Reintroduction proponents like idea; ranchers, not so much
By DENNIS WEBB
CARBONDALE — A coalition has formed to promote education about gray wolves in hopes of winning support for their reintroduction in Colorado — an idea that continues to meet strong resistance from the state’s ranching community.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project was created with the goal of using education to advance restoration in the state, said Mike Phillips, a biologist who was involved in multiple wolf reintroduction projects and is part of a science advisory team, during a presentation in Carbondale Wednesday.
He said western Colorado is the best wolf habitat in the world, due to its high percentage of public land, large numbers of elk and other ungulate prey species, and the wolf’s legally protected status as an endangered species in Colorado. And the Southern Rockies ecosystem would serve as the last connecting piece of wolf territory from the Arctic to the Mexican border, he said.
“There is no other place in the world where you can imagine large carnivore conservation across such a sweeping landscape,” Phillips said.
Now a state senator in Montana and executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which he co-founded with Ted Turner in 1997, Phillips formerly worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, leading efforts to restore red wolves to the southeastern United States and gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
Now, he says, reintroduction of the wolf to Colorado “is a discussion that’s at least due, if not overdue.”
In looking for such a discussion, Phillips got one this week as ranchers traveled from far and wide to hear his talk and voice concerns. Phillips’ speech, part of a weekly naturalist speaker series put on by local environmental organizations, was moved to a school auditorium to accommodate what turned out to be hundreds of people, including J. Paul Brown, a rancher in southwest Colorado and former state lawmaker.
“There are quite a few people here in this room that represent a majority of the private land on the Western Slope of Colorado and they don’t want the wolves in Colorado,” Brown told Phillips.
“We don’t,” someone else called out as others applauded.
Delia Malone, an ecologist who lives in Redstone and is a Sierra Club representative who also gives talks on wolf reintroduction, said Wednesday’s response was typical, involving a small and vocal group of ranchers and a larger group of reintroduction supporters who aren’t as outspoken.
“The concerns expressed by the ranchers are what I’ve heard for a long time,” she said.
Malone, who is involved with the new wolf coalition along with the Sierra Club, and Phillips both believe rancher concerns about wolves arise partly from myths about the animal.
Said Malone, “If we examine the facts they don’t support the concerns that ranchers have. Ranchers have been living and doing well with wolves on the landscape up in Canada and Montana and Idaho for many decades.”
The two point to strategies — from use of range riders, to tying distracting flagging on fences, to compensation for livestock that are killed by wolves or fail to gain adequate weight after stressful wolf attacks on herds — that they say help ranchers and wolves coexist.
Phillips said that based on what’s been seen in Montana, under one reintroduction scenario in Colorado, wolves might kill about 100 cattle and 130 sheep each year in the state.
“The numbers are clear. Gray wolves do not present a threat to the livestock industry,” he said.
He said he believes the struggle when it comes to wolf reintroduction relates to myths about the animal, such as the idea that it possesses an almost supernatural ability to kill on a whim.
“Unfortunately the myth is as strong as it is wrong,” said Phillips, who said the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project aims to set the myth aside and celebrate the real wolf.
He said the gray wolf in fact struggles to make successful kills, with upward of 85 percent of its attempts to bring down prey failing. Starvation is a common cause of death, wolves commonly suffer broken bones from kicks from prey animals, and they may typically live just five or six years, Phillips said.
Wolves don’t pose a threat to human safety, despite what people may fear, and it’s also untrue that gray wolves have disrupted hunting in the northern Rockies, Phillips said. He said elk are doing so well in Montana that the state has had to add shoulder hunting seasons to deal with their high numbers.
“By gosh, there are grand opportunities to hunt elk throughout the state,” he said.
Phillips said that while big game is a public resource, the impact of wolves on livestock is a tough issue because livestock is privately owned by people trying to make a living. He said he has long advocated for liberal management of gray wolves on private land, but he voiced somewhat less sympathy for ranchers operating on public land, noting that they don’t have to operate there, and the land is the public’s.
Bill Fales, a Pitkin County rancher, told Phillips that ranchers in western Colorado depend on federal grazing permits.
“I don’t have a choice. It’s the only game in town,” he said, noting that his county is 85 percent federally owned.
He worried about the ability of wolf avoidance strategies to work in large areas covered by grazing permits.
Another Carbondale-area rancher, Roz Turnbull, worried about wolves following game onto private lands.
“They’re going to be close to people and when they’re habituated and close to people that’s when you run into problems,” she said.
Phillips said gray wolves don’t change territory and they shy away from heavily populated areas.
In 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reiterated its stance against efforts to reintroduce wolves, while not opposing the animals’ presence if they arrive on their own. That same year, the agency said natural expansion of gray wolves to Colorado is likely, enough so that people should take care not to accidentally kill the federally protected animal.
The animal occasionally has shown up in Colorado. A hunter in 2015 mistakenly killed a wolf he thought was a coyote near Kremmling. One was hit by a vehicle and killed on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in 2004, and in 2007 CPW employees took video of an animal near Walden that appeared to be a wolf. A radio-collared wolf was found dead north of Rifle in 2009, and a trailcam in 2015 photographed an animal that appeared to be a wolf.
But Phillips believes CPW is misleading the public in suggesting wolves will re-establish themselves in Colorado on their own. Lone wolves don’t fare well, and he doesn’t see multiple animals safely making it 300 miles from current habitat to the north to Colorado to form packs, given that the state of Wyoming manages wolves there and allows them to be shot as predators on sight, year-round.
Malone said the federal government could give Colorado authority over reintroduction and management of wolves in Colorado. She’d like to see that approach taken, and see the state legislature authorize funding for a reintroduction program, but for now the focus of reintroduction advocates is education. She said it’s important to think about what the public wants, and about making sure the public is knowledgeable about facts rather than myths about wolves, especially since much of any reintroduction effort would involve public land.
“We believe the public should have say-so on what goes on on public land,” she said.
Phillips is one of several leading wolf experts who sit on the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project science advisory team. Among the others are Ed Bangs, who was western gray wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before his retirement, and Doug Smith, wolf restoration project leader at Yellowstone National Park. Phillips on Wednesday told his audience it’s good for people to be skeptical about wolf reintroduction in Colorado and to investigate the issue.
“I just want everybody to know that the time is ripe for this discussion. If you don’t like the idea, for heaven’s sake, fight against it,” he said.