We should have a good reason before reintroducing wolves to western Colorado
In his recent biologist’s perspective on wolf restoration, Mike Phillips argues that co-existing with wolves in western Colorado would be a straightforward affair. That’s not surprising, because he’s not just a biologist but also a Montana state senator, where he has been actively promoting wolf reintroduction. He works for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, a private company whose mission is to protect imperiled species with an emphasis on the nearly 2 million acres owned by Ted Turner. He has co-authored “Awaking Spirits,” which promotes the restoration of wolves throughout the southern Rockies, linking wolf populations in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Phillips also wears two hats at the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, being not just an advisor but also its director, according to Tides Center, the San Francisco-based “fiscal sponsor” which funds Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. In other words, Phillips has made a career of promoting wolf reintroduction; he knows more about it than almost anyone else.
But at the core of Phillip’s mission lies a profound fallacy. His contention that “re-establishing the wolf is a step toward restoring an important part of Colorado’s natural balance” is simple question-begging. It assumes that Colorado’s natural balance needs to be “restored. It assumes that a natural ecological balance in Colorado today requires wolves because wolves were part of the balance 100 years ago.
The fact is that we have a new balance. Over 70 years ago, Mother Nature handled wolf eradication without any intelligent tinkering by would-be stewards of the land. Other members of the predator cohort took up the slack, populations adjusted, and a new balance was established. That’s what we’ve got now — a wolf-free, harmonious, natural, ecological balance.
Phillips can point to no scientific reports of trophic wolf cascade damaging riparian lands, threatening aspen or causing deer or elk overpopulation in western Colorado. He has lots of studies of what’s happened elsewhere, in places like Yellowstone (where, unlike Colorado, there is no hunting), but he has no study, not one, that shows there is an ecological imbalance in western Colorado caused by the absence of wolves. All Phillips and other wolf advocates have as their motivational bedrock is the idealized conservationist’s dream of restoring Colorado’s former ecological health and wilderness character.
Without a time machine, that dream is a fantasy. We’ve got over 5 million people living in Colorado now, not just the 1 million that were here when wolves were eradicated. The idea of returning western Colorado to an early 20th century ecological balance is about as realistic as the idea of returning the Roaring Fork Valley to the days when it was nothing but potato farms, cattle ranches and a collapsed mining economy.
If Ted Turner wants to intelligently tinker with his 2 million acres in Montana, good for him. But before we start tinkering with our ecology here in western Colorado, we should have a good reason for doing so. For me, an outdated, romanticized and sanitized image of an extirpated apex predator is not a good reason.