‘My, what big teeth you have …’
By Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer
No more crying wolf in Colorado. Not since the Division of Wildlife
announced Sept. 10, “It is likely gray wolves, particularly single, young
adults, may wander from gray wolf populations either north or south of
Colorado into our state.”
Wolfless since World War II by way of government-sponsored extermination,
Colorado might as well have offered this instead – “Posted: Pandora has
reopened her box, and the consummate Old West versus New West debate is
likely to wander into our state.”
The focus of infernal controversy in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to the
north, and New Mexico and Arizona to the south, the wolf is preceded in
Colorado by his mythic, marauding reputation. And wolf or no wolf in the
state – there have been no confirmed sightings to date though anecdotal
reports exist – the wolf issue is upon us.
During the Division of Wildlife’s (DOW) presentation of the “Guidelines
for Response to Gray Wolf Reports in Colorado” at the Sept. 10 Colorado
Wildlife Commission meeting in Lamar, Director Russell George said the
agency will soon pursue a long-term wolf management plan.
“You can continue to wait and watch, which is what’s been happening, but I
think while we wait and watch, we should be talking about it,” said
George, a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives from
And while the tenor of the plan remains unclear – “We’ll embark on this
with no presumption of any kind about a conclusion afterward,” George said
- it will serve as Colorado’s first step toward addressing a species it
banished some 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, next door in Utah, the Legislature passed a resolution in
January calling for a bipartisan group to write a state wolf management
plan. Unlike in Colorado, Utah’s Division of Wildlife will not be directly
involved in drafting the plan.
The challenge for both Colorado and Utah is that there is no federal
mandate to reintroduce wolves in either state, nor is there likely to be
one. In contrast, wolf populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are
federally supervised under the Endangered Species Act.
By virtue of geography and biology, however, the wolf issue is being
forced on Colorado and Utah by the wide-ranging wolves themselves.
Ed Bangs, the northwestern wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, described the Colorado situation this way: “My bottom
line – that’s not my problem. … The issue of wolves in Colorado is going
to have to be solved by Colorado people.”
The DOW will gather public comment and research legal policy, and,
spearheaded by DOW species-conservation staffers, publish a plan in the
next “year or so,” according to George.
“Your plan will look differently if you already have wolves in your state
than if you don’t, right? We’re not talking about introduction and what to
do when we introduce – we’re not there yet,” George said.
“Our [plan] will be what to do when they come, if they do, and what to do
in the meantime. We have more time.”
The biological clock, though, is ticking.
Colorado caught in the middle
The 66 wolves reintroduced to the wilds of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana from
southwestern Canada in 1995-96, coupled with the 19 or so that recolonized
in northwest Montana on their own, have mushroomed into an estimated 700
to 800 wolves in an area centered around the greater Yellowstone National
Meanwhile, 34 Mexican gray wolves were released on the New Mexico-Arizona
border in 1998, and at least 22 remain.
Colorado and Utah are uniquely positioned in between these two
populations, but their days as de facto buffer zones appear numbered.
Last November, a male canis lupus of Yellowstone origin was ensnared in a
coyote trap near Ogden, Utah, winning distinction as Utah’s first wild
wolf in a half-century (though not the last one since then) before being
whisked back to Yellowstone and released. And confirmed wolf attacks on
livestock near Rock Springs, Wyo., puts wolves less than 50 miles north of
the Colorado border.
To the south, a southern Colorado rancher told the Associated Press this
month that Mexican gray wolves have crossed over. “We already have wolves
near Chama in New Mexico and in Antonito on our side of the line. People
have seen them, but nothing has been done about it,” said Olive Valdez.
Curiously, Colorado still has a $2 wolf bounty on its books, and the DOW
and State Legislature formally oppose reintroduction of the wolf or
grizzly bear. But the wolf and grizzly are listed on the state’s
endangered species list. And for the time being, wolves remain protected
under the federal Endangered Species Act and are closely monitored by the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
That said, in April 2003, the USFWS downgraded the gray wolf in the
northern Rockies from “endangered” to “threatened.” But in the southern
Rockies, a so-called “distinct population segment,” the wolf remains
“endangered” and fully protected by Congress. The dividing line between
the populations, running through Colorado and Utah, is Interstate 70.
Adding further complexity to the issue, the USFWS has initiated a full
delisting of wolves from the endangered list – but only in the northern
Rockies. In order for the agency to delist, it must approve recently
submitted wolf management plans from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and then
transfer wolf stewardship to the states.
Montana completed its plan Sept. 12, and all three state plans are now in
the hands of a 12-member scientific review panel. The Endangered Species
Act requires that state management plans ensure the long-term survival of
the species. The USFWS has suggested that a minimum of 30 packs in the
three-state area would constitute a viable population.
But, like any law, the Endangered Species Act is subject to challenge and
interpretation. At the earliest, according to the USFWS’s Bangs, the
northern Rockies’ wolf population could be delisted in late 2004.
“There’s no way it’ll go forward smoothly,” said Bangs, who has been based
in Helena, Mont., for 15 years, after more than a decade of wolf research
and management in Alaska. “And that’s about the only thing I can guarantee
- we’ve been in litigation since the reintroduction from groups on both
sides of the issue, and it’s just the nature of wolves. They seem to make
people nutty. It’s going to be really tough, really expensive, but we’re
going through the steps and if we move forward, we may get to proposing
“Wolves are a piece of cake to manage biologically,” Bangs continued, “but
from a people standpoint, man, wolves make people crazy.”
A host of wolf advocacy groups will be watching the process closely,
reading and rereading Section 4-F of the Endangered Species Act on
“What is recovery?” asked Mike Phillips, one of the two biologists who
reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. “You’re hard-pressed to find
an answer, but it’s of central importance.
“Is there recovery up in the northern Rockies? Yes. I fully support
delisting wolves there. … Everything I know about the Endangered Species
Act, everything I know scientifically, tells me it is appropriate. After
that, I grow confused,” sighed Phillips, who is now the executive director
of the Turner Endangered Species Fund of Bozeman, Mont.
The rub, Phillips said, is whether a “recovered” population in three
states of the northern Rockies constitutes a full recovery in the entire
northwest, as the USFWS is suggesting.
“I find it surprising that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded
that their success applies not only to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, but
that it also applies to northern California, all of Oregon and Washington,
and Utah and Colorado – all states in the wolf’s former range,” Phillips
“Is this what recovery is under the Endangered Species Act? I can’t tell
you. But I’m very surprised the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t asked the
question … outside of a largely internal discussion. And I’m not the
only one starting to connect the dots and find the image lacking.”
In Colorado, the tide of public opinion has apparently reversed: Whereas
the wolf was once the villain, now the livestock industry carries that
Surveys indicate Coloradans favor reintroducing the wolf, and two
different studies suggest the national forests of the Western Slope could
support more than 1,000 wolves, according to Rob Edward of Sinapu, a
Colorado-based wolf advocacy group.
“We believe recovery cannot be achieved without enough wolves in enough
places actually having an impact on their ecosystems,” said Edward. “There
can’t just be a token number of wolves out there. So we continue to
advocate for reintroduction [in Colorado], and we feel the job as mandated
in the Endangered Species Act has not been done until wolves are thriving
in the southern Rockies – the last, best place for wolves in the lower
The livestock industry not only adamantly opposes wolf reintroduction, but
many Colorado ranchers are displeased that the Endangered Species Act
actually protects wolves in Colorado.
“We see the brutality of predators – we don’t have this golden vision of
wolves, but we don’t want to destroy them either,” said Bonnie Kline,
executive director of the Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority. “We want to
be able to protect our livestock, and we’re made the villain because of
In 2002, wolves in the northern Rockies recovery area killed 52 cattle, 99
sheep, nine dogs and five llamas (numbers that could be confirmed). In
response, USFWS agents destroyed 46 wolves thought to be connected with
In all, federal agents have killed more than 150 wolves in “lethal
control” actions since 1987. In that same period, through 2002, wolves
dropped at least 200 cattle, 600 sheep, nine llamas, 50 dogs and one
horse. Ranchers are remunerated for losses that can be confirmed by
federal agents, and a private compensation fund, the Defenders of
Wildlife, has paid out more than $200,000 in claims.
Wolves’ prey of choice remains elk, which make up about 80 percent of
kills, followed by deer. But Phillips said prey availability is only one
component to suitable wolf habitat.
“They’re one of the greatest ecological generalists there’s ever been,” he
said. “They were everywhere. East Coast, West Coast, north, south – these
things historically constituted the most widely distributed large mammals
in North America.
“This tendency to prey on animals bigger than them isn’t required even,”
he continued. “Ultimately, what they need is to be left alone; so in this
country, ultimately, the defining characteristic of wolf habitat is
Under the current rules, as outlined in the DOW “guidelines,” Colorado
ranchers have few options to protect their herds. South of I-70, where
wolves enjoy full “endangered species” protection, they may not be shot
for any reason, barring a threat to human life. North of I-70, where the
wolf is “threatened,” ranchers may harass wolves on their property but may
not shoot to kill. But DOW officers, in conjunction with the USFWS, may
issue kill permits to ranchers who have suffered losses.
Since no wolves have entered the state yet (that the DOW can confirm, at
least), and scientists don’t believe natural recolonization will occur for
decades, the issue hasn’t come to a head.
“We’re on board to say, ‘Let’s have a management plan,’” said Kline of the
Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority, “because right now we can’t do a thing.
If you shoot an animal, you’re a criminal.
“I’ve always encouraged my producers to see where we can compromise, but
on the wolf issue, we’re pretty clear and it’s, ‘Hell, no,’” continued
Kline, who represents about 300 sheep ranchers and a state flock of
Bangs and Phillips counter that, based on research from the northern
Rockies wolf population and elsewhere, coexistence between wolves and
livestock is possible and that wolf depredations are insignificant from an
“Wolves are not that big a problem, not that big of a deal for livestock,
but in people’s minds they are,” said Bangs. “For the industry, they’ll
make no dent whatsoever, but if you’re the person who’s losing sheep or
cattle, then it’s a different story, and everyone can sympathize with
Regarding Wyoming, home to the most controversial proposed state
management plan (with wolves listed as “predators” outside of protected
areas like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park), Bangs conceded
wolves will not be restored everywhere.
“There’s a lot of places that people aren’t going to let wolves live,
period,” he said. “Not gonna happen.”
When asked if a compromise could be struck, a management stipulation that
might put Colorado ranchers at ease, Kline replied: “If there was an
unequivocal shoot-on-sight policy when wolves are near your livestock, not
actually killing something, but anywhere on your ranch, then we wouldn’t
be as upset about this as we are.
“And if wolves were truly endangered,” Kline added, “you’d see a different
reaction from us.”
A Colorado vacuum?
While scientists examine the three state management plans submitted as
part of the possible delisting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the Colorado
DOW’s George said he hopes to create a meaningful dialogue on the wolf
“Part of the public process of a wolf management plan invites public
discussion,” he said. “We expect groups to come out and say we’d like to
advocate for reintroduction, and I’m quite confident other folks will say
they don’t think it’s appropriate.
“It’s appropriate for us as the state’s wildlife managers to engage in a
public discussion about all the aspects of wolves and all the
possibilities,” George continued.
But with the DOW policy of 1989 opposing the reintroduction of wolves, and
a 2000 legislative declaration stating that the Colorado General Assembly
must introduce a bill in order to undertake any new reintroductions,
George said the DOW’s present position is clear: “State law says there
will be no reintroduction until further action. I don’t think it’s a value
judgment, it ‘s just legal authority.”
But Sinapu’s Edward said Colorado should have a wolf-friendly plan in
place as part of the northern Rockies delisting process. “If delisting
occurs, there’s a big vacuum in Colorado north of I-70,” said Edward,
“with contradictions between state policies and laws and statutes, as well
as the continued likelihood of federal authority south of I-70.
“And that’s why there’s an argument out there suggesting that delisting
should not occur until Colorado has an adequate plan in place. And because
wolves are listed on the state endangered species list, to say nothing of
the DOW and Legislature’s stated opposition to reintroduction, we believe
it ‘s incumbent on the DOW and state wildlife commission to develop a plan
that meets their obligations under the law.”