Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
No one should be if they follow the research, contends Mike Phillips, a wildlife biologist who played a leading role in the return of gray wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Phillips is director of the (Ted) Turner Endangered Species Fund and a consultant to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which is trying to improve public understanding of gray wolf issues and present options for re-establishing them in Colorado. He also is a state senator in Montana.
Phillips will be the featured speaker Feb. 7 and 8 in Carbondale and Aspen as part of the Naturalist Nights series presented by Wilderness Workshop, Roaring Fork Audubon and Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Phillips has been studying wolves since 1980 and has worked full-time since 1986 to try to restore their habitat in the U.S.
“I don’t know a lot of things but I know a little bit about wolf recovery and conservation, and I guarantee you that western Colorado is highly suitable to reintroducing gray wolves to restore a viable population,” Phillips said in a phone interview this week.
A “couple dozen” gray wolves could be released in western Colorado under a science-based restoration plan, and it wouldn’t take long to reach a viable population of 250 or more, he said.
“If you give just a small number of gray wolves an opportunity to occupy high-quality habitat, they can pretty well take care of the rest,” he said.
Wolf restoration advocates such as Phillips contend western Colorado is well-suited for wolves for a couple of reasons. It’s got millions of acres of federal land that is suited for the animals, and it has the deer and elk populations to sustain them. Even after an annual take of about 80,000 ungulates by hunters, Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates there are about 700,000 deer and elk in the state, he noted.
“We know in areas where human-caused mortality is low — in other words when people don’t kill them — about 85 percent of the variability in a wolf population on an annual basis is explained by the abundance of food,” Phillips said. “That’s not too complicated, right? Food matters. And you’ve got a boatload of food in western Colorado.”
He sees Colorado as the “arc stone” between gray wolf habitat to the north and Mexican red wolf habitat to the south.
Not everyone is ready to welcome wolves back to Colorado. Opposition is widespread among ranchers and some sportsmen.
ACES brought in Phillips last year for presentations, which were crowded and occasionally contentious. Ranchers voiced their opposition to wolf re-entry in meetings in Aspen and Carbondale.
“It’s that age-old debate, right? Wolves versus livestock,” said Chris Lane, ACES director. “It was contentious (last year) and we don’t want to be contentious.”
He said ACES wants to remove the contentiousness from the debate and educate people on issues surrounding re-entry of wolves. Phillips is one of the foremost experts on wolf behavior, Lane said. He is hoping some of the myths can be dispelled, including that wolves kill humans.
“We’re increasing our wolf education component,” Lane said, indicating that Phillips’ presentation will be just one part of that effort.
Phillips said wolves can alter the habits and movements of big game, but sportsmen would retain as many opportunities as ever to hunt deer and elk in Colorado.
The potential effect of wolves on livestock is a more complex matter. Phillips said there is the potential for an “occasional problem for an individual rancher” and those must be addressed. If a wolf pack kills a cow or sheep, the rancher must be compensated and it has to be assumed that the particular livestock herd has also suffered from not putting on weight. That’s essentially taking money out of a rancher’s wallet. Livestock get “agitated” and disrupted from their regular feeding patterns once there has been a wolf kill on their herd, Phillips said. Montana has a livestock loss program that could be a model for Colorado, he said.
He doesn’t believe the potential issue poses enough risk to prevent wolf reintroduction.
“The fact of the matter is most ranchers in Colorado aren’t ranching in wolf country. And ranchers who do ranch in wolf country, they’re not going to suffer depredations. It’s the atypical wolf that depredates,” Phillips said, stating that data from Montana back his claim.
There have been a handful of cases of a lone wolf wandering into Colorado, most likely from the north, and getting killed. There is no evidence of a persistent wolf presence in the state, Phillips said.
Rocky Mountain Wolf Project says it would make more sense for Colorado to reintroduce wolves under an effective management plan than risk resettlement naturally. The federal Endangered Species Act covers wolves that wander into the state on their own. They cannot be legally killed.
Colorado already has a gray wolf management plan that could be implemented if the state took the step to introduce the animal. The plan places more control in the state’s hands.
“Here’s a good way to look at co-existing with gray wolves: We can put a man on the moon and bring him back. We can take your heart out of your chest and put it in better than before,” Phillips said. “I promise you we can find a way to get along with the gray wolf.”
He is distressed that wolves are so feared and were hunted so close to extinction. Wolf bounties existed as far back as the 1600s in North Carolina, according to Phillips.
“It was a war for 300 years,” he said.
Phillips will give his presentation on Wolf Recovery and Conservation at the Third Street Center in Carbondale at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 and at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.