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CO: Colorado can get a heated argument about whether to restore wolves

by Allen Best

CARBONDALE, Colo. – In the mid-1920s, Arthur Carhart turned his attention to the wolves vanishing in Colorado, the result of a methodical extermination conducted by the U.S. Biological Survey.

Carhart had earlier earned some attention when, as a young employee of the new U.S. Forest Service, he had been assigned the task of plotting roads and cabin spaces along the shores of Trappers Lake, on the edge of the Flattops of northwestern Colorado.

The young landscape architect did as he was ordered but returned to Denver with a radical idea. Leave Trappers Lake as it was, he suggested, without development. The idea took hold, supported by Aldo Leopold and others who had also expressed misgivings about the wholesale human reordering of nature. In time, Trappers Lake was called the cradle of wilderness.

After leaving the Forest Service, Carhart set out to become a writer. He soon collaborated with Stanley P. Young, of the agency assigned to kill all wolves, and they put together a book called “The Last Stand of the Pack.”

The book, published in 1929, told about the surviving wolves on the plains, mesas, and mountains of Colorado, their savagery and lust for blood, told in anthropomorphic language. For example, a wolf called Lefty in Burns Hole, a valley along the Colorado River located equidistant between Aspen, Steamboat Springs, and Vail, had a “blood drunk” after a killing and then, two days later a “new killing lust.”

Despite this language, the book hints at an odd bit of respect for wolves, as is noted in a 2017 reissue of “The Last Stand: Critical Edition,” edited by Andrew Guilliford of Durango, Colo., and Tom Wolf. It includes supplemental essays in addition to the original text.

Wolf, who grew up next to the then aging Carhart in Denver in the 1960s, says that Carhart over time had altered his views. And although he wrote many books, he never did write a companion book, a rejoinder to “The Last Stand.”

Colorado altogether has altered its perspective, too. Polls have repeatedly shown strong support for reintroduction of wolves. The last one was killed in the 1940s. But the support falls far short of consensus. Deep and sometimes bitter opposition has been demonstrated repeatedly in the last 25 years, most often from ranchers but sometimes from big-game hunters.

Those conflicting viewpoints were evident at a recent meeting in Carbondale covered by The Aspen Times.

Mike Phillips, a wildlife biologist, made the case for why wolves should be reintroduced into Colorado. He was the project leader for the wolf restoration effort in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from its inception in 1994 until 1997. After that, he created the Turner Endangered Species Fund (yes, named after Ted, who is a prominent landowner in Montana, where Phillips is now a state legislator).

At the meeting, Phillips argued that the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone shows that success is possible in Colorado. “The real wolf is hard to see through the haze of the mythical wolf,” he said, according to the report by The Times’ Scott Condon. “The myth is as wrong as it is strong.”

Assuming 300 to 400 wolves are restored to Colorado, they would kill about 100 cattle and 130 sheep annually, he estimates.

Past proposals have centered on reintroduction of wolves in the Flattops. Burns Hole is on one side, Trappers Lake on the other, and Steamboat not far distant north. Or, for that matter, Vail to the east and Aspen to the south.

Local ranching families who turned out at the meeting were polite but skeptical. Roz Turnbull, who ranches in the Carbondale area with her husband, Tom, said she is concerned wolves will follow elk and deer herds into subdivisions and ranches during winter. Once habituated to these surroundings, they will create problems during encounters with humans, she predicted.

Phillips responded that wolves, as pack animals, simply do not venture around populated areas. “They aren’t cougars. They just aren’t,” he said.

Earlier, he had presented data that showed wolves have posed no problems to people whether they be tent campers in Yellowstone National Park or residents of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The latter three states have an estimated 4,000 wolves.

“For reasons I can’t explain, wolves don’t pose a threat to human safety,” he said.

Phillips estimated that wolves would kill 7,500 elk in Colorado annually, compared to 48,500 taken by human hunters. Most wolves fail when hunting ungulates. Many get killed in the hunt when their heads are bashed by hooves. “It’s very hard to make a living in the woods with your teeth,” he said.

In the reissue of “The Last Stand,” Phillips advances the same argument in an essay.  wolves were native from Mexico to the high Arctic, he writes in an essay supplement to the book. They have returned to Yellowstone, obviously, but 100 Mexican wolves have been restored to southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

Missing is the Southern Rockies Ecosystem, the largest part of which is in Colorado. It has “more public land and prey for wolves than anywhere else in the United States.” Later in the chapter, the framework expands. Western Colorado offers the “largest and densest population of ungulates for wolves anywhere in the world.” It is, they say, the “mother lode of biological opportunity for the gray wolf.”

They also argue that the gray wolf should be reintroduced to adhere to the intent of the Endangered Species Act.

“Relegating the gray wolf to about 15 percent of its historical range and at population levels that are but a shadow of historical abundance fails the spirit and intent of the ESA,” writes Phillips, et al. “As long as the gray wolf remains extirpated in Colorado, the western half of the state will represent a significant gap in the species’ range. That is exactly the problem that the ESA aims to correct.”

But another wildlife biologist, Tom Compton, who is also a rancher, argues in that same book that Western Colorado is different than Yellowstone. There are more people, he says. Too, he argues that wolves are unnecessary for a healthy, functioning system over all landscapes. Other management tools can achieve the same objective accomplished by wolves in Yellowstone. There, ungulates were overgrazing the landscape with myriad cascading effects.

Bonnie Brown, the long-time representative of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, also has a short essay in the book. She told of a hearing in Denver in 2016 when the Colorado Wildlife Commission took up the matter of reintroduction. The Flattops has been identified as the most hospitable area. State wildlife commissioners rejected the proposal, but it was a packed house.

The meeting was a circus, she says, “complete with warm, fuzzy wolf pictures, including one pro-wolf sign done in beautiful pastel rainbow colors, featuring a serene and friendly looking wolf. Good grief, I thought! Why don’t wolf advocates make posters, coffee cups and T-shirts with a mama cow with her hind end eaten away by wolves as she was giving birth and has her partially eaten dead calf hanging out of her? She doesn’t have the strength to get up or away, and the only kindness she receives is when the rancher finds her and shoots her to end her suffering. Try using that image for a fund-raising campaign for wolves!”

Colorado is just getting too crowded with people to tolerate wolves, she concludes. From 2.9 million in 1980, it’s hurrying toward. 7.2 million by 2040.

These are clench-teethed arguments. If Brown has little patience for lobo-love, Phillips and his colleagues are perhaps more biting yet, echoing the language of Barry Lopez in his 1978 book, “Of Wolves and of Men.” Lopez argues that cattlemen, with a host of problems in making a living, lumped all of them on the most convenient target. “The wolf became a target of pathological hatred.”

What may also be possible—and large unmentioned in these recent writings and speeches—is the distinct possibility that wolves will return to Colorado on their own. In fact, they already have, as became apparent in 2004 when a wolf was hit on I-70 less than 30 miles west of Denver. More yet have ben reported since then.

By 2016, Colorado wildlife officials began talking about when, not if, wolves would return to Colroado. 

Colorado’s debate began heating up in the 1990s, not surprising given the reintroduction then of gray wolves into Yellowstone.

At one such meeting, held at the county fairgrounds in Eagle, between Vail and Aspen, a wolf reintroduction proponent from Boulder squared off with a long-time local rancher from Burns Hole, where the renegade wolf Lefty had been killed some 70 years before.

The rancher heard the arguments for wolves, but then told his family’s story of being followed home during winter in a sleigh, the wolves close behind.

Whether they were real wolves or mythical wolves, it’s hard to say. Nobody was carrying smartphones at the start of the 20th century, able to document every moment.

Wolves kill wolves in Jackson Hole during time of few elk

JACKSON, Wyo. – The Gros Ventre Valley northeast of Jackson is the most wolf-dense landscape in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone National Park. It normally has 1,000 head of elk or more. But this year, the elk have disappeared, for reasons unexplained.

That leaves wolves in a desperate pinch, reports Jackson Hole News&Guide.

“We definitely get wolves that kill other wolves every year, but to have a whole pack shift territories and kill off a neighboring pack – at least kill a few of them – that’s different,” said biologist Ken Mills.

In 2014 Mills had studied the valley for six weeks and found remains of 60 wolf-eaten ungulates. On a recent trip with the News&Guide’s Mike Koshmrl, the biologist found a different carcass, that of a 3-year-old wolf female. She had been killed by another wolf.

“Multiple bite marks on the face,” Mills said. “Pretty brutal.” But he also pointed to the evidence of the power of a wolf bite, “You can see, it’s like a chicken breast. It’s huge.”