Will the wolf win? | AspenTimes.com

Will the wolf win?

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Could it be done? And more importantly, should it be done?

When Colorado finally answers “the wolf question,” the state will do so with the help of the best information that science has to offer.

However, personal politics – the opinions of the state’s registered voters, in particular – will also guide state policy on whether to reintroduce wolves to the area.

Both elements are equally important in the eyes of reintroduction supporters. And while the science seems tipped in the supporters’ favor, public opinion remains somewhat elusive.

No doubt about it, Colorado is prime habitat for wolves. But only two-thirds of the state’s population seems to support the idea.

Rob Edward, of the Boulder-based conservation organization Sinapu, is just one wolf proponent working to tip the scales. Armed with some compelling evidence that supports reintroduction, he’s ready to move forward.

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“One of the things that we were very methodical about was making sure that we did not move forward with a grass-roots campaign until we had good scientific information,” Edward said. “Now that exists, and we can move to the next step.”

Is it feasible?

Colorado’s wolf debate has been fueled, in part, by a 1994 feasibility study conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The study examined 11 national forests around the state to determine “if reintroduction is possible and/or practical,” a memo from study administrators reads.

Officials searched for habitat characteristics -suitability of territory, abundance of food – recommended by wildlife recovery experts around the country. These characteristics are abundant in Colorado, it seems; the study concluded that the state could support at least 1,000 wolves.

“It affirms what we’ve known in our hearts for some time: The southern Rocky Mountains is the mother lode for wolves,” Edward said. “There’s a tremendous amount of native prey [and] a very large amount of public land.”

The USFWS study also examined a wolf pack’s potential effect on the state. The most vocal opposition to reintroduction, Colorado’s ranching community, would see few damages, said Ed Bangs, the northwestern wolf recovery coordinator for USFWS.

“There will be some livestock losses, but if you look at the overall level of losses, it means absolutely zero to the ranching industry,” Bangs said.

Of course, he admitted, “that’s easy to say if it’s not your cattle or sheep.”

Another study, published in April 2003 in the scientific journal Conservation Biology, has also piqued the interest of wolf supporters. The study – conducted in conjunction with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research in Orleans, Calif., and the Turner Endangered Species Fund in Bozeman, Mont. – concludes that 1,000 wolves could be supported in the area between central Wyoming and northern New Mexico.

This area, known as the Southern Rocky Mountain eco-region, includes a sizable section of Colorado.

“Certainly, that eco-region could support a self-sustaining population,” said Mike Phillips, a co-author of the Conservation Biology paper and executive director of the Turner Fund. “There’s no doubt that they could do fine.”

Colorado boasts a “robust” ungulate population, supporting nearly 800,000 hooved animals, including elk and deer, Phillips said. A combination of public land and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory would also go a long way toward accommodating incoming wolf packs.

“There’s a big base of public land, national forest and BLM land,” Phillips said.

The study did reveal one hurdle for wolf supporters, though: The animals will probably not find their way to Colorado on their own. Human barriers, including roads and other developments, would likely keep wolves from naturally migrating this way. Thus, wolf reintroduction in Colorado will require human interference, the study noted. But this obstacle doesn’t discourage carnivore supporters.

“The biological reality of wolf restoration is that we could have wolves breeding and dispersing throughout Colorado easily within a year of a reintroduction program,” Edward said.

Why wolves?

Wildlife officials at Rocky Mountain National Park are overwhelmed by ungulates – elk, in particular.

Wandering elk herds didn’t always have run of the land. Wolves once added the element of “predator control” to highly populated areas, helping keep elk herds in check. That changed in the 1800s, when both species were practically wiped out by excessive hunting around the state.

Elk were reintroduced to central Colorado in the early 1900s, and new herds flourished. Wildlife officials estimate that nearly 300,000 elk wander the state today.

This poses a problem for Rocky Mountain National Park. The local elk have become concentrated in certain areas, where they eat too many young trees. As the park’s supply of willow and aspen slowly dwindles, habitat for birds and small mammals is beginning to disappear.

An ongoing study at Yellowstone National Park, a project of graduate students at Oregon State University, has revealed a similar problem. But Yellowstone has an advantage over the Colorado park; a few hundred wolves do their part to limit elk numbers and territory.

Since this herding of wandering elk seems like a hidden benefit of wolf reintroduction, supporters of the cause have closely followed Yellowstone’s “quaking aspen” study.

“Certainly, the general public hasn’t been thinking about it, but once you think of the implications of that over the course of many years…” Edward said, noting the elk’s nearly 100-year reign in central Colorado.

Another benefit to wolf reintroduction, some researchers hypothesize, could be the restriction of chronic wasting disease among the state’s elk herds. Sick animals would be easier to catch, and an elk suffering from the fatal nerve disease could be felled by wolves before it infects its herd.

Wolves have not spread to those areas affected by chronic wasting disease, and, until they do, this theory cannot be properly tested. This problem is perhaps best summarized by a statement in the 1994 USFWS feasibility study: “We cannot know the consequences of wolf recovery until it actually takes place.”

The people speak

Not much has changed since 1994.

In December of that year, students at Colorado State University – acting on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – conducted a poll of nearly 1,500 Colorado voters. The group found that 70.8 percent of voters “generally support” the idea of wolf reintroduction.

They also found the idea more popular on the Eastern Slope, where 73.8 percent of voters supported the idea. On the Western Slope, 65.1 percent of participants expressed interest in reintroduction.

According to the survey, most voters who favored wolf reintroduction believed that the move would result in preservation of the endangered species, as well as a balance in the state’s deer and elk populations. Those who opposed the measure, survey administrators agreed, were likely to believe that reintroduction threatened the state’s ranching community and would lead to attacks on humans.

Both sides agreed that Colorado ranchers would take matters – and rifles – into their own hands if wolves made their way back to the state.

In March 2001, the Southern Rockies Wolf Restoration Project – a coalition of conservation organizations stationed throughout the mountains – took a poll of its own. The group interviewed 1,300 registered voters in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico and found that an average of 66 percent supported the idea of wolf restoration. (Specific support varied from 68 percent in Arizona and Colorado to 59 percent in New Mexico.)

These polls indicate that the number of reintroduction supporters has wavered only slightly in the past decade. However, opinions are still strong on both sides of the debate, and detractors show no signs of backing down.

“The major thing is, it’s almost impossible for people to be rational when they start talking about wolves,” Bangs said.

Supporters will always see wolves as a symbol of a restored ecosystem, a return to wilderness, he noted. Skeptics, meanwhile, continue to view the animals as an invading nuisance that ravages the landscape and makes life difficult for cattle ranchers and visiting hunters.

Wolf opponents also have a certain advantage in the debate, according to Bangs. The cattle industry carries quite a bit of weight in the state legislature and will have a big hand in shaping future policies.

The arguments against wolf reintroduction are familiar to Bangs – the same questions were once raised about mountain lions. Nearly 30,000 of the animals once known as “devil cats” inhabit the West today, though they were once hunted and destroyed as pests.

The mountain lion’s reputation has improved over the past few decades, even considering that the average cat eats twice as much as the average wolf. And, “unlike wolves, mountain lions attack people,” Bangs said.

“There’s no doubt that there are places in Colorado that wolves could live. The whole issue is wolf habitat in the human heart,” said Bangs. “It’s solely a question of human tolerance.”

Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com

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