If wolves are returning naturally to Colorado, is November’s reintroduction bill still necessary?

If wolves are returning naturally to Colorado, is November’s reintroduction bill still necessary?

Mother Nature is working her magic without any help from us

VicesJanuary 09, 2020 By Will Brendza

On Monday January 6th, it became official and it was all over the news: A wolf reintroduction bill was going on the November ballot in Colorado. The initiative was a controversial one: Relocate grey wolf families from nearby states like Wyoming and Idaho, to re-cultivate Colorado’s wolf population.

Of course, environmentalists, conservationists and ecologists were all for it. Wolves are natives to this region, after all, and the only reason they’re no longer here is because ranchers and trappers hunted them into local extinction. They were once considered a pest and they were eradicated as such.

The last native Colorado wolves were killed around 1940, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

However, the state’s hunters, agriculturalists and ranchers are not on board with reintroduction. These are people who still haven’t forgotten how many animals they lost to these brutal canids; people who are vehemently opposed to the idea of bringing wolves back and who hold a lot of sway with the state government. Organizations like the Colorado Farmer’s Union and the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition have fought tooth and nail against restoration efforts.

But then, only two days after the ballot measure was approved, the CPW threw a monkey-wrench into the discourse. They put out a press release on January 8th announcing that Colorado’s wolves were, actually, already coming back all on their own.

The press release reads: “Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials say an eyewitness report of six large canids traveling together in the far northwest corner of the state last October, in conjunction with last week's discovery of a thoroughly scavenged elk carcass near Irish Canyon - a few miles from the location of the sighting - strongly suggests a pack of gray wolves may now be residing in Colorado.”

 Elk carcass devoured, cleaned to the bone - indicitive of wolf packs, wildlife officials say. Images courtesy of CPW. 

Mother Nature has a funny way of things.

So, without any kind of human intervention, without any vote or tax dollars spent on reintroduction efforts, wolves are naturally coming back into the state.

Currently, wolves occupy a massive swath of area, that stretches from Canada down to the Mexican border with one exception: Colorado. Now, though, it seems that the wolves are following food sources, exploring and expanding into new hunting grounds and taking up residence in some of the best and most uninhabited wolf-real-estate in the country.

Which, for many, has brought into question the necessity of the reintroduction bill.

But first, let’s quickly look at the arguments for and against reintroduction. Because there are some very valid points on both sides of this discussion.

First, those who are for the re-introduction of wolves believe that, most importantly, this initiative would help restore balance to the ecosystem. Wolves are a keystone predator, meaning that they put pressure on the ecosystems they occupy, driving adaptation and in a very counter-intuitive kind of way, making the habitat and its residents stronger and healthier. They often target the weakest deer and elk as prey, leaving the strong and healthy ones to pass on their genes. Lower deer populations result in previously stunted growths of aspen, willows and cottonwood to replenish, attracting flocks of songbirds and families of beaver. It’s what’s known as a “trophic cascade.”

Pro-wolf-reintroductionists also make the argument that wolves would boost the tourism economy of the state, as tourist families would come to go wolf watching. And they say, it would eliminate that “missing domain link” filling in that missing piece of wolf habitat and connecting two geographically isolated populations.

 Wolf prints surrounding the elk carcass, appx. 4.5 inches... not a small wolf. Images courtesy of CPW.  

On the other side, those who are opposed to wolf reintroduction, make the argument, first and foremost, that wolves will massacre the area’s livestock — which is an essential aspect of livelihood for many residents of rural Colorado. Rural residents are the ones who will actually have to deal with the wolves; whereas Coloradoans in the cities and larger municipalities will be largely unaffected, sheltered from the negative consequences of living with wolves.

And truly, Wolves eat a lot of meat; and cattle make much easier targets than elk or deer or moose. It’s what got all the wolves in Colorado shot to death in the first place: they were eating too many cows and the ranchers got fed up.

Then you have hunters, who argue that wolves would have a big impact on big game hunting in this state. Colorado’s hunting industry brings in a staggering $919 million annually. It’s a massive boon to rural economies throughout the state, which is why the CPW seems to take this particular concern so seriously. In 2016 they actually trapped and killed bears and mountain lions that were putting too much pressure on mule deer populations. Human hunters couldn’t compete with their wild counterparts, so the state stepped in to give them a hand (securing the tax dollars that those hunters inevitably bring in). Reintroducing wolves would only make things tougher for hunters.  

There’s also those people out there who worry about wolves attacking humans. Wolves can be terrifying and the idea of being ripped apart alive by a pack of savage wild dogs should terrify everyone. However, over the last 100 years there’s only been four confirmed instances of wolves attacking people in the entire United states (including Alaska). Wolves attacks are very rare — they usually leave humans well alone. (However, they do undoubtedly kill dogs and cats.)

Finally, you have a population of conservationists who, counter-intuitively, are also against reintroduction programs. They argue that, allowing wolves to slowly reintroduce themselves would avoid any shock to the natural ecosystem that simply dumping them throughout the Rockies might have. A slow, gradual and natural reintroduction would be far easier and more preferable for both wildlife and local residents.

Which seems to be exactly what’s happening now. The wolves are back, baby! According to the CPW, there is a pack of maybe six of them, who have made the scrubby, sage scattered hills of north western Colorado their new home. Eyewitnesses, out hunting in the area, confirmed this and even caught two of the six wolves on camera. 

“It is inevitable, based on known wolf behavior, that they would travel here from states where their populations are well-established,” said CPW Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke. “We have no doubt that they are here, and the most recent sighting of what appears to be wolves traveling together in what can be best described as a pack is further evidence of the presence of wolves in Colorado.”

So, should the state still pursue the wolf re-introduction bill, then? Is it necessary? Mother Nature is working her magic and the natural order seems to be restoring itself without any help from us. Which might be  the best-case scenario. We don’t have to argue, debate or even congenially discuss this matter because the wolves have solved the issue for us; we don’t have to have a vote; we don’t have to spend time and money and other valuable resources relocating wolves from places like Wyoming and Idaho, to here.

It will be very interesting to see how this news affects the vote for the reintroduction bill come November. Prior to the CPW’s announcement, the majority of environmentally conscious voters who I spoke with were in favor of it. People were getting excited about bringing the wolves back.  

Now, though, many of those gung-ho conservationists, who were, only days ago, celebrating this reintroduction measure, might now be second guessing the need for it. Wolves are a federally endangered species, and are protected under the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) — no one’s going to be hunting the incoming wolves into extinction (not legally, at least). Once the wolves move in, they’re here to stay and the USFWS will help to manage and sustain their population.

So why not let the wolves move in at their own pace? Why force their homecoming? Human impatience is no excuse for rushing the course of nature.