BY Liz Forster
In the months following the Trump administration’s decision to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List, controversy surrounding the animal has only gotten hotter.
Scientists tasked with reviewing the federal delisting plan found earlier this month its conclusions were not supported by its own research, questioning whether the population in the Lower 48 truly has rebounded to sustainable levels. On the state level, Wyoming plans to curtail legal wolf hunting after a dramatic decline in its population, while Oregon relaxed its rules on the hunting of the predator. Idaho’s hopes to increase predator kill quotas are in legal limbo from lawsuits filed by environmental groups.
The debate has seeped even into Colorado, the only state in the canine’s historic range where it does not freely roam. This week, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund began collecting signatures for a 2020 ballot item that would reintroduce between 20 and 30 wolves to the Western Slope by 2023. Their reestablishment in Colorado’s wilderness — ideally 100 to 200 within 10 years — would trigger a ripple of benefits among wildlife, plants and other organisms and restore ecosystemic balance, the organization argues.
“It’s important that we reunite the path of wolf movement from (the) north to south (borders) because with movement you have integration, which is good for ecological health,” said Rick Ritter, the campaign’s spokesman. “It all ties into: let’s keep Colorado wild, let’s keep our wilderness wild and let’s try to keep what we love about Colorado and our mountains for our children and grandchildren.”
The organization started collecting signatures Thursday and, during the first day of a campaign fundraiser between June 17 and 21, they raised more than $10,000. When asked how much money they raised by the end of the week, Ritter said, “Our fundraising is moving forward and we are meeting our initial goals.”
Statewide polling has fallen in favor of their success. A bipartisan research team in March showed 67 percent of 900 registered Colorado voters would support reintroduction, with 39 percent strongly in favor.
Yet the debate is not without its dissidents. A cohort of ranchers and hunters have attacked the proposal, citing concerns for the safety of livestock and big game, specifically elk and deer.
Whether the item makes it onto the ballot, and whether it is later given the thumbs up by voters, is a political test rooted in more than 100 years of man versus wild; of whether human interests and mythology around the Big Bad Wolf trumps the potential ecosystemic benefits of a keystone predator commanding the hilltops of Colorado, and, ultimately a contiguous stretch of the Lower 48.
The most recent confirmed wolf sightings in Colorado were in 2015 on a trail camera near Walden and after a hunter killed what he thought was a coyote just north of Kremmling. Prior to that, a wolf from Montana was found poisoned in Rio Blanco County in 2009. Another from the Yellowstone area was killed by a car on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in 2004.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has no plans to invite wolves into the state, either. In 2015, the agency passed a resolution reasserting that, because wolves are federally protected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees management of animals that wander into the state. Before CPW can engage in any wolf release programs, it must gain approval from the state Legislature.
Those hoping to spot a wolf in Colorado have to visit places like Mission: Wolf, a wolf sanctuary tucked behind ranchlands in the Wet Mountains southwest of Cañon City.
There, rescued wolves and wolf-dog hybrids wander through the ponderosa pines and across the perpetually dry creek beds winding through the undulating 1-acre enclosures that each share with a partner canine. They play, hide, nap, investigate human intruders and gorge on biweekly meals. Sometimes, one will swoop its muzzle toward the sky in a bellowing howl. Others will join, silencing nearly all other activity at the sanctuary.
Kent Weber never wanted to hear that hypnotic song emanating from a confined space, but the director of Mission: Wolf knows it’s the only way to save the lives of these animals, all of which were bred for movies or as pets, born in zoos or otherwise removed from their native wilderness. Without shelter at the mountain hideaway, they’d likely die naturally or be shot.
He could never put one in a cage, though, like the one he saw during his first days as an engineer in the early 1980s.
“It was appalling,” the Twin Falls, Idaho, native said. “I grew up loving nature, was never afraid of it, and hated seeing wild animals like that.”
At that time, hundreds of thousands of wolves had been nearly eradicated from the Lower 48, including the peaks and valleys of the entire Rocky Mountain range. The crusade against wolves in the 19th and 20th centuries — propelled even by well-known conservationists like President Theodore Roosevelt — painted the animal as vermin and a threat to human well-being and prosperity. Lucrative bounties were posted against wolves as late as the 1960s, further incentivizing their killing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife documents show.
Weber and his wife, Tracy Ane Brooks, realized that more wolves lived in cages than in the wild, and that they needed to take on the impossible mission of flipping that fact. They acquired federal and state licenses to care for the wolf in 1984 at what is now Mission: Wolf. At its peak in the early 2000s, they gave homes to 52 pet, zoo, movie and other unwanted wolves.
“Putting a wolf in a cage or breeding it with a dog for a pet is good neither for the wolf nor the dog, but the animal is there and they needed help,” he said. “My idea was to get them as far away from people as possible, give them the biggest home possible and not let them reproduce.”
At that point, Weber also realized that Americans were well on their way to wiping out the last of the gray, Mexican and red wolves. Though he did not intend to repopulate the country at his sanctuary, he knew that exposure to “domesticated” wolves would allow politicians, voters and other stakeholders to build empathy with the misunderstood animal.
He and his wife traveled for 27 years across the country to schools, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and political interest groups to introduce them to their ambassador wolves. At the sanctuary, visitors primed on proper behavior can come face-to-face with an Arctic or timber wolf, oftentimes finding their eyes less than ferocious.
Mission: Wolf embeds the meet-and-greets with facts about the ‘trophic cascade,’ a term describing the positive trickle-down effect that the presence of a top predator like a wolf has on other levels of the food chain.
“If you like wolves or any animal, the only way to conserve is to let as many people touch one, then they will care about it enough to conserve it,” he said. “We can show people: Here’s what wolves are, here’s what dogs are, and here’s why you shouldn’t mix them. Then we can teach them why do we have wolves in our environment and where do wolves belong: In the wild.”
While Weber worked on public outreach, the fervor of the environmental movement of the 1960s and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 fueled gray wolf recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountains. A nationwide revival of an affinity for nature at-large influenced people to perceive wolves less as a malicious killer and more as a key member of the animal kingdom.
Gray wolves were listed as federally endangered in 1975. On-the-ground repopulation efforts, though, did not begin for another 20 years, most famously in Yellowstone National Park, which had not seen wolves since two pups were killed near Soda Butte hot spring in 1924. In January 1995, 14 moms, dads and pups captured in the Rockies of western Alberta were released in the park. Wildlife managers facilitated their assimilation for the first three months, acquainting them with the local diet, sounds and smells.
Later that year, two wolves from the transported group mated, forming the first native pack in Yellowstone since the 1920s.
Scientists soon heralded the Yellowstone case as the prime example of a trophic cascade. The wolves killed some of the elk, which allowed formerly stunted willows, aspens and cottonwoods to replenish along river beds and attracted hordes of songbirds and beavers. Soon grizzly bears, mountain lions and other wildlife were seen perusing the valleys, and stream health markedly improved.
Today, Yellowstone continues to serve as one of the most robust living laboratories for wildlife biologists, ecologists and other scientists researching the complex interactions between apex predators, animals lower on the food chain and the landscapes in which they live.
While much of the conservation world turned its attention toward the success of the Yellowstone project, Ted Koch was celebrating his own wildlife milestone across the border in central Idaho.
The first pups were born into three identified packs in 1996 just a year after letting 15 wolves loose to fend for themselves in remote central Idaho. Another 20 wolves were released near the Frank Church River in 1996. The animals settled into their new territory so well that there was no need to escort more into the state in 1997. By 1998, 24 of the original 35 had survived.
“Wolves were successful beyond our expectations because of the abundance of prey,” said Koch, who served as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wolf Recovery Project leader in central Idaho between 1992 and 1995. “They had abundant prey in a remote area with almost no people, and if there is prey, they will come.”
Wolves were by no means welcomed into the state by Idahoans, Koch remembered. In fact, Koch endured countless shouting voices at community meetings, a trove of misinformation and even a handful of death threats before he could even imagine weaving wolves back into their historic habitat.
“The idea of wolves generates more emotion than does the idea of most other species of wildlife because wolf families are very much like human families,” said Koch, who also oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery program in the Southwest the last two and a half years. “That accentuates either our love or our hate for wolves. We gravitate toward them because we see them as being like us or we recoil in fear because we fear they are like us.”
And those with a financial stake at risk are more likely to lean toward hating wolves.
“A rancher who loses that year’s profit because of wolves rightfully feels threatened,” he said. “There’s little consolation for a guy who loses his cows to a pack. That producer suffers disproportionately.” Likewise, so did the hunter who had poured “sweat and tears and money” to restore elk or other prey population.
When Koch could sit down face to face with those who opposed his work, though, the conversations were “rich and beautiful.” He did not pretend to know more than those stakeholders and focused rather on forging conversations that fostered compromise.
“I was building credibility one citizen at a time because no one will trust nameless, faceless bureaucracy,” said Koch. “It was beautiful because of the moments when a federal agency imposes a scary program on potentially vulnerable citizens, but then they can look each other in the eye and have an honest conversation and find common language.”
One of the most memorable exchanges was with a county commissioner in Clark County, who drove Koch and a wolf biologist around the area to describe the history of the species in the region. The county commissioner relayed stories of his grandparents trying to get rid of wolves. “‘But now,’ he said to us, ‘I’m here to get them back with the help of your agency,’” said Koch.
The hurdles in front of the delisting of wolves in Idaho in 2008 were human, Koch said, just as they are in Colorado.
“The challenges in Colorado are social, not biological, just like in Idaho,” he said. “I strongly encourage the folks in Colorado to have an open, honest and respectful conversation around social tolerance of wolves so that the state can find the sweet spot to manage them.”
Between 684 and 786 wolves were documented in Idaho each year between 2010 and 2015, Idaho Department of Fish and Game data show. The number is a milestone for the rebound of the once nonexistent population, but also a clear factor in the killing of 76 domestic animals in the state in 2016. Seventy wolves were put to death by state managers or livestock owners in response to the threat.
In 2015, 158 cattle, 218 sheep, five dogs and three horses were killed by the more than 1,900 wolves counted in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. States doled out $503,990 in compensation money to livestock producers, with Wyoming claiming more than half of that bill.
These numbers point to the unavoidable conflicts between wolves and livestock and are why Colorado Rep. Kimmi Lewis — as well as the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition — are fighting back against the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund’s ballot proposal.
“As a livestock producer, it’s no-brainer: They’ll hurt our bottom line,” said Lewis, a Republican who owns about 300 mother cows on 20,000 acres near Kim. “It scares me to death that we’d bring this animal to Colorado.”
Lewis sat on a panel of experts in March in front of more than 100 people in Denver in March to discuss the pros, cons and science-based evidence behind reintroduction. There, she showed photos of wolves mauling a cow from behind, taking a few bites out of the back flank and venturing to another animal.
“What people in Colorado have to realize is that they need to get out from the Front Range, drive around a bit and see how people live,” she said. “Agriculture is a huge economic driver here, and ranches barely get by year to year. We usually end up in the red.
“So no, we can’t coexist with wolves,” she said.
Neither can Colorado’s hunters, says Blake Henning, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s chief conservation officer. Henning foresees a disruption to — rather than a restoration of — the Colorado ecosystem if the animals are forcibly reintroduced to the state.
“Wolves are a native apex predator and do have a role in the natural world,” he said. “But I don’t think we live in a natural world anymore like some advocating for wolves seem to think.”
A study published by the University of Wyoming in April 2019 showed that the ubiquity with which the promise of the Yellowstone example was applied to other places might not have as much merit as proponents say. The trophic cascades associated with the reintroduction of an apex predator sometimes happened in the studies they reviewed, sometimes it didn’t.
“We need more studies,” said Jesse Alston, the paper’s lead researcher, in Science Daily. “More tests of this ‘assumption of reciprocity,’ as we call it — particularly via rigorous experimental studies — would be really helpful. This is hard data to get, but we really do need it before we can credibly claim that large carnivores restore ecosystems. They might not.”
Another 2018 study by Mark Boyce of the University of Alberta also emphasized the mixed results of wolf reintroduction in areas with significant human presence versus a protected space like Yellowstone.
Henning specifically questions the pro-wolf argument that the canine tends to target the old, sick and weak elk, helping to curb the chronic wasting disease that impacted 16% of Colorado’s elk, deer and moose population in 2018. Wolves will kill what they can to eat, even if that’s a healthy buck and a bite out of Colorado’s $919 million hunting economy.
A ballot initiative, Henning added, also circumvents the wildlife management protocols put in place that require a commission to review the scientific viability of the plan, a public review process and other checks and balances.
“My fear is that it would be rushed,” he said. “The slow, natural immigration of those animals can be softer so that the elk and people can adjust, and we can prepare a management plan for them.”
Natural migration could take years, most likely decades, though, Weber said, and the ecosystem can’t wait that long.
“Coloradans need to go to places where the killing of wolves has led to the destruction of the ecosystem, where the vegetation is destroyed,” Weber said. “Then we can get Coloradans to stand proud and say, ‘We won’t do the same thing.’”
“We have the chance to make a difference, and I hope we do,” he said.
Weber invites school kids, 4H groups, veteran’s groups and visitors choosing to camp on a vista at Mission: Wolf under the unabated starry night in the Wet Mountains. They may hear the usual cricket singing in the grass, birds rustling in the leaves, even a coyote roaming through the trees.
All those sounds — ones familiar to the Colorado backcountry — are likely to be interrupted by the howl of the sanctuary’s wolves. One by one, the pack will erupt into harmonious union, an evocation of wildness Colorado lost the day the last wolf was gunned down nearly 80 years ago.
Someday, Weber says, maybe the ballad of the wolves will emanate from the crevices of the foothills rather than the fences of his enclosures.