‘Howl you vote?’ wolf advocates, opponents ask Colorado

Polling has found broad support for wolf reintroduction in Colorado, which some opponents call ‘ballot-box biology’

Tom Lotshaw – September 7, 2020 – https://www.vaildaily.com/news/howl-you-vote-wolf-advocates-opponents-ask-colorado/

Gray wolf reintroduction is on Colorado’s ballot this fall. With it comes widely differing views about one of the most controversial animals in the West, and what its return would mean for the state. 

Advocates like Rob Edward, president of Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which gathered signatures to put reintroduction to a statewide vote, say bringing the gray wolf back to Colorado works on many levels for many people.

If recovered to viable numbers, advocates say, the gray wolf could benefit Colorado’s landscapes and ecosystems — as well as the health of its elk and deer herds, among the nation’s largest, and help manage their impacts on vegetation and streams. 

Voters could also give the endangered gray wolf another important foothold for its recovery, building on reintroductions in the 1990s in Wyoming and Idaho and wolves’ spread back into Montana from Canada and Yellowstone.

But others say wolf reintroduction doesn’t work for them on any level. Wolves would threaten Colorado’s deer, elk and moose populations and world-class hunting opportunities that bring business to outfitters and rural communities, opponents argue, and impose major new hardships and livestock losses for ranchers.

According to Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, 39 counties including Grand, Routt and Garfield have passed resolutions opposing wolf reintroduction. 

“These counties are scared to death what would happen if we introduce the wolf,” said Ted Harvey, a former state representative and director of Stop the Wolf Political Action Committee.

Troubled past, murky future

Once widespread in the United States, wolves were widely persecuted and shot, trapped and poisoned until they virtually disappeared from the lower 48 states. Colorado’s last resident wolves were killed in the 1940s. 

Today, there are recovering gray wolf populations in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes states. The species’ protected status, however, remains a fight. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to end federal endangered species protections for gray wolves and to turn their management over to states — something that it has already done for Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and parts of Washington and Oregon. 

Another question coloring wolf reintroduction: Whether it’s needed for wolves recover in Colorado. Confirmed reports of individual wolves making their way to the state date back to 2004. Of seven confirmed wolves, one was found dead beside Interstate 70, one was mistakenly shot by a coyote hunter, one was presumed to have been poisoned, and one had simply escaped from captivity and was recaptured. 

More recently, in 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed approximately six wolves in Moffat County, and a pup was also reportedly spotted by an off-duty state biologist, according to Colorado Public Radio.

“We think wolves are going to come here, and the proof is showing at a more rapid pace than proponents would indicate,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. The association, which represents about half of the meat producers in Colorado, supported a 2004 state management plan for wolves that migrate into the state, but opposes forced reintroduction, Fankhauser said. “We didn’t slam the door on wolves, we said no to introduction.”

Edward and others supporting the initiative say the limited sightings are not evidence of self-sustaining wolves in Colorado and that reintroduction remains the way to ensure the gray wolf makes a viable recovery in the state. There’s simply too much barrier between Yellowstone and Northern Colorado to “facilitate a sustainable recovery in our children’s lifetime, let alone in our lifetime,” Edward said.

Some opponents call the wolf reintroduction initiative “ballot-box biology.” The argument holds no merit for Edward and other supporters. 

They call it an aspirational vote on whether gray wolves should have a future in Colorado and add that the initiative would do one thing: Task the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (which has opposed wolf reintroduction in the past) to work with the state’s wildlife biologists and public stakeholders to develop a science-based management plan and reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope by Dec. 31, 2023. 

That process, Edward and others say, would determine where wolves are reintroduced and in what numbers, and set population targets. 

The initiative would also direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to help landowners prevent and resolve conflicts between wolves and livestock and fairly compensate ranchers for losses caused by wolves. 

“All this does is break a political logjam,” Edward said of the ballot initiative and past refusals by state and federal agencies to reintroduce gray wolves for their recovery in Colorado. “It’s time to get on with it, but this is the only way to affect that. We’re going to ask the people.”

Wolf habitat

According to the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University, multiple studies have found the state could sustain a viable population of gray wolves with its elk and deer populations and more than 24 million acres of public lands. One 1994 study found Colorado could support more than 1,000 wolves. Another in 2006 predicted it could support at least 400 wolves by 2025, after forecasting population growth and increased road development. 

The Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence formed this year to help minimize landscape conflicts between people and predators. It has developed a series of informational fact-sheets about wolves and management issues ranging from big-game populations to livestock and public safety, because conversations about them are so complicated, contentious and multi-dimensional. 

“They evoke a lot of passion in people on both sides,” said professor Kevin Crooks, the center’s director. 

“Some people view the wolves as a saint that can do no wrong, that are going to dramatically transform the ecosystem. Others feel they are the devil incarnate — that they threaten people and will dramatically change our way of life in Colorado,” Crooks said. “In reality, the science tells us the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Research has found no evidence suggesting that gray wolves would “decimate” Colorado’s big-game populations, Crooks said. Statewide, big-game populations and hunter harvests have not declined in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming, but impacts of wolves can vary at local levels. 

“If wolves were fully restored to Colorado, we would expect the same thing — little impact at the statewide level on the overall numbers of elk and mule deer here in the state. But it is possible, if wolves maintain high enough densities, and if they are acting in concert with other factors, that it might reduce some herds and might impact hunting opportunities in some areas locally,” Crooks said.

A similar scenario would be expected for livestock loss. Statewide in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, research finds a small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole, with wolf depredation affecting less than 1% of annual gross income. But wolves can and do kill livestock and those costs are not borne equally, Crooks said. 

“Many won’t experience any losses, but some will. And for those individual ranchers, when wolves move in and kill, chase or stress livestock, that can result in real economic and emotional impacts.”

Widespread support, and underlying tension

Polling has found broad support for wolf reintroduction in Colorado. Not only among residents of the largest Front Range cities, but also on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains, and among people who identify as ranchers or hunters, said Rebecca Niemiec, a Colorado State professor who studies human dimensions of natural resource management.

But in contentious debates, the gray wolf has grown into a powerful symbol for deeper, unresolved issues and conflicts about conservation values and measures, wildlife and natural resource management, and social equity. “It’s fascinating, you do have this challenge where wolves have become symbolic for so many people on both sides of the issue,” Niemiec said.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), who ranches in Eagle County, attempted to write collaborative legislation earlier this year to both reintroduce wolves to Colorado and work through details about how wolves would be managed and who would pay for the program and livestock losses. The process was put on hold because of coronavirus restrictions.

“The ongoing CPW budget is definitely strapped, and we need to rethink how we fund CPW in Colorado. More and more people are getting outdoors, but less and less people are paying for it,” Donovan said. “These are not arguments for or against (the initiative). They are just realities of what this means if wolves come here on their own or via introduction.”

Wolves are highlighting the tensions and pressures of a changing Colorado, Donovan said. And coupled with regulatory burdens, water, climate change, and the impact of growing suburbs and towns, it’s important for everyone to realize wolves would add another pressure for ranchers in the state, Donovan said. 

“All these things contribute a lot of pressure on agriculture. Throw on a ballot measure about introducing an apex predator, and it’s not hard to understand why people are saying this is the final straw.”

Decision time

In less than two months, Colorado voters will decide where they fit in the wolf debate, and if they want to try again to share the Rocky Mountains with the gray wolf: An animal that was killed off nearly 80 years ago, yet also appears to be finding its way back into the state in limited numbers as it recovers elsewhere.

Researchers said there’s no way to tell if and when the small numbers of wolves “dispersing” into Colorado will amount to a viable, self-sustaining population. Reintroduction would help reduce that uncertainty and improve the odds of a future with the gray wolf in Colorado. 

At least if that’s what voters decide: To welcome back a predator that remains as simultaneously vilified and idolized as ever, and to commit to trying to equitably work through conflicts that will inevitably arise. 

What that future would look like depends on who you ask, said Grant Spickelmier, executive director of the educational International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. “Ranchers say sharing the landscape with wolves includes livestock losses, which is true. Environmental groups say sharing the landscape with wolves creates better functioning ecosystems. This, too, is true.”

Tom Lotshaw can be reached at tlotshaw@vaildaily.com.

WOLVES IN COLORADO? Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University have each prepared fact sheets to help answer questions about wolves and potential management issues in the state:

Wolf deaths, introductions, spawn controversy

By Peter Aleshire Special to The Independent – Jul 31, 2020

Mexican Gray Wolf
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The long, expensive effort to return Mexican Gray Wolves to the wild continues its stutter step – forward and back, forward and back.

This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service introduced 20 wolf pups born in captivity into the dens of wolves roaming wild in Arizona and New Mexico.

On the other hand, the federal government also killed a hard-luck, three-legged wolf for preying on cattle – one of 25 wolves killed by federal hunters since the program started in 1998. Biologists have recaptured another eight wolves and another 22 have died accidentally as a result of capture operations. The federal government this year killed a record five wolves that were deemed a danger to people or cattle.

However, ranchers say the wild wolves kill dozens of calves and cows every year. They say 2020 will likely set a record for livestock losses, with more than 100 deaths already – mostly calves and a few cows.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to solicit public comments on the management plan for some 163 wolves that roamed the White Mountains and western New Mexico in the last full census. Key questions include whether to release more captive-reared wolves into the wild.

The FWS has also issued a reward for information leading to the arrest of someone who killed two Mexican Gray wolves near Pinetop earlier this year. Humans – including cars – remain the leading cause of death among grey wolves in the wild.

The sad fate of the alpha male of the Saffel Pack in Arizona illustrated the toothy dilemmas posed by the management of the once-widespread, now endangered subspecies of the gray wolf.

The Saffel pack alpha male had last year lost his leg in a leghold trap. Game and Fish biologists found the wolf in a trap, anesthetized him and did an emergency surgery to remove his mangled leg. In November, they released him back into the wild.

However, a month later the wolf left his pack – shortly after the death of his daughter from unknown causes. Now alone and crippled, the wolf took to preying on much-easier-to kill livestock.

This prompted federal hunters to put a sniper in a helicopter, track him down by the signal from his radio collar and kill him from the air.

“The wolf father’s horribly unfair fate offers us a peek at the broader tragedy of heavy-handed wolf management,” said Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed appeals to change management policies in the program. “After his injury, he had to hunt alone on three legs, so he turned to livestock. He was too smart to be caught in a trap again, but he couldn’t outrun his radio collar and an aerial sniper.”

On the other hand, the FWS also recently announced banner year for its efforts to place captive-born pups in the dens of wild mothers. The strategy of “cross-fostering” is intended to provide as much genetic diversity as possible. All of the 163 wolves in the wild and an even larger number of wolves in captivity are descended from seven Mexican Gray Wolves captured in the wild decades ago.

Ironically enough, federally supported predator control programs between 1915 and 1925 exterminated most of the Mexican Gray Wolves in the wild. The 1976 passage of the Endangered Species act shifted the priority to save the last remaining wolves.

The federal government bred the surviving wolves in captive breeding facilities, including the Phoenix Zoo.

The release of adult wolves in the wild proved controversial. The survival rate was relatively low and the captive-reared wolves weren’t as likely to avoid humans and more likely to prey on cattle. The federal government struggled for years to establish relatively stable wolf packs able to reproduce in the wild – but soon faced the problem of a genetic bottleneck.

Captive-born Mexican Gray Wolf pups are mixed together with wild-born pups before being placed in a wild den in Arizona.
Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team

The cross-fostering program offered a way to boost the population while injecting more genetic diversity. Biologists found that the wild mothers would accept new pups – providing they were the same age as her own pups and smelled the same. Biologists found they had a heartening success rate if they precisely matched the age of the captive-reared pups – and took the precaution of smearing the interlopers with feces and urine from their new foster siblings. The wolf parents almost always switched dens after the disturbance, but generally raised the new pups as their own.

Of the 90 pups born and released, 52 survived their first year. That sounds bad – but it’s actually better than the 50 percent survival rate of wild-born pups. So far, none of the mothers have actually rejected the foster pups.

However, the biologists also removed two of the wild pups from their den and shifted them back to the dens of captive wolves, part of the ongoing effort to ensure genetic diversity. Unexpectedly, the captive wolf pack killed the two pups as well as two of their own pups, according to documents released by the FWS.

This year, federal biologists placed 20 pups in wild dens, including 12 in Arizona and eight in New Mexico. They had to operate in the midst of the pandemic – which means helicopters delivered the foster pups without the pilots ever getting out of the aircraft.

The FWS still faces a legal challenge to its 2017 overhaul of the wolf recovery plan. Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and others filed appeals, saying the FWS had ignored the recommendations of its consulting biologists.

Environmental groups say the federal government has proved far too willing to kill or remove “problem wolves” that prey on livestock or don’t show sufficient fear of humans. Since the start of the reintroduction effort, project managers have killed 25 wolves and returned another eight to captivity.

The environmental groups hope to force an expansion of the reintroduction area and change its management techniques, as originally recommended by federal biologists. Ranchers in the region fiercely oppose the recommendation, saying the federal government doesn’t adequately compensate them for livestock losses to the wolves.

The current plan stresses the cross-fostering approach, with little or no release of adult, captive-reared wolves into the wild. Federal biologists say the newly released wolves are less likely to prey on livestock if taught hunting skills and aversion to humans by their wild-born parents.

However, some environmental groups say that approach is too slow and expensive – especially when the federal hunters continue to remove so many wolves from the wild. They want to return to the release of established, captive-reared family groups, since those family bonds remain essential to the success of wolf packs.

Further legal challenges loom.

“The clock is ticking on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s court-ordered review of its wolf-management rule,” said Robinson. “If the agency reauthorizes anything like the current heartless mismanagement, we’ll see them in court again. Mexican wolves would recover if the Service would just release them as families into the wild and then let them live with no persecution.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com