`My, what big teeth you have …’ | AspenTimes.com

`My, what big teeth you have …’

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

No more crying wolf in Colorado. Not since the Division of Wildlife announced Sept. 10, “It is likely gray wolves, particularly single, young adults, may wander from gray wolf populations either north or south of Colorado into our state.”

Wolfless since World War II by way of government-sponsored extermination, Colorado might as well have offered this instead – “Posted: Pandora has reopened her box, and the consummate Old West versus New West debate is likely to wander into our state.”

The focus of infernal controversy in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to the north, and New Mexico and Arizona to the south, the wolf is preceded in Colorado by his mythic, marauding reputation. And wolf or no wolf in the state – there have been no confirmed sightings to date though anecdotal reports exist – the wolf issue is upon us.

During the Division of Wildlife’s (DOW) presentation of the “Guidelines for Response to Gray Wolf Reports in Colorado” at the Sept. 10 Colorado Wildlife Commission meeting in Lamar, Director Russell George said the agency will soon pursue a long-term wolf management plan.

“You can continue to wait and watch, which is what’s been happening, but I think while we wait and watch, we should be talking about it,” said George, a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives from Rifle.

And while the tenor of the plan remains unclear – “We’ll embark on this with no presumption of any kind about a conclusion afterward,” George said – it will serve as Colorado’s first step toward addressing a species it banished some 50 years ago.

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Meanwhile, next door in Utah, the Legislature passed a resolution in January calling for a bipartisan group to write a state wolf management plan. Unlike in Colorado, Utah’s Division of Wildlife will not be directly involved in drafting the plan.

The challenge for both Colorado and Utah is that there is no federal mandate to reintroduce wolves in either state, nor is there likely to be one. In contrast, wolf populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are federally supervised under the Endangered Species Act.

By virtue of geography and biology, however, the wolf issue is being forced on Colorado and Utah by the wide-ranging wolves themselves.

Ed Bangs, the northwestern wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, described the Colorado situation this way: “My bottom line – that’s not my problem. … The issue of wolves in Colorado is going to have to be solved by Colorado people.”

The DOW will gather public comment and research legal policy, and, spearheaded by DOW species-conservation staffers, publish a plan in the next “year or so,” according to George.

“Your plan will look differently if you already have wolves in your state than if you don’t, right? We’re not talking about introduction and what to do when we introduce – we’re not there yet,” George said.

“Our [plan] will be what to do when they come, if they do, and what to do in the meantime. We have more time.”

The biological clock, though, is ticking.

Colorado caught in the middle

The 66 wolves reintroduced to the wilds of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana from southwestern Canada in 1995-96, coupled with the 19 or so that recolonized in northwest Montana on their own, have mushroomed into an estimated 700 to 800 wolves in an area centered around the greater Yellowstone National Park ecosystem.

Meanwhile, 34 Mexican gray wolves were released on the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1998, and at least 22 remain.

Colorado and Utah are uniquely positioned in between these two populations, but their days as de facto buffer zones appear numbered.

Last November, a male canis lupus of Yellowstone origin was ensnared in a coyote trap near Ogden, Utah, winning distinction as Utah’s first wild wolf in a half-century (though not the last one since then) before being whisked back to Yellowstone and released. And confirmed wolf attacks on livestock near Rock Springs, Wyo., puts wolves less than 50 miles north of the Colorado border.

To the south, a southern Colorado rancher told the Associated Press this month that Mexican gray wolves have crossed over. “We already have wolves near Chama in New Mexico and in Antonito on our side of the line. People have seen them, but nothing has been done about it,” said Olive Valdez.

Curiously, Colorado still has a $2 wolf bounty on its books, and the DOW and State Legislature formally oppose reintroduction of the wolf or grizzly bear. But the wolf and grizzly are listed on the state’s endangered species list. And for the time being, wolves remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and are closely monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

That said, in April 2003, the USFWS downgraded the gray wolf in the northern Rockies from “endangered” to “threatened.” But in the southern Rockies, a so-called “distinct population segment,” the wolf remains “endangered” and fully protected by Congress. The dividing line between the populations, running through Colorado and Utah, is Interstate 70.

Adding further complexity to the issue, the USFWS has initiated a full delisting of wolves from the endangered list – but only in the northern Rockies. In order for the agency to delist, it must approve recently submitted wolf management plans from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and then transfer wolf stewardship to the states.

Montana completed its plan Sept. 12, and all three state plans are now in the hands of a 12-member scientific review panel. The Endangered Species Act requires that state management plans ensure the long-term survival of the species. The USFWS has suggested that a minimum of 30 packs in the three-state area would constitute a viable population.

But, like any law, the Endangered Species Act is subject to challenge and interpretation. At the earliest, according to the USFWS’s Bangs, the northern Rockies’ wolf population could be delisted in late 2004.

“There’s no way it’ll go forward smoothly,” said Bangs, who has been based in Helena, Mont., for 15 years, after more than a decade of wolf research and management in Alaska. “And that’s about the only thing I can guarantee – we’ve been in litigation since the reintroduction from groups on both sides of the issue, and it’s just the nature of wolves. They seem to make people nutty. It’s going to be really tough, really expensive, but we’re going through the steps and if we move forward, we may get to proposing delisting.

“Wolves are a piece of cake to manage biologically,” Bangs continued, “but from a people standpoint, man, wolves make people crazy.”

A host of wolf advocacy groups will be watching the process closely, reading and rereading Section 4-F of the Endangered Species Act on recovery plans.

“What is recovery?” asked Mike Phillips, one of the two biologists who reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. “You’re hard-pressed to find an answer, but it’s of central importance.

“Is there recovery up in the northern Rockies? Yes. I fully support delisting wolves there. … Everything I know about the Endangered Species Act, everything I know scientifically, tells me it is appropriate. After that, I grow confused,” sighed Phillips, who is now the executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund of Bozeman, Mont.

The rub, Phillips said, is whether a “recovered” population in three states of the northern Rockies constitutes a full recovery in the entire northwest, as the USFWS is suggesting.

“I find it surprising that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that their success applies not only to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, but that it also applies to northern California, all of Oregon and Washington, and Utah and Colorado – all states in the wolf’s former range,” Phillips said.

“Is this what recovery is under the Endangered Species Act? I can’t tell you. But I’m very surprised the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t asked the question … outside of a largely internal discussion. And I’m not the only one starting to connect the dots and find the image lacking.”

Predatory politics

In Colorado, the tide of public opinion has apparently reversed: Whereas the wolf was once the villain, now the livestock industry carries that stigma.

Surveys indicate Coloradans favor reintroducing the wolf, and two different studies suggest the national forests of the Western Slope could support more than 1,000 wolves, according to Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Colorado-based wolf advocacy group.

“We believe recovery cannot be achieved without enough wolves in enough places actually having an impact on their ecosystems,” said Edward. “There can’t just be a token number of wolves out there. So we continue to advocate for reintroduction [in Colorado], and we feel the job as mandated in the Endangered Species Act has not been done until wolves are thriving in the southern Rockies – the last, best place for wolves in the lower 48.”

The livestock industry not only adamantly opposes wolf reintroduction, but many Colorado ranchers are displeased that the Endangered Species Act actually protects wolves in Colorado.

“We see the brutality of predators – we don’t have this golden vision of wolves, but we don’t want to destroy them either,” said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority. “We want to be able to protect our livestock, and we’re made the villain because of that.”

In 2002, wolves in the northern Rockies recovery area killed 52 cattle, 99 sheep, nine dogs and five llamas (numbers that could be confirmed). In response, USFWS agents destroyed 46 wolves thought to be connected with the depredations.

In all, federal agents have killed more than 150 wolves in “lethal control” actions since 1987. In that same period, through 2002, wolves dropped at least 200 cattle, 600 sheep, nine llamas, 50 dogs and one horse. Ranchers are remunerated for losses that can be confirmed by federal agents, and a private compensation fund, the Defenders of Wildlife, has paid out more than $200,000 in claims.

Wolves’ prey of choice remains elk, which make up about 80 percent of kills, followed by deer. But Phillips said prey availability is only one component to suitable wolf habitat.

“They’re one of the greatest ecological generalists there’s ever been,” he said. “They were everywhere. East Coast, West Coast, north, south – these things historically constituted the most widely distributed large mammals in North America.

“This tendency to prey on animals bigger than them isn’t required even,” he continued. “Ultimately, what they need is to be left alone; so in this country, ultimately, the defining characteristic of wolf habitat is tolerance.”

Under the current rules, as outlined in the DOW “guidelines,” Colorado ranchers have few options to protect their herds. South of I-70, where wolves enjoy full “endangered species” protection, they may not be shot for any reason, barring a threat to human life. North of I-70, where the wolf is “threatened,” ranchers may harass wolves on their property but may not shoot to kill. But DOW officers, in conjunction with the USFWS, may issue kill permits to ranchers who have suffered losses.

Since no wolves have entered the state yet (that the DOW can confirm, at least), and scientists don’t believe natural recolonization will occur for decades, the issue hasn’t come to a head.

“We’re on board to say, `Let’s have a management plan,'” said Kline of the Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority, “because right now we can’t do a thing. If you shoot an animal, you’re a criminal.

“I’ve always encouraged my producers to see where we can compromise, but on the wolf issue, we’re pretty clear and it’s, `Hell, no,'” continued Kline, who represents about 300 sheep ranchers and a state flock of approximately 420,000.

Bangs and Phillips counter that, based on research from the northern Rockies wolf population and elsewhere, coexistence between wolves and livestock is possible and that wolf depredations are insignificant from an industry standpoint.

“Wolves are not that big a problem, not that big of a deal for livestock, but in people’s minds they are,” said Bangs. “For the industry, they’ll make no dent whatsoever, but if you’re the person who’s losing sheep or cattle, then it’s a different story, and everyone can sympathize with that.”

Regarding Wyoming, home to the most controversial proposed state management plan (with wolves listed as “predators” outside of protected areas like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park), Bangs conceded wolves will not be restored everywhere.

“There’s a lot of places that people aren’t going to let wolves live, period,” he said. “Not gonna happen.”

When asked if a compromise could be struck, a management stipulation that might put Colorado ranchers at ease, Kline replied: “If there was an unequivocal shoot-on-sight policy when wolves are near your livestock, not actually killing something, but anywhere on your ranch, then we wouldn’t be as upset about this as we are.

“And if wolves were truly endangered,” Kline added, “you’d see a different reaction from us.”

A Colorado vacuum?

While scientists examine the three state management plans submitted as part of the possible delisting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the Colorado DOW’s George said he hopes to create a meaningful dialogue on the wolf issue.

“Part of the public process of a wolf management plan invites public discussion,” he said. “We expect groups to come out and say we’d like to advocate for reintroduction, and I’m quite confident other folks will say they don’t think it’s appropriate.

“It’s appropriate for us as the state’s wildlife managers to engage in a public discussion about all the aspects of wolves and all the possibilities,” George continued.

But with the DOW policy of 1989 opposing the reintroduction of wolves, and a 2000 legislative declaration stating that the Colorado General Assembly must introduce a bill in order to undertake any new reintroductions, George said the DOW’s present position is clear: “State law says there will be no reintroduction until further action. I don’t think it’s a value judgment, it’s just legal authority.”

But Sinapu’s Edward said Colorado should have a wolf-friendly plan in place as part of the northern Rockies delisting process. “If delisting occurs, there’s a big vacuum in Colorado north of I-70,” said Edward, “with contradictions between state policies and laws and statutes, as well as the continued likelihood of federal authority south of I-70.

“And that’s why there’s an argument out there suggesting that delisting should not occur until Colorado has an adequate plan in place. And because wolves are listed on the state endangered species list, to say nothing of the DOW and Legislature’s stated opposition to reintroduction, we believe it’s incumbent on the DOW and state wildlife commission to develop a plan that meets their obligations under the law.”

Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com