‘Howl you vote?’ wolf advocates, opponents ask Colorado

Polling has found broad support for wolf reintroduction in Colorado, which some opponents call 'ballot-box biology'

Tom Lotshow / Vail Daily
Wolf pack in the cold winter landscape.
Getty Images

Gray wolf reintroduction is on Colorado’s ballot this fall. With it comes widely differing views about one of the most controversial animals in the West, and what its return would mean for the state. 

Advocates like Rob Edward, president of Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which gathered signatures to put reintroduction to a statewide vote, say bringing the gray wolf back to Colorado works on many levels for many people.

If recovered to viable numbers, advocates say, the gray wolf could benefit Colorado’s landscapes and ecosystems — as well as the health of its elk and deer herds, among the nation’s largest, and help manage their impacts on vegetation and streams. 

Voters could also give the endangered gray wolf another important foothold for its recovery, building on reintroductions in the 1990s in Wyoming and Idaho and wolves’ spread back into Montana from Canada and Yellowstone.

But others say wolf reintroduction doesn’t work for them on any level. Wolves would threaten Colorado’s deer, elk and moose populations and world-class hunting opportunities that bring business to outfitters and rural communities, opponents argue, and impose major new hardships and livestock losses for ranchers.

According to Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, 39 counties including Grand, Routt and Garfield have passed resolutions opposing wolf reintroduction. 

“These counties are scared to death what would happen if we introduce the wolf,” said Ted Harvey, a former state representative and director of Stop the Wolf Political Action Committee.

Troubled past, murky future

Once widespread in the United States, wolves were widely persecuted and shot, trapped and poisoned until they virtually disappeared from the lower 48 states. Colorado’s last resident wolves were killed in the 1940s. 

Today, there are recovering gray wolf populations in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes states. The species’ protected status, however, remains a fight. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to end federal endangered species protections for gray wolves and to turn their management over to states — something that it has already done for Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and parts of Washington and Oregon. 

Another question coloring wolf reintroduction: Whether it’s needed for wolves recover in Colorado. Confirmed reports of individual wolves making their way to the state date back to 2004. Of seven confirmed wolves, one was found dead beside Interstate 70, one was mistakenly shot by a coyote hunter, one was presumed to have been poisoned, and one had simply escaped from captivity and was recaptured. 

More recently, in 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed approximately six wolves in Moffat County, and a pup was also reportedly spotted by an off-duty state biologist, according to Colorado Public Radio.

“We think wolves are going to come here, and the proof is showing at a more rapid pace than proponents would indicate,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. The association, which represents about half of the meat producers in Colorado, supported a 2004 state management plan for wolves that migrate into the state, but opposes forced reintroduction, Fankhauser said. “We didn’t slam the door on wolves, we said no to introduction.”

Edward and others supporting the initiative say the limited sightings are not evidence of self-sustaining wolves in Colorado and that reintroduction remains the way to ensure the gray wolf makes a viable recovery in the state. There’s simply too much barrier between Yellowstone and Northern Colorado to “facilitate a sustainable recovery in our children’s lifetime, let alone in our lifetime,” Edward said.

Some opponents call the wolf reintroduction initiative “ballot-box biology.” The argument holds no merit for Edward and other supporters. 

They call it an aspirational vote on whether gray wolves should have a future in Colorado and add that the initiative would do one thing: Task the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (which has opposed wolf reintroduction in the past) to work with the state’s wildlife biologists and public stakeholders to develop a science-based management plan and reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope by Dec. 31, 2023. 

That process, Edward and others say, would determine where wolves are reintroduced and in what numbers, and set population targets. 

The initiative would also direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to help landowners prevent and resolve conflicts between wolves and livestock and fairly compensate ranchers for losses caused by wolves. 

“All this does is break a political logjam,” Edward said of the ballot initiative and past refusals by state and federal agencies to reintroduce gray wolves for their recovery in Colorado. “It’s time to get on with it, but this is the only way to affect that. We’re going to ask the people.”

Wolf habitat

According to the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University, multiple studies have found the state could sustain a viable population of gray wolves with its elk and deer populations and more than 24 million acres of public lands. One 1994 study found Colorado could support more than 1,000 wolves. Another in 2006 predicted it could support at least 400 wolves by 2025, after forecasting population growth and increased road development. 

The Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence formed this year to help minimize landscape conflicts between people and predators. It has developed a series of informational fact-sheets about wolves and management issues ranging from big-game populations to livestock and public safety, because conversations about them are so complicated, contentious and multi-dimensional. 

“They evoke a lot of passion in people on both sides,” said professor Kevin Crooks, the center’s director. 

“Some people view the wolves as a saint that can do no wrong, that are going to dramatically transform the ecosystem. Others feel they are the devil incarnate — that they threaten people and will dramatically change our way of life in Colorado,” Crooks said. “In reality, the science tells us the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Research has found no evidence suggesting that gray wolves would “decimate” Colorado’s big-game populations, Crooks said. Statewide, big-game populations and hunter harvests have not declined in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming, but impacts of wolves can vary at local levels. 

“If wolves were fully restored to Colorado, we would expect the same thing — little impact at the statewide level on the overall numbers of elk and mule deer here in the state. But it is possible, if wolves maintain high enough densities, and if they are acting in concert with other factors, that it might reduce some herds and might impact hunting opportunities in some areas locally,” Crooks said.

A similar scenario would be expected for livestock loss. Statewide in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, research finds a small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole, with wolf depredation affecting less than 1% of annual gross income. But wolves can and do kill livestock and those costs are not borne equally, Crooks said. 

“Many won’t experience any losses, but some will. And for those individual ranchers, when wolves move in and kill, chase or stress livestock, that can result in real economic and emotional impacts.”

Widespread support, and underlying tension

Polling has found broad support for wolf reintroduction in Colorado. Not only among residents of the largest Front Range cities, but also on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains, and among people who identify as ranchers or hunters, said Rebecca Niemiec, a Colorado State professor who studies human dimensions of natural resource management.

But in contentious debates, the gray wolf has grown into a powerful symbol for deeper, unresolved issues and conflicts about conservation values and measures, wildlife and natural resource management, and social equity. “It’s fascinating, you do have this challenge where wolves have become symbolic for so many people on both sides of the issue,” Niemiec said.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), who ranches in Eagle County, attempted to write collaborative legislation earlier this year to both reintroduce wolves to Colorado and work through details about how wolves would be managed and who would pay for the program and livestock losses. The process was put on hold because of coronavirus restrictions.

“The ongoing CPW budget is definitely strapped, and we need to rethink how we fund CPW in Colorado. More and more people are getting outdoors, but less and less people are paying for it,” Donovan said. “These are not arguments for or against (the initiative). They are just realities of what this means if wolves come here on their own or via introduction.”

Wolves are highlighting the tensions and pressures of a changing Colorado, Donovan said. And coupled with regulatory burdens, water, climate change, and the impact of growing suburbs and towns, it’s important for everyone to realize wolves would add another pressure for ranchers in the state, Donovan said. 

“All these things contribute a lot of pressure on agriculture. Throw on a ballot measure about introducing an apex predator, and it’s not hard to understand why people are saying this is the final straw.”

Decision time

In less than two months, Colorado voters will decide where they fit in the wolf debate, and if they want to try again to share the Rocky Mountains with the gray wolf: An animal that was killed off nearly 80 years ago, yet also appears to be finding its way back into the state in limited numbers as it recovers elsewhere.

Researchers said there’s no way to tell if and when the small numbers of wolves “dispersing” into Colorado will amount to a viable, self-sustaining population. Reintroduction would help reduce that uncertainty and improve the odds of a future with the gray wolf in Colorado. 

At least if that’s what voters decide: To welcome back a predator that remains as simultaneously vilified and idolized as ever, and to commit to trying to equitably work through conflicts that will inevitably arise. 

What that future would look like depends on who you ask, said Grant Spickelmier, executive director of the educational International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. “Ranchers say sharing the landscape with wolves includes livestock losses, which is true. Environmental groups say sharing the landscape with wolves creates better functioning ecosystems. This, too, is true.”

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