Signatures are due on Friday, Dec. 13 for petitioners who are hoping to reintroduce wolves to our state. Wolves were last known to be living in Colorado in the 1940s. If the petitioners get enough signatures, the question will be put to Colorado voters during the 2020 election.
On KUNC's Colorado Edition, hosts Erin O'Toole and Henry Zimmerman spoke with Ali Budner, a reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau based out of KRCC in Colorado Springs, who has been reporting on the debate surrounding wolf restoration.
If Colorado voters decide to reintroduce wolves to our state, it wouldn't be the first time an animal has gone through that process.
Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, joined the show to discuss a successful species reintroduction to Colorado: the Canada lynx.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
THE DEBATE AROUND WOLF REINTRODUCTION
Henry Zimmerman: If this measure were to get enough signatures and pass in 2020, what would happen?
Ali Budner: You wouldn't all of a sudden see gray wolves roaming the mountains of Colorado immediately. It would basically set a process in motion that would be working towards reintroducing gray wolves, specifically to the public lands in the mountains of Western Colorado.
It's unclear how many wolves would be re-introduced, but one of the biologists Mike Phillips, who happens to be a Montana state senator that I spoke with in my reporting, told me he thinks it would probably take around 45 relocated wolves over the period of three years to establish a viable population. He's actually one of the people who helped orchestrate reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone back in the mid-90s.
Another important thing to note about this measure is that the language actually says that Colorado Parks and Wildlife would have to use the best scientific data available, they would have to hold public hearings about the impacts of reintroduction from a wide range of scientific, economic and social impacts, and they would also have to provide a method for resolving any financial losses that the reintroduction of these wolves, these predators, would cause for ranchers specifically.
And then they say as far as timing that they would aim to start the actual reintroduction by about 2023.
What is the downside of reintroducing wolves?
This is a very controversial issue. A lot of it has to do with this urban-rural divide in Colorado.
One of the main groups that are against reintroducing gray wolves to the state are hunters. Their argument is that wolves prey on elk and deer and that that would leave fewer animals for the hunters in the state, and that hunting is a big economy in Colorado. It draws a lot of people from out of state, from in-state, that could take a big hit.
In addition to that there are a plenty of livestock ranchers, another sector of our economy, that they're also against it mostly because they're concerned about wolves killing their livestock, especially the smaller ones like lambs and calves, when they're out on pasture.
What's really at the crux of it for them too is that they believe this isn't a decision that should be made by voters. They just say it's really dangerous for primarily Front Range urban dwellers in Colorado, because that is where the density of population and voters are, who might have a romantic notion of wolves in the wilderness but won't have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis, that these are the people who will be ultimately making this decision.
Is there an upside?
So the people who are promoting this measure — who come from various conservation groups, wildlife groups, some wolf biologists — they say that in addition to saying that wolves belong on our landscape, they actually say they would improve our landscape by bringing more into balance the predator-prey relationship.
The say we have tons of deer and elk roaming our public lands in the state and that reintroducing a small number of these top-level predators would actually keep the numbers of ungulates — that's the word for animals like deer and elk — keep them in check and that in turn would create less pressure on the ecosystem. So that that would benefit the entire ecosystem, and they say this would bring everything into balance, and they point to Yellowstone as an example where wolves had been reintroduced and say, "Look, this ecology is working a lot better now that wolves live on that landscape."
The last point is there are wolf and wildlife enthusiasts who feel that this animal has a right to live where it used to live. That plenty of Coloradans value the wildness of Colorado's mountain landscapes and really feel that the presence of gray wolves fills that picture out and they just belong here as part of a holistic ecosystem.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE LYNX
Erin O'Toole: Why did the state decide to reintroduce them?
Eric Odell: Colorado Parks and Wildlife has many different kinds of responsibilities. We manage many of the game species, but we also have a real sincere interest in conserving the native wildlife and restoring populations of species that have gone extinct. And the Canada lynx was a really good candidate for this because Colorado was native habitat, historical habitat, they used to be here, trapping records indicate that, and we have the responsibility to restore and maintain these species as well.
So in the early to mid-90s, a couple of agencies put together a plan to think about what it would take to restore both the lynx and wolverine to our state, and for a variety of reasons we just pursued the lynx reintroduction, beginning in 1999.
What can we learn from this example when it comes to other reintroductions?
There's a lot of different kinds of species that Parks and Wildlife have done reintroductions over the past several years, past several decades, and each species is different. Because they have different ecology, different needs, how each of those projects happens is just very different. I think the best thing to learn is to be adaptable, and to learn if you're running into problems try to figure out what those problems are and what you be able to do to work around that.
This example is considered a success. How do you measure if something like this is successful?
It's important to have goals when you're taking on a project like this, how do you know when you've achieved goals, and we set out some benchmarks at the beginning. And primarily it was to say when do we know that the lynx population is stable in Colorado and doesn't need our help, doesn't need direct management actions.
And that generally is when lynx are staying in good habitat, they're not scattering to the wind as soon as they're released, they're finding mates and reproducing and so there's another generation, and overall the survival is just greater than the mortality. Essentially that the animals are staying on the landscape, and at least the population level is stable if not increasing.
This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Dec. 4. Listen to the full episode here.