CPW meeting mid-month to discuss wolf policy
The debate over whether or not it’s wise to restore the grey wolf to Colorado has carried on ever since the keystone predators last howled in the wild here more than 70 years ago.
Conservationists and wildlife lovers have long called for the wolf’s return to Colorado, but ranchers, hunters and farmers have voiced opposition. Gov. John Hickenlooper has maintained that he will fight to keep the native animals out of the state.
No animal raises the hackles of ranchers more than the wolf. The animals were wiped out in Colorado during the mid-1930s, but once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the western U.S.
The last Colorado wolves were killed in the early 1940s.
Ranchers lobbied the government to start an eradication campaign in the 19th century, and cash bounties were offered for dead wolves.
According to the the Fish and Wildlife Service website, “wolves were trapped, shot, dug from their dens, and hunted with dogs. Poisoned animal carcasses were left out for wolves, a practice that also killed eagles, ravens, foxes, bears, and other animals that fed on the tainted carrion.”
In a Colorado Parks and Wildlife draft resolution on wolf management, conflicts with livestock and big game are listed as one of many concerns, prompting the state to oppose efforts to reintroduce wolves.
“Be it resolved, that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission affirms its support of the Wolf Working Group’s recommendations adopted by the Wildlife Commission in May 2005 and hereby opposes any introduction of Mexican or intentional reintroduction of gray wolves in the State of Colorado,” the document notes.
A meeting is set in Denver for mid-January, and the matter will be discussed further, according to CPW spokesman Matt Robbins.
He added that a press release will be out early next week giving greater detail to CPW’s stance on wolf introduction.
“There will be a discussion on it,” Robbins said. “Whether there will be a resolution to be voted on is a matter for the [wildlife] commission.”
Colorado’s ecosystem has seen many changes since wolves last roamed here.
Delia Malone, an ecologist and wildlife team chairperson at the Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Chapter, said Thursday that wolves will help restore the natural balance in the state.
She said that riparian areas would rebound if elk were forced to move around more, and not simply sit and gorge on forage.
Jonathan Lowsky, wildlife ecologist and principal of Basalt-based Colorado Wildlife Science, said if you look at the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park before and after wolf reintroduction, the benefits the predators bring to the ecosystem are apparent.
Before wolves, the banks of the Lamar River were sloughing off, and only grasses covered the landscape because the growing elk population had eaten all the woody vegetation away from riparian areas, he said.
“The elk would just hang out like cows and eat every willow sucker that came up,” Lowsky said. “Now that wolves are back, the area is robust. It completely changed the habitat. Songbirds, beavers, otter, and fish have all tremendously benefitted because the elk can’t just sit there and chow down. It’s been a tremendously positive effect.”
He added that foxes also bounced back, as the wolves killed off many of the coyotes that preyed upon them in the area.
Lowsky said wolves would likely help the declining mule deer population in Western Slope, by thinning out the number of elk, which compete with deer for forage.
“Elk chase deer off,” he said. “The return of elk to historical population levels or higher is negatively affecting the deer.”
Lowsky said that most of the wolves that were reintroduced to the Lower 48 came from Canada, and are genetically disposed to prey on elk. This would help strengthen the overall population of elk, as well, since wolves cull the weak and unhealthy.
Malone said wolves’ primary beneficial activity would be moving elk herds around.
“As soon as wolves come back, you’d see elk moving up to higher ground where they can get a view of the wolves,” she said. “And then you start to see the recovery of the landscape.”
Lowsky added that wolves are of no danger to humans, and would likely live in the high country up near Independence Pass.
“Lions are more tolerant of people than wolves,” he said. “They are not out eating babies, they are not out eating dogs, and they only occasionally kill livestock.”
He added that unlike moose and mountain goats, which are introduced species to Colorado, wolves were always here, and in robust numbers, making them essential to the ecosystem.
Ranchers still opposed
A scoping report prepared for the Colorado Division of Wildlife in 2004 noted that 73 percent of Coloradans polled (261 people) supported bringing wolves back, while only 20 percent were opposed.
“Among those who support wolves in the state, many support protection and management of wolves once they arrive, but do not endorse reintroduction,” the report noted.
But if wolf recovery programs are to take place, ranchers will have to be onboard in order to elicit support from politicians.
Malone said that cattle and wolves can co-exist, but it requires ranchers to manage them in a more sustainable manner. She said the range recovers quickly when it’s managed to co-exist with wildlife.
While there could be some growing pains getting the ranching community to warm up to wolves, there are benefits to bringing back the apex predators, which move elk herds.
Elk commonly compete with livestock for food on pastures, and damage fences as they travel through. In Colorado, hundreds of thousands are spent each year to reimburse ranchers and farmers for damage from elk.
In fiscal year 2013 (July 2012 to June 2013), Colorado Parks and Wildlife spent more than $1.1 million for game damage claims and prevention. Of that, $890,000 was doled out to settle 301 claims, and more than $1 million the year prior.
The game damage report for that year states that “averaged over the previous 5 years, CPW has paid out $826,326 on 320 claims yearly.”
The state will reimburse for damages caused by elk, deer, bear, mountain lion, pronghorn, moose, and bighorn sheep. Livestock losses are capped at $5,000 for an animal.
“Elk move onto private land during hunting season … and do a lot of damage,” Malone said. “Wolves will move elk off of private land and onto public land where there is hunter-access to those elk. So in an economic sense, wolves will actually improve the hunting.”
Ranchers have long said that wolves will massacre their livestock if brought back to Colorado, but Malone said the facts don’t back that up.
She said that in 2014, there were 116 sheep and 134 cattle documented to have been killed by wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. That’s out of around 850,000 sheep and more than 6 million cattle.
“Even if you increase those numbers by ten-fold, they’re so minimal,” Malone said. “There are strategies being used up there with sheep and cattle that are basically resulting in a dramatic decline in that already low depredation rate.”
In a recent guest opinion piece in the Aspen Daily News, longtime local rancher Marj Perry called Malone’s take on wolf reintroduction “absurdly optimistic.”
“Malone simplifies the complexity and diversity of Colorado’s ecosystems to a one-size-fits-all for the entire Rocky Mountain region,” Perry wrote. “She does not acknowledge the economic impact to ranching that a wolf and cow geographical overlap would result in.”
She went on to say that there are many cow-calf operators on the Western Slope, and those grazing with a Forest Service permit on public lands would be “easy prey” for wolves.
“Economically, most ranchers walk a tight line. Even if wolves kill very few animals in a herd, they maim others, shredding udders and flanks, and they increase the stress level of the entire herd,” she wrote. “Restoration of wolves puts ranchers, ranches, and all the species that benefit from critical private land on the valley floor in jeopardy of local extinction.”
Malone noted that these lands are owned by the public, and shouldn’t be managed just for the best interests of for-profit businesses.
“Co-existence is totally possible. It’s not one or the other,” she added. “No. 1, these are public lands, and in my opinion, they need to be managed for the public trust. They’re in trust for the entire public, and many of these ranchers think they are their private lands.”
Malone said that many farms are now marketing their products at “predator-friendly” products, and making more money as a result.
“They are getting top dollar for their meat,” she said. “So not only is it organic, but it’s predator friendly, and people like myself, and there are a whole lot of us wolf-huggers out there, will focus on buying [those products] as opposed to ones that we know are being produced with non-predator-friendly management practices.”
Wolf populations up, but still limited
The gray wolf was officially listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, but it’s been an arduous effort to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there were 1,802 wolves in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming in December 2014. There were also as many as 11,200 in Alaska, and 3,722 in the western Great Lakes states.
Wolves cover a lot of ground; they can run 40 miles per hour when chasing prey, and travel as much as 30 miles a day. Their territories can range in size from less than 50 square miles to more than 1,000 square miles, the Fish and Wildlife Service website noted.
Malone said that Colorado can sustain around 1,000 wolves statewide; those numbers are needed to fulfill their role as a keystone species, she said.
Lowsky said that while he agrees with wolves being in Colorado, he’d rather see then get here naturally, and not as part of a driven recovery effort.
“We do not need to reintroduce wolves to Colorado,” he said. “They are here, and will continue to make it to Colorado.”
Governors oppose Mexican grey wolves above I-40
Environmental groups have proposed bringing endangered Mexican grey wolves (Canis lupus baileyi), a rare subspecies of the grey wolf, to the Four Corners area. There are currently 109 Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico as a result of animal releases that began in the late 1990s.
But more are needed to ensure genetic diversity among the animals. All 109 stem from a captive breeding population of seven wolves.
“You can imagine the genetic bottleneck and the lack of genes, the lack of diversity of genetics that has occurred because of the wolves being wiped out,” Malone said. “We need a population that is genetically robust in order for it to be able to survive, because there has been so much inbreeding.”
Mexican wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but the governors of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah wrote a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in November stating that they had “serious concerns” about a proposed recovery plan.
They argued that the wolves never lived north of Interstate 40, and the recovery efforts should focus on land in Mexico.
“While we support the completion of such a recovery plan, which includes all relevant biological, social, and legal considerations, and is fully vetted by state, tribal and local governments and key stakeholders, we do not support recovery of the Mexican wolf across regions and landscapes that are not part of the subspecies’ historical range,” the letter noted. “Recovery of the Mexican wolf cannot and will not be achieved if the Service does not recognize that the majority of Mexican wolf recovery must occur in Mexico.”
The governors opined that there is an agenda to bring the Mexican wolf north of I-40.
“While we support Mexican wolf recovery planning efforts, such efforts must be based on science not ideology or personal agendas,” the letter noted. “We are wholly unsupportive of a recovery planning effort that will be funneled through agenda-driven participants.”
The governors also argued that the Mexican grey wolf would breed with grey wolves from the north, creating hybrids.
Malone said that the Mexican wolf did inhabit Colorado at some point, and that the two share much of the same genetics.
“You have to look at a little bit bigger picture in space and time,” she said. “There’s been reproductive intergradation, there’s been species mixing back and forth.”
West Slope’s great secret?
While Colorado is officially listed as being devoid of wolves, many reported sightings occur each year.
In 2009, a young wolf from Yellowstone National Park wandered into the Vail Valley, and another was struck and killed on I-70 near Idaho Springs in 2004.
Another Yellowstone-area wolf was found poisoned in 2009 by a banned substance, Compound 1080, in Rio Blanco County.
This summer, a hunter shot and killed a wolf near Kremmling, claiming that he believed it was a coyote. And while federal law protects wolves in the state, if a hunter says he or she thought the wolf was a coyote, they are virtually assured of not receiving a fine.
That precedent was set by the United States V. Chad McKittrick case in which McKittrick shot and killed a wolf in Montana, and decapitated and skinned it.
He was charged with three counts, found guilty by a jury, and sentenced to six months in prison. But on appeal, McKittrick claimed he was shooting at a wild dog.
He lost the appeal, but the Justice Department crated a policy in which it must be proven that the hunter knowingly killed a protected species to be prosecuted.
Lowsky pointed out that an adult wolf weighs around 110 pounds, while a coyote would be around 30 pounds, making the distinction pretty obvious.
Many environmental groups are fighting legal battles over the oft-used loophole, which has allowed dozens of people to avoid prosecution after killing a protected animal.
This is one reason so many are tight-lipped when asked if wolves are living in Colorado — they fear people will hunt them down and shoot them.
Another wolf that made it down to the Grand Canyon, affectionately named Echo, was also shot and killed by a hunter claiming that he thought it was a coyote.
Malone said that wolf would have brought a genetic “rescue effect” to the Mexican grey wolves in Arizona had she made the trek unscathed.
Ultimately, she said that wolves are necessary for the health of Colorado’s ecosystem, and more needs to be done to protect them in route.
“A few intrepid wolves have made it here through, literally, the gauntlet,” Malone said. “It can be done. They’re coming … they want to be here.”
As part of the popular Naturalist Nights series, Malone will present “Should Gray Wolves be Restored to Colorado?” this week. Two presentations will take place: the first at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Carbondale’s Third Street Center, and another at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Hallam Lake.
She said there are three takeaways she hopes to impart in attendees of the events.
“We can co-exist, Colorado needs wolves, and wolves need Colorado,” Malone said.