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Colorado Edition: Reintroducing Gray Wolves

Gray wolf
Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Today on a special episode of Colorado Edition: we've teamed up with 1A Across America for a series exploring election issues leading up to November. Today, we look at Proposition 114 — the question of reintroducing gray wolves to our state.

According to state wildlife officials, gray wolves were eradicated from Colorado’s Western Slope 80 years ago. If this proposition passes, the state would begin the process of developing a plan to reintroduce and manage wolves on designated lands in Western Colorado.

Guests:

  • Kevin Crooks - Director for the Center for Human Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University
  • Rebecca Niemiec - Assistant professor in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Department at Colorado State University

Show Highlights

These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What does the ballot measure specifically call for? If it is approved in November, what would happen?

Kevin Crooks: Well, it’s a citizen-initiated measure, and it’s on the ballot in November. And if the proposition passes, it would require the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado — so Canis lupis, the gray wolf. And this would be focused on the Western Slope of Colorado, and would be initiated by the end of 2023.

So this would be a policy goal, and the implementation of that policy goal would be in the hands of the well-trained wildlife biologists at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), so the details of the plan if the ballot initiative passes are yet to be determined. That plan would be developed by the state wildlife agency working with partners.

There have been wolves recently found in Colorado. Why not just let them return naturally?

Crooks: Wolves have been largely absent from the state for 75 years. We know that wolves were restored in Yellowstone in the mid-90s. And over the ensuing decades, CPW is aware of a few lone wolves that did make it down to Colorado. It’s sporadic; none of those wolves established a self-sustaining population. The lone wolves that did come down here died from vehicle collisions, or shooting, or poisoning or they just disappeared.

Over the past year, more wolves have been sighted in the state. There was a lone wolf that was confirmed up near Walden, North Central North Park in summer of 2019. And then in January of this year, a pack of up to six wolves was confirmed up in Moffat County in northwest Colorado. And those wolves likely migrated from a nearby state, probably Wyoming.

READ MORE: Undecided On Wolves? Hear From A Wyoming Wolf Expert Who Has Seen Them At Their Best, And Worst

So to answer the question directly: this small number of wolves up in one corner of the state would not be considered what we would define as a self-sustaining or viable population. A viable population is one that has sufficient numbers and also sufficient distribution so that it has a high likelihood of persisting over the long term. So the wolves, the few wolves that are currently here in Colorado, are at risk. They could be killed or simply disappear, as has happened to the other lone wolves that have migrated down to the state. And indeed there's been recent reports that some of the Colorado wolves, maybe up to three wolves in the pack, may have been shot and killed on the Wyoming-Colorado border.

It's important to note that while protected in Colorado right now under the Endangered Species Act, wolves have full legal protection. Wolves in Wyoming have no legal protection across most of the state, and so that means that they can be killed on sight in Wyoming with no hunting license, with no hunting season.

So that makes it very difficult, challenging for wolves to migrate from Yellowstone through Wyoming into Colorado, so it therefore really lowers the likelihood that a viable population of wolves would arise naturally from migration. So ultimately, if Colorado wants to restore a viable population of wolves to the state, if that's the goal, if that's the policy goal, then active reintroduction by wildlife managers would improve the odds of achieving that.

What do we know about what wolf reintroduction would mean for Colorado ranchers? And is there something we can learn from other states about this?

Crooks: So we can gain insight from other states with wolves, like up in the northern Rocky Mountains, and studies there show that wolf depredation on livestock is a small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole. For example, wolves killing cattle and sheep accounts for less than 1% of the annual gross income of livestock operations up there in the northern Rocky Mountains. Of all the cattle up in the northern Rocky Mountains, wolves kill much less than 1% of them.

But having said that, these costs are unevenly distributed. Wolves do kill livestock — if they're reintroduced to Colorado, it is likely that some livestock will be attacked by wolves. And some ranchers, some producers are going to suffer greater losses than others. And so when wolves come in and kill, chase, stress out livestock, not just the lethal wolves killing livestock, but also these indirect impacts. These are substantial economic and emotional impacts for individual ranchers, and this is really important to consider, because it's these individuals that are going to bear the brunt of the costs that are imposed by wolves.

Now, fortunately, there's a variety of strategies to help prevent or reduce livestock conflict with wolves. Some of the tools are reactive, meaning that we take management actions after the conflict has happened, so often these are lethal tools like we’ll kill, remove a problem wolf that killed livestock. But other tools are proactive — trying to prevent conflict in the first place. So things like fencing or flagging or range riders or guard dogs to help deter wolves or altering grazing strategies to minimize impact with wolves. So this is one thing that we're trying to do at CSU — in collaboration with CSU Extension and private land owners and other partners — is try to work with ranchers to try to implement these kinds of different strategies to help prevent livestock conflict.

Explain the environmental impact of reintroducing wolves.

Crooks: Well, it's a complicated story. We can learn from studies conducted in other places, including national parks like Yellowstone, and in those places, studies have suggested that wolves might reduce over-browsing by elk and deer, which may allow vegetation to recover and improve habitat for other animals, such as songbirds or beavers.

But it's complicated, and the science tells us that the effects of wolves are complex, and that wolves were likely not solely responsible for the kinds of ecosystem changes we've seen up there in Yellowstone over the past 20 years. And it's also unclear to what extent those kinds of impacts might translate to other systems outside of national parks, including in Colorado.

So just in short, if restored to Colorado, we think that wolves might generate ecological effects that ripple through the food web only where they occur in high enough densities for a long enough time. But in many areas with lower densities with the wolves, and then in much of the state where there will be no wolves, ecological effects will be less evident or absent.

Rebecca, walk us through the moral argument behind reintroduction — that wolves were here before we were. So do we humans have an obligation to bring them back?

Rebecca Niemiec: Some colleagues and I at CSU conducted a survey of public perceptions on wolves in 2019, and one of the things that we asked was why people are for or against wolf reintroduction.

And we found a variety of different reasons that people gave, including restoring the balance that we've already talked about, but one of the other reasons that you just brought up was these moral arguments. This idea that that some people thought that this was the right thing to do, because these species were here before us and, and that these animals — because they’re native — deserve to live in our state. We also found that a lot of people talked about really strong emotional and cultural connections to wolves as well.

I want to talk about the emotional connection you mentioned, Rebecca. When it comes to wolves, there’s kind of a tangled narrative — on one hand they’re part of the symbolism of the rugged West. On the other hand, many of us have had our feelings about wolves shaped in childhood, by lore and fairy tales. They're basically the villains in Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs. Talk about how this narrative has influenced the debate we’re currently having.

Niemiec: So what a lot of social science research on wolf reintroduction, wolf management, has found is that the debate over wolves is often a debate over really deeper issues around public lands management, about how we should be managing wilderness and natural areas. Wolves have become symbolic of multiple things on kind of both ends of the debate here.

So on one side, we have people thinking of wolves as an opportunity to reconnect with wilderness, and on the other side, we have folks who see wolves as kind of another example of a threat to livelihoods and traditional ways of life. And so the wolf debate can really be understood within this lens of deeper values towards wilderness and natural resource management.

And how do we reconcile those different values in terms of how we should be managing our wilderness areas and our national resources moving forward? I think a really important thing moving forward is that we have processes that bring together people with these diverse values in decision-making.

Colorado Edition is made possible with support from our KUNC members. Thank you!

Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Wingspan" by Bayou Birds

Colorado Edition is hosted by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1) and Henry Zimmerman, and produced by Lily Tyson. The web was edited by digital editor Jackie Hai. KUNC news director Brian Larson is our executive producer. We get production help from Rae Solomon.

And special thanks to 1A’s Amanda Williams.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a news magazine taking an in-depth look at the issues and culture of Northern Colorado. It's available on our website, as well as on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear the show on KUNC's air, Monday through Thursday at 6:30 p.m., with a rebroadcast of the previous evening's show Tuesday through Friday at 8:30 a.m.

1A Across America is funded through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting. CPB is also the largest single source of funding for research, technology, and program development for public radio, television and related online services.

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