STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — An overflow crowd of more than 100 people, some who drove in from Wyoming and Colorado’s Front Range, assembled at Library Hall in Steamboat Springs on Dec. 7 to hear Sierra Club ecologist Delia Malone make the case for the reintroduction of wolf packs to Western Colorado.
Right up front, Malone told her audience that the Sierra Club and partner environmental nonprofits, are intent on returning the apex predators to the region. It was a message that wasn’t particularly well-received by an audience that, at last vocally, was dominated by ranchers and big-game hunting outfitters.
“Our singular goal is to return wolves to Colorado — we want to do that because we know we will restore Colorado’s natural balance if we can do that,” Malone said.
Malone, who also chairs the wildlife committee of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club, described wolves, with their preference for preying on elk, as the key player in restoring diversity and balance to the plant and animal communities of Western Colorado. But it goes beyond that.
“When we think about restoring wolves, they can do more than just restoring natural balance,” Malone said. “As important as it is that all life has a role to play, it turns out that wolves have a more important role than most (species). They are our environmental engineers, that create diversity.”
However, much of her audience, which had waited patiently through the first hour of Malone’s presentation, wanted nothing to do with wolves. When they finally opened up, they challenged Malone’s premises, sometimes in raised voices.
One middle-aged man, concerned that the reintroduction of wolf packs would decrease the success rate for elk hunters, pointed to some younger men seated nearby and loudly expressed his concern that it would be more difficult for the younger generation to remain on family ranches if revenue from guiding hunters went into decline due to wolves preying on elk.
“We’re talking about peoples lives, and you’re talking about a damned dog,” he said. “You’re ruining peoples’ lives just so you can see a wolf running through the snow. To me, that’s pathetic, absolutely pathetic.”
Malone countered by observing that, wildlife officials in Idaho and Montana report increased hunter success since wolves were introduced there. Unlike human hunters, who harvest prime animals from the elk herds, wolves tend to cull the sickly and elderly animals, simply because they are the easiest to bring down.
With Steamboat Springs Police Department officers discreetly watching the crowd from the rear of Library Hall, longtime Steamboat Springs area rancher Jo Stanko called upon audience members to act with more civility, then calmly described having seen wolves on her land near Twentymile Road.
“Ten years ago, I saw my first one, Stanko said. My concern is why it’s necessary. I’ve just had two (wolves) come through that chose not to stay. It can’t be all devastation, yet it’s not all sweetness and life either. Please, it’s an opportunity to work together.”
The Yellowstone experience
Many of Malone’s conclusions about the benefits of reintroducing wolves into the Rocky Mountain environment are based upon the transformation she and other ecologists have observed in Yellowstone National Park in the 23 years since wolves were first reintroduced there in 1995, and the unanticipated width and breadth of changes to the landscape that resulted.
When wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone, Malone said, wildlife biologists weren’t originally motivated by a goal to restore the greater landscape. But that’s what took place
“What we witnessed, was the restoration of Yellowstone National Park’s biodiversity,” she said
Biodiversity is the key to healthy ecosystems across the planet, Malone added. “It maintains ecosystem stability. The more species (present), the more connections are made and the more connections, the more resiliency.”
The predation of wolves on the elk population that had grown so large in Yellowstone, resulted in the end of over-grazing and the rebound of willows along stream banks, which allowed smaller animal species to return to the environment, Malone explained.
“Predation and the (resulting) redistribution of elk across the landscape rippled throughout the ecosystem,” Malone said. “The beaver are coming back, there is more waterfowl in the streams and beaver ponds, we’ve seen the recovery of cutthroat trout, amphibians and pronghorns, all with the return of the wolf.”
That phenomenon is referred to by wildlife biologists as the “trophic cascade,” the influence that different species living within a food web have upon one another.
The Sierra Club and its partners want to see a similar transformation take place in Western Colorado, she said.
Audience member Steve Lohr stood up to tell Malone that her assumptions about the trophic cascade she anticipates will take place in Colorado if wolves are reintroduced are invalid. Lohr, who drove to Steamboat from the Front Range with friends for the wolf presentation said Malone failed to take into account the absence of wild bison herds in contemporary Colorado. And he said, she hadn’t considered the projected human population growth in the region.
Malone acknowledged that it will take changes in livestock management practices to minimize wolf attacks on cattle if, as she hopes, if the predators are returned to the Western Colorado landscape where they once thrived.