Update on the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project

On Saturday, June 1, I attended an all-day meeting of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project & Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund in Denver.  This is a report on what I learned, with the addition of relevant information.  It’s long, but good.

The RMW Project is a 501(c)3 organization, while the affiliated RMW Action Fund is a 501(c) 4 organization.

The purpose of the RMWP is to educate Coloradans on the natural history and ecology of the gray wolf and what reintroduction of the species to Colorado would mean for the land and for human residents.

The purpose of the RMWAF is to launch a citizen ballot initiative to mandate that Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPAW) reintroduce the gray wolf to Colorado west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2013.  The language of the initiative has been written and has been officially approved.  To get it on the ballot in 2020, which is the goal, a minimum of 124,800 valid signatures must be gathered within the next six months.  Signature gathering could begin before the end of June and will require the recruitment of trained paid “collectors”.  The firm that will oversee the signature gathering and training of collectors is Landslide Political, a Salt Lake City-based firm.

In order to ensure that the requisite number of valid signatures is gathered, the goal is to gather 200,000 signatures, 140,000 of them using paid collectors and 60,000 of them using trained volunteer collectors.

Experience indicates that up to 60,000 of the signatures might be disqualified for one technical reason or another, which would still leave a 15,200-signature surplus of valid signatures.

$1,000,000 needed.  Paid signatures are expected to cost an average of $7+ each, which means that the Action Fund must raise approximately $1million dollars within the next 6 months.  As a member of both the RMWP and the RMWAF, I will soon ask you to make a contribution to the Action Fund for this purpose.  You may make the contribution directly to the AF; or, since the AF is a 501(c)4 organization, in order to make your contribution tax deductible, you may make it directly to Western Wildlife Conservancy for general purpose, but with a note that you wish it to go to the AF.  It will then be given to the AF.  More on this in coming weeks.

What are the chances of success of the ballot initiative, assuming the requisite number of valid signatures is achieved?  Outstanding!  A professional survey shows that Coloradans of all sampled relevant demographics overwhelmingly favor the idea of reintroduction of the gray wolf to western Colorado!  This includes Republican men and woman, ranchers & farmers, and hunters.  If you average the percentages for all of the demograhics, it exceeds 75%.  That’s right, ¾ of Coloradans favor reintroduction of the gray wolf to Colorado.  Also of note, the state has a new governor – Governor Polis – who supports it.

The survey sampled something like 990 registered voters in Colorado and has a margin of error of = or – 3.3%.  So, you can see that if the initiative gets on the ballot, it stands an excellent chance of succeeding.  For those of us who want the gray wolf to be reintroduced to Colorado, this means it is of the utmost importance that the initiative gets on the ballot.  This means we have to meet the 200,000-signature goal.  And this means that we must raise $1,000,000.

Which species of wolf: Canis lupus irremotus (the wolf of the northern Rockies that was reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho) or Canis lupus baileyi, the smaller gray wolf of the Southwest known as the Mexican gray wolf or lobo?  Mike Phillips, of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, is honcho of this effort.  He is a highly educated wolf biologist who participated in the reintroduction of the red wolf to North Carolina and the gray wolf to YNP.  He says that will be up to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.  He also says that reintroduction of the lobo would produce the greatest conservation success, since there are currently only about 134 lobos in the wild in the U.S. and fewer than three dozen in Mexico (which for various reasons probably cannot support more), all of these lobos being descendants of a single female.  They are still an endangered species and are struggling to make a comeback.  Top wolf scientists have stated that the best chance for the lobo to avoid extinction will require two new populations of wolves north of the Blue Range straddling the central New Mexico-Arizona border: one in the greater Grand Canyon area, including southern Utah, and one in SW Colorado.  On the other hand, according to Phillips, reintroduction of the northern gray wolf would be much more efficient.  Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have plenty to spare, while reintroduced lobos would have to be taken from captive breeding facilities and released directly into the wild having no experience at all as wild wolves.  They would have to learn to hunt and kill on their own.  Thus, Phillips recommends reintroducing Canis lupus irremotus to Colorado.  It’s even possible that members of both species will eventually occupy Colorado.  Utah and Colorado were historical zones of intergradation between the two subspecies and could be again.

What will this mean for Utah?  It would mean that before very long – certainly before 2030, given what we’ve learned from the reintroductions to YNP and central Idaho going on 25 years ago – wolves will again roam Utah.  There is a huge prey base, particularly of elk, in the mountains of Colorado, so the population will explode.  And, of course, the wolves would soon recolonize habitat east of the Continental Divide as well eastern Utah.

The reason northern gray wolves have not as yet recolonized Utah is that they are open to unregulated killing in SW Wyoming and north central Utah (north of I-80 and I-84), where they have been taken off the Endangered Species list).  An unknown number of wolves have come into Utah from the north, but at present there are no known packs.  For that to happen, a breeding age male and female would have to separately run the gauntlet and arrive safely in Utah, then breed.  It might happen, but is not likely to happen.  Similarly for Colorado, which probably stands an even lesser chance of wolf recovery through natural immigration.  Thus, for both Colorado and Utah, the best chance for wolf recolonization is the Colorado citizen ballot initiative.  If it succeeds, but the gray wolf is delisted (taken off of the Endangered Species list – which the Trump administration has proposed) – reintroduced wolves will be protected in Colorado by the state’s own endangered species law, while their fate in Utah is less certain (more on this perhaps another time).  I believe that Utah will be forced by political pressure and science to protect immigrating wolves.

Gray wolf recovery in the Rockies and southward form the Canada-US border to the Mexico-US border will be one of the greatest conservation achievements of all time.  Remember, this is a species that by the 1950s had been entirely eliminated from the 48 states, except for a small remnant population in norther Minnesota.

Also, the ecological benefits will be both tremendous and fascinating to observe.  Learning to live with wolves will require good faith effort but will be a pretty straightforward affair.  There will be some livestock depredation, but not a huge amount.  Further, there are non-lethal mitigation measures that will minimize the incidence of depredation if the state, in cooperation with livestock growers, will but make use of them.  Furthermore, the citizens of Utah can compensate ranchers for losses.  Much better that our taxes go to a compensation fund than to Ryan Benson (Big Game Forever, aka Big Bucks Forever), who at last count has received several million dollars to keep Utah wolf free!

Wild ungulate populations (deer, elk, moose and sheep) will not be destroyed by a healthy wolf population.  Indeed, they will be benefitted, as will the habitat.

Fear not the wolf.  Finally, wolves will be the least of a person’s worries when he or she ventures into wild country.  They don’t hunt us.  There have been only one indisputably confirmed case of wolves killing a person in North America in the U.S. and Canada since wolves were extirpated long ago: Candice Berner, in AK in 2010.  You are more likely to be hurt by the great Pyrenees dogs guarding the domestic sheep flock grazing in the High Uintas Wilderness than you would be by wolves.  Same for lightning, rock falls, tree falls, other people with guns, etc.  You have nothing at all to fear from wild wolves on the landscape.  Instead, just imagine the thrill of hearing one howl at the full moon as it rises over King’s Peak in the Uintas.

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