Group backs return of wolves in Southern Rockies

Judith Kohler
The Associated Presss
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Tired of waiting for federal action, a group that advocates restoring wolves to the Southern Rockies is trying to build interest among elected officials and others in the region.

WildEarth Guardians is releasing a report promoting Rocky Mountain National Park and the western part of Colorado and north-central New Mexico as the next best places to restore wolves.

Wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s to rebuild the population. Earlier this month, wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list in the Great Lakes region and parts of the Northern Rockies.

Rob Edward, author of the WildEarth Guardians’ new report, said Friday that the Southern Rockies have the space, prey base and public support to expand the wolf’s territory.

“We have vast wild areas in western Colorado,” Edward said.

Scientific studies have shown that the Southern Rockies could support more than 1,000 wolves, Edward added.

The region has plenty of prey for gray wolves, Edward said. Colorado has the largest elk herd in North America. Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver has so many elk that the Park Service is using sharpshooters to help thin the herd, which has overgrazed parts of the park.

“We’re not pushing this because we think wolves, as genetic entities, need these lands. We are arguing that in fact, this landscape needs wolves,” Edward said.

Wolves were wiped out in Colorado by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned them. At least two wolves from the Yellowstone area have wandered into Colorado.

One radio-collared wolf from Yellowstone was hit and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 70 west of Denver in 2004. A second radio-collared wolf first monitored in Colorado this winter was found dead in March in northwest Colorado.

Federal officials are investigating the wolf’s death.

Despite a few forays by wolves into Colorado, where the animals would have full federal protection, no one expects them to repopulate the state on their own. The Colorado Wildlife Commission opposes releasing wolves to restore them to the state. Federal officials have no plan to release wolves in Colorado.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is busy closing out the recovery program in the Northern Rockies and is trying to restore the Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest, said Ed Bangs, leader of the agency’s wolf recovery efforts.

“There are 4,000 wolves in the Great Lakes (region) and over 1,600 in the Northern Rockies,” said Bangs, who’s based in Helena, Mont.

Wolves aren’t necessary in Colorado to ensure genetic diversity, Bangs said. The Endangered Species Act is supposed to prevent extinctions, not require that species are restored to all their historic turf, he added.

“Pre-Columbus, wolves were found from Mexico City to the Arctic Ocean and from coast to coast,” Bangs said.

Today, much of the wolf’s original habitat has dramatically changed. Bangs said much of the land suitable for wolves in Colorado is fragmented, and high-elevation wilderness areas would be too harsh much of the year.

Bangs said wolves could be successfully returned to Rocky Mountain National Park. The problems would start when the animals leave the park, he said.

“An average wolf pack requires 200 to 500 square miles,” Bangs said. “A lone wolf requires 1,500 square miles.”

Park officials’ preliminary plan for thinning Rocky Mountain National Park’s elk herd said wolves would best meet environmental objectives and do the least damage but didn’t recommend that option. The National Park Service said the support and cooperation it would need from other public agencies to release wolves didn’t exist.

Edward of WildEarth Guardians said he believes the public would support wolves roaming Colorado. He thinks the Fish and Wildlife Service goes too far to accommodate ranchers, some of whom oppose restoring wolves because of attacks on their animals.

“The population of Colorado is clearly in favor of wolf restoration,” Edward said.

A 1994 poll for the Fish and Wildlife Service showed that 71 percent of Coloradans surveyed supported returning wolves to the state.

Edward hopes to win support from Colorado’s congressional delegation and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said he was disappointed when Salazar, a former Colorado senator, upheld a proposal by the Bush administration to take the wolves in Montana and Idaho and the Great Lakes area off the endangered species list.

“As disappointed as we are in his decision,” Edward said, “we hold hope that he will agree with us that there is much more to do with wolves and the landscapes.”