A presentation by an advocate of gray wolf reintroduction in Colorado spurred howls of protest among numerous ranchers and some sportsmen Thursday night at a packed house in Carbondale.
Biologist Mike Phillips made the case in his presentation that western Colorado provides the perfect habitat for gray wolves because of vast stretches of public land, abundant prey and substantial support among residents.
Phillips led the acclaimed wolf recovery program in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He said Colorado is the critical “arc stone” territory for restoring wolf habitat from the Arctic down to Mexico.
“It’s a discussion that’s at least due, if not overdue,” he said of bringing the animals back to the state. “The key to Yellowstone, of course, was a decision by the country to move forward.”
A crowd of roughly 300 conservationists, ranchers, sportsmen and even state wildlife officials turned up for a presentation that was sponsored by Wilderness Workshop, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Roaring Fork Audubon. Wilderness Workshop officials anticipated a large turnout and switched to a larger venue.
Perhaps sensing some opposition to the message, Will Roush, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director, announced to the crowd prior to Phillips’ presentation that a panel discussion would be held later this year featuring participants with varying views on wolf reintroduction.
Phillips took the stage for nearly 60 minutes and didn’t pussyfoot around his message.
“The real wolf is hard to see through the haze of the mythical wolf,” he said. “The myth is as wrong as it is strong.”
One of the issues he confronted head-on was that wolf reintroduction will destroy the livestock industry. Data collected in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho show there will be occasional problems in isolated areas, he claimed.
“If wolves are restored to western Colorado, they will kill cattle and they will kill sheep, but not very often,” Phillips said.
Walking the audience through examples from the northern Rocky Mountain states and applying forecasts to Colorado, he contended there would be about 100 cattle and 130 sheep killed annually in Colorado assuming there are 300 to 400 wolves roaming the woods.
He received substantial applause at the end of his talk. Ranchers bit their tongues during the presentation but it was clear during the Q&A session that they weren’t buying it.
J. Paul Brown, a former Republican state House representative from southwest Colorado, said ranchers own the majority of private lands in western Colorado. “They don’t want wolves in Colorado,” he said.
Brown introduced a bill while in the state House to nullify a 1992 vote by residents of Colorado to overturn restrictions on when black bear could be hunted. He dismissed Phillips’ data-driven study by noting that figures lie and liars figure.
Phillips, who serves as a state senator in Montana, retorted, “It’s all good to stand up and say something, but talk is cheap. Give me some numbers.” That was a challenge to Brown to show data that contradict the numbers Phillips was using.
Other exchanges weren’t as sharp. Marjorie Perry, who ranches just south of Carbondale with her husband, Bill Fales, said ranchers already get by on thin margins. Reintroduction of wolves would present one more challenge, she said.
Fales said he is studying methods that have been used to prevent wolves from creating problems for ranchers. While researching, he learned that environmental groups have purchased nearly 750,000 acres of grazing allotments on federal lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Eliminating the grazing permits eliminates ranching, he said. In Pitkin County, about 84 percent of all lands are public.
Phillips said allotments purchases are “not the norm.” There are numerous ways for ranching and wolves to co-exist, he said. He advocated for programs to compensate ranchers for losses and assumed losses from predation as well as weight loss in surviving cattle and sheep when predation has been an issue.
A woman who didn’t introduce herself but said she works in the livestock industry in western Colorado said Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s budget has been decimated from dealing with black bear conflicts with humans.
“You’re pitching wolves so hard you missed a big problem facing our state,” she said.
Roz Turnbull, a Carbondale-area rancher with her husband, Tom, said she is concerned that wolves will follow elk and deer herds out of secluded areas and into subdivisions and ranches during winter months.
“They’re going to be right down in the private lands,” she said, adding that once wolves are habituated they will create problems during encounters with humans.
Phillips stressed that wolves are pack animals that simply do not venture around populated areas.
“They aren’t cougars. They just aren’t,” he said.
Earlier in the presentation, he presented data that show wolves haven’t presented problems to humans, be it tent campers in Yellowstone National Park or residents of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, where there are an estimated 4,000 wolves.
“For reasons I can’t explain, wolves don’t pose a threat to human safety,” Phillips said.
As far as interfering with big game, wolves will make an insignificant dent in ungulate herds after hunters get their take, he said. Phillips estimated wolves would take no more than 7,500 elk annually in Colorado compared which a hunter harvest of 48,500.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife data for 2016 estimated the post-hunt elk population at 277,750 statewide. The agency reported an elk harvest of 39,306 for all manners of take for that year.
About 85 percent of the hunts by a wolf fail, he said. Nearly all the animals suffer blunt force trauma from hooves bashing their heads.
“It’s very hard to make a living in the woods with your teeth,” Phillips said.
One speaker criticized the presentation as “lopsided.” Phillips said he was simply presenting straightforward data. Wilderness Workshop repeated its pledge to hold a panel discussion on wolf reintroduction with a variety of viewpoints among panelists.
Meanwhile, Phillips will be giving a second presentation in Aspen tonight as part of the Naturalist Nights series.