Guest commentary: Wolves need to return to Colorado to help ecosystem
March 4, 2018
We need wolves in Colorado. Not merely to restore a natural ecological balance, although wolves are critical to restoring healthy ecosystems, but also to right a terrible wrong that we imposed on both wolves and wild lands. In our quest for manifest destiny, we took this most ecologically important, widespread, common carnivore and subjected them to a campaign of persecution to tame the land for livestock.
Science documents the ecologically restorative effect of wolves on natural landscapes. In the Northern Rockies wolves have reinvigorated the landscape. Colorado isn't so different: the same ecological processes that shaped those lands and wildlife shaped Colorado. But one of Colorado's key ecosystem processes is missing — wolf predation is the process that resulted in the evolution of the magnificent elk so coveted by hunters; wolf control of coyotes allowed other small predators — lynx, foxes, and weasels — to thrive; and wolf moderation of elk populations allows the recovery of streamside vegetation that provides nesting sites for songbirds as well as food and habitat for another essential ecosystem engineer, beaver.
The doomsday scenarios predicted when wolves were restored to the wildlands of the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have not come to pass. Wolves haven't decimated elk herds or ruined the ranching industry in those states. There is no indication that they would do so in Colorado, either.
In these Northern Rocky Mountain states, there are approximately 1,700 gray wolves. Data from state wildlife agencies document that elk populations and hunter success is at or above average compared with pre-wolf reintroduction.
Prey abundance (primarily elk) is the best predictor of habitat quality for wolves. Colorado has the largest elk population in North America with 277,750 elk. Over 60 percent of the Western Slope are public lands managed for conservation purposes and support robust populations of native ungulates. So long as these public lands remain public, they will remain as natural landscapes — threats of suburbia and golf courses will never come to these lands.
Wolves are a hunter's best friend. Because wolves preferentially select the weak and diseased, herds get healthier and stronger. Because wolves moderate herd size, elk don't over-browse their habitat and landscapes are healthier. All in all, wolves benefit the health of both the elk herds and their habitat.
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Livestock losses to wolves constitute a small percent of total losses. In the Northern Rocky states in 2016, a total of 241 cattle and 218 of sheep were confirmed lost to wolves. In perspective, in 2016 in those states, there were 6.37 million cattle and 840,000 sheep. Even so, ranchers are compensated for livestock losses to wolves.
Compensation to ranchers for livestock losses from wolves must be fair, reasonable and rapid. In Washington state, ranchers are paid twice the verified losses to compensate them for those animals that are not found but may have been lost to wolves. We should follow this model.
When wolves were first reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, livestock losses to wolves were compensated by Defenders of Wildlife. When states took over wolf management, they and the Federal government took over payments. Defenders is now focused on preventing wolf depredations by funding wolf coexistence projects, including range riders, guard dogs and portable fencing.
Ranchers in the Northern Rockies who are implementing coexistence strategies are successfully living with carnivores. Yes, implementing coexistence strategies require changes in livestock management. But, these changes, such as range riders, not only prevent wolf depredation but have been shown to benefit the condition of the range, which benefits ranchers.
At the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho, ranchers graze between 15,000 and 20,000 sheep on public land. Over the past two years implementation of coexistence strategies has resulted in zero loss of sheep due to wolves and zero loss of wolves from lethal management. In the Blackfoot Valley in Montana, the simple strategy of removing carcasses of cattle that have died from disease or while giving birth has substantially reduced livestock-carnivore conflicts — since 2003 there has been a 93 percent reduction in grizzly bear conflicts.
Proponents of wolf reintroduction, such as the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, know that coexistence is possible and seek wolf restoration through education — they seek the restoration of our natural heritage and a natural, dynamic balance.
Coloradans have a choice to make. We can chose to remain in the 1880s, with a mindset epitomized by the attitude that the only good wolf, like the only good Indian, is a dead wolf. Or we can choose to go forward together, with a mindset founded in science and lessons learned from decades of wolf research as our guide. We've learned that wolves are essential to healthy ecosystems. We've learned that livestock can coexist with wolves. And we've learned that human survival is intimately intertwined with that of a robust population of wolves.
Delia Malone is the wildlife committee chair of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain chapter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.