wolves

The gray wolf. (Photo courtesy of United States Fish and Wildlife)

Wolves can’t speak for themselves, but humans have no problem saying what they think about a plan to reintroduce them to this state. “Dances Without Wolves,” a fundraiser to oppose the predator’s reintroduction sponsored by agriculture groups and hunters — the Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Wool Grower’s Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Safari Club International, which together operate under the title “Coloradans Protecting Wildlife” — was “an overwhelming success!” read a news release emailed to the Daily Planet earlier this year. More recently, opponents of the lobos’ reintroduction spent $250,000 in advertising “to stop the howl,” as the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (proponents of restoral) fired back in another communique.

Lost in the back and forth between interest groups: What residents of this state may be thinking and wondering about all this. The Planet has heard from them, too.

Fourth-generation cattle rancher Nate Lamers opposed the restoral plan in a letter to this newspaper, pointing out that wolves are already protected in Colorado and (for that matter) have already arrived, in the northwestern section of the state.

Norman Bishop, who worked for 36 years as a forest ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park and was on the NPS team that restored wolves to Yellowstone, wrote to the Planet that he favors restoral. Bishop pointed out that “the half-dozen wolves that recently appeared in our state” have already lost three members and “Reintroduction is totally necessary to get wolves back” to Colorado. What’s more, Bishop wrote, “our professional wildlife managers … have a 3,000-page roadmap from the 1994 Yellowstone and central Idaho environmental impact statement to help them along the way.”

Soon, Centennial State voters will get their turn to weigh in. If Proposition 114 is approved on Nov. 3 — which is what a CSU poll found a majority of voters, including hunters, ranchers and Western Slope residents, to be in favor of — Colorado Parks & Wildlife will be charged with using the best available science to come up with a scheme to restore and manage wolves to western Colorado. As conservationists have pointed out, there is much more wilderness on the Western Slope, in places such as the Flat Tops and the Weminuche, than in all of Yellowstone. Such key restoration sites, by definition “very remote, without roads, and with high populations of deer and elk,” where they “are unlikely to be persecuted by humans, will allow wolves to get a foothold,” wolf recovery adviser Delia Malone, the wildlife chair of the Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club, has said. “Even if the Endangered Species Act goes away, wolves are protected by Colorado’s endangered species act. So wolves have a double layer of protection.”

Though opponents point out that wolves are already “here” — as in, in Colorado — it hardly means they will thrive here. Although “as many as six” individuals were spotted in Moffat County earlier this year, “that does not mean there are a definitive number of wolves on the ground in the state,” Rebecca Farrell, the agency’s public information officer, explained.  “CPW continued to see their presence on game tracks and through tracks into August. Photo evidence shows 4-5 wolves on camera at any one time as recently as June; however, we have also seen as few as 1-2 on camera. It’s important to note that these images are snapshots in time, and no specific conclusions can be drawn from the number of animals in any given photo.” (A wolf identified as M1084, “part of Wyoming’s Snake River Pack,” was ‘pinged’ by radio signal in Jackson County,” Farrell added, “but telemetry flights have been restricted in the area due to wildfires in recent weeks.”)

Over the past few months, this reporter has heard questions from locals about the behavior of wolves, and whether they might (for instance) attack a hiker and their dogs on a trail. Diana Tomback, a professor in the department of integrative biology at CU/Denver who studies wolves’ behavior — and was reached by phone as she headed into the backcountry of Wyoming on one of her four annual forays with students — cited “lessons from Yellowstone.”  “Based on our last update, from 1985 to 2018 or so,” Tomback said, “we have absolutely no incidents to report” involving wolves interacting with campers, “and this includes families with kids.” As for the chance that wolves may find their way onto — for instance — a place such as a ranch outside Ridgway (where a mountain lion killed an alpaca several years ago), Tomback called that highly unlikely. “Wolves have reintroduced themselves to parts of Western Europe and Scandinavia. They just don’t tend to go into urban, developed areas,” Tomback said. “A Science article 15 years ago made the point,” in places where humans live, “we’ve got bears, we’ve got mountain lions, we’ve got coyotes,” but we just don’t get many wolves. “They tend to avoid people. Livestock predation is an extremely rare event: Less than .001 percent of all the livestock in the Northern Rockies has been preyed upon by wolves. Clearly, there are ranchers that are the unfortunate ones.” (Proposition 114 provides for ranchers to be compensated for their losses, and “based on my networking, I’m aware that a private fund is also available for compensation, should there be a need for one,” Tomback said.)

If Proposition 114 passes, Tomback also pointed out, there will be numerous educational seminars and meetings devoted to education to help ranchers and others learn to coexist with wolves, including using large herding dogs to protect their animals (among other techniques). In the meantime, for those who are curious to learn more in advance of voting day, an academic institution devoted to sifting facts from fiction when it comes to living with carnivores, The Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, has been established by Colorado State University, where there is much scientific information about the behavior of wolves and other predators around humans. In recent weeks, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and CSU have been hosting a series of webinars with a variety of experts on “the implications of gray wolf reintroduction.” The events are Thursdays at 5 p.m.; tonight’s talk, which features a Crystal Valley rancher and the Rockies and Plains programs director of Defenders of Wildlife, is entitled Community Perspective and Conflict Over Wolves. The discussion next Thursday is on the value and the cost of wolves, and the final installation of the series, The Experience of Living with Wolves, with Denny Iverson, rancher and logger at Iverson Ranch in Montana and secretary of the Blackfoot Challenge and Kim Skylander of CSU’s Center for Collaborative Conservation, follows on Oct. 22. Learn more about the series and register at tinyurl.com/y4pqqsgb or email mary.guiden@colostate.edu.