Packed house at Wheeler for a Q&A with wolf experts ahead of state’s reintroduction |

Packed house at Wheeler for a Q&A with wolf experts ahead of state’s reintroduction

Joanna Lambert, a professor and wildlife biologist with the University of Colorado, delivers the keynote presentation on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, as part of a discussion titled "Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado," put on by ACES at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Wheeler Opera House was packed Wednesday evening for Aspen Center for Environmental Sciences’ “Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado” event. This sold out show began with a collection of short films and a presentation from keynote speaker Joanna E. Lambert, PhD.

Lambert is a professor of environmental studies and faculty of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder who has a deep passion for the wild and natural world, resulting in a career spent publishing and teaching about the evolution, ecology and conservation of wild animals.

Following Lambert’s presentation, five panelists from across Colorado, each with a unique perspective on 2020 proposition the state’s voters passed allow for the reintroduction of gray wolves on the West Slope, discussed some of the biggest topics concerning the wolves’ return to the wild here. The panel was moderated by John Calfa III, the host of the “Wolf Connection” podcast, and staff member of the Wolf Connection organization based in California.

The night ended with music and movement from Lost Walks, a project rooted in music, movement, collaboration and conservation. The group partners with wildlife organizations to raise awareness, empathy and action toward protecting wolves and returning them to Colorado through art.

The panelists

Panelist Matt Barnes: Barnes is a rangeland scientist who founded the Shining Horizons Land Management and his non-profit project Reintegrating Wildness, a part of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.

Panelist Gary Skiba: Skiba is the wildlife program manager at the San Juan Citizens Alliance and former Colorado Division of Wildlife employee. His work focuses on threatened and endangered species management. 

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies CEO Chris Lane makes introductions during “Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado” on Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Panelist Karin Vardaman: Vardaman is the director and co-founder of Working Circle, an organization dedicated to ensuring wolves, livestock, and people can coexist and thrive long term on shared lands.

Panelist Lenny Klinglesmith: Klinglesmith’s ranch has a combined 50 years of family and landowner experience with the state of Colorado’s Ranching for Wildlife program and manages a 13,000-acre property outside of Meeker.

Panelist Matt Yamashita: Yamashita is the the regional wildlife manager at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. His area of management includes Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.


Community members submitted questions to ACES prior to the event and panelists took turns answering them. The main topics addressed by the panel were livestock predation, big game hunting, recreation and tourism.

Livestock predation

Calfa: “What are some of the steps the rancher community is looking to take to prepare for (the reintroduction of wolves) and what are some of the concerns (ranchers) are looking at as this plan moves forward?”

Matt Yamashita, a local wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, talks about wolves Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Klinglesmith: “There’s a lot of angst, a lot of worry in most of the livestock producing community on how this will play out. This is a difficult topic to get your finger on what is reality because the information and stories that you hear has such a wide spectrum from complete disaster to that it’s not a big deal. I think we’re trying to prepare …. I guess my goal and my hope is that the public will get behind it and support and trust CPW and the ranching community to be reasonable.”

Calfa: “Explain some of the measures that are going into the preparedness aspect of this and making sure (ranchers) have the tools to be able to combat any sort of depredation that comes their way.”

Vardaman: “In the last five years alone, we’ve come a long way in having a better understanding of local livestock interaction based on how wolves hunt …. Let’s focus on how we can look to supporting the ranchers from the bottom up and the community based way that supports the ranch operations. We can keep putting down continued amount of unsustainable resources or we can look towards these newer, more advanced approaches and practices that actually help add value to the ranch and it can be built into ranch operation so that ranchers can they can manage this as they do their other practices.”

Lost Walks, a music and dance group that focuses on conservation, performs after the discussion, “Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado,” on Wednesday.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Calfa: “How does (CPW) feel this is going in this wolf-livestock conflict? Do you guys feel confident that this is moving forward in a positive way?”

Yamashita: “Conversations are endless, which is invaluable. The kind of interesting component here is as a staff, primarily composed of biologists by training, we want to rely on the science. Well, we don’t know what that science is in Colorado. It’s difficult for us to gather some of that information.

“The only way we’re going to do this is by trial and error and we’re going to have to figure things out as we go and be able to learn from that, adapt to it, and make better calls in the future. If something doesn’t go well. A lot of the conversation a lot of where that the plan is coming from is based on what we know. But there’s a significant degree of unpredictability embedded in there.”

Ungulate populations

Calfa: “What do you see in other states in terms of wolf-ungulate interactions? What do you think it’s going to look like in Colorado?”

Skiba: “We know that wolves and elk can survive together and can survive quite well together. There is something that always comes up about predation, by wolves on elk or any other species for that matter that they take sick in the week, which they did, but they also can take healthy animals under certain conditions …. One of the reasons they take weak and injured or in some way impaired animals is because it’s safer for them. So that’s what we expect to see.”

Joanna Lambert, center, a professor and wildlife biologist with the University of Colorado, gives her thoughts.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Calfa: “What difference will wolves bring to those (ungulate) populations?”

Skiba: “It’s complicated. It’s not quite that simple. We know that other things were happening. Elk populations are decreasing for various reasons outside (Yellowstone), which affected the elk numbers in the park. There were changes in behavior of the elk where they weren’t using the same areas in quite the same way. So, that did contribute and that was as a result, partly of the wolves. But it just isn’t black and white.”

Calfa: “How is CPW going to be monitoring the populations? I know CPW already monitors the ungulate herds. Is there any change in that or is that going to be an ongoing decision for you to continue to look into those populations as things start to shift?”

Yamashita: “If nothing else, change is inevitable. Without wolves, things are going to change. With the presence of another apex predator, there will be some change.

“We fly everywhere and we do surveys and we’re assessing population distribution, herd compositions, etc. That’s how we manage ungulate herds throughout the state and we’re going to continue to do that. That’s going to be a continual process, what numbers, what results come back, that may be adaptable.”

Barnes: “In some ways the the issues with native prey are a little bit more difficult than the issues with livestock because we can all agree that we don’t want wolves killing livestock, but we expect wolves to kill elk. That’s what they do. We do want to be responsive to the concerns of hunters and outfitters. We discussed monitoring populations in CPW’s draft plan. We don’t ultimately know how many wolves are going to be in Colorado. We do have a lot of elk here. We have more elk here than Montana and Idaho combined. We think we probably could see the day when we have 1,000 wolves in Colorado, but we don’t really know.

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies hosts a discussion titled “Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado” on Wednesday, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“I would add one thing. The real apex predator here is us and what limits elk populations is human hunting and we do that intentionally through regulatory processes with CPW. There’s objectives set for we don’t want our population to go below a certain number or above a certain number, and that’s largely determined by the conflicts between elk and humans. So that’s what it really gets on populations.”

Recreation, tourism and pets

Calfa: “What are the basics that individuals or groups need to know when they’re out in the woods? If rules are a factor there. What do we need to know about the rules surrounding humans and possibly other canines?

Skiba: “Right now, we have mountain lions and bears which can take dogs at any point, and sometimes do. So there may be a little bit of a difference in the sense that wolves tend to see dogs more as a competitor. But in most cases, that’s not going to happen. It’s only going to happen in areas where you’re in very specific situation.”

Joanna Lambert, a professor and wildlife biologist with the University of Colorado, delivers the keynote presentation Wednesdayas part of a discussion titled “Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado,” put on by ACES at the Wheeler Opera House.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“What we know about humans and wolves in North America is we have two confirmed cases. We know one of them isn’t actually absolutely positive. One is there was a runner in Alaska who was killed by wolves about 10 years ago. And there was a young man in Saskatchewan who was killed by wolves, but we don’t know why.

“If you are habituated with animals, you’re just increasing the likelihood of interaction. But as far as human safety, if you’re not concerned about bears and lions right now, you shouldn’t worry about wolves.”