killing the first one or two infected animals in a location, the disease could be kept from establishing and becoming common enough that researchers can actually detect it. And in this respect Wild says wolves may be acting as good stewards.

Wild adds that CWD isn’t transmissible to wolves and in her opinion wolf digestion of CWD would lead to a reduction in its infectivity and the disease further dilutes when it goes into the environment.

The biologist says that when thinking about reintroduction, Colorado citizens and officials should consider that viable populations of wolves may actually decrease the prevalence of CWD.

Any wolf reintroduction effort in Colorado must be approved by citizen initiative or the state legislature, but wolf advocates believe doing so is worth the effort as re-establishing wolves in Colorado could connect the entire North American wolf population, a long desired outcome among wolf advocates who assert such a connection would have great biological and conservation value for wolves, other species and ecosystems as well.

Phillips says the work in the Northern Rocky Mountains regarding wolf recovery is complete and the Western Slope is better wolf habitat than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountains.

Hill says the wolf is a symbol of freedom synonymous with the freedom of our public lands and believes the two should go hand-in-hand. A 2013 poll found 70 percent of Coloradans favor bringing wolves back to the state so perhaps it’s not too much to say the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado is the democratic thing to do. And considering the ongoing assault on our environment, Colorado needs wolves now more than ever.