Letter: Wolves are to be celebrated, not vilified
This week, Oct. 16 to 22, marks National Wolf Awareness Week. Now in its 20th year, it was first celebrated the year following the reintroduction of wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
Why “Wolf Awareness Week”? The gray wolf is an iconic species that’s played an important role in our collective consciousness, although often as the villain. Though the species is historically controversial, perceptions are changing as a growing body of science underscores the important role wolves play in many of our native ecosystems.
In Colorado, a campaign of government-sponsored trapping, poisoning and hunting rendered wolves regionally extinct by 1945. As recently as last year, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, with the support of Gov. John Hickenlooper, adamantly resisted a proposal to bring rare Mexican gray wolves into Colorado to save them from extinction.
So why celebrate wolves? Because, as carnivores, wolves sit at the apex of western ecosystems, keeping elk and deer in check and on the move. With wolves in the mix, pressure on native vegetation abates, thus aiding smaller herbivores and birds that rely on these plants.
Despite their ecological importance, and despite the fact that we’ve only recently pulled wolves back from the brink of extinction in the Northern Rockies, the federal government removed protection for gray wolves, leaving the species now subject to trophy wolf hunts and less restricted killing on behalf of livestock interests. This unfortunate turn of events for wolves is rooted in intractable myths.
Myth 1: Wolves would decimate elk populations. Science shows that, in places where wolves have returned, they are only a part of the complex ebb-and-flow of elk and deer populations and that they are not a significant factor driving purported population declines.
Myth 2: Wolves put ranchers out of business. Again, science paints a different picture. Where wolves and livestock share common ground, less than one in ten-thousand cows and sheep are taken by wolves each year—many more animals are killed by lightning in those same areas. Notably, when coexistence strategies are in place and wolf packs aren’t disrupted by shooting adult wolves, livestock conflicts remain rare.)
Myth 3. Wolves pose a threat people. Hmm. Were this true, we should have seen dozens of hikers and campers in Yellowstone suffer serious injuries and loss of life caused by encounters with wolves. In fact, the data shows that, since 1995, there has not been a single incident of wolves being aggressive toward humans. That said, wolves are wild animals and we should respect their presence and strength by giving them room and not habituating them to human goodies (common sense at its best!).
So, let’s all take the opportunity this week to think about how western Colorado might benefit from the return of wolves. Then, let’s take that enthusiasm and translate it into the sustained energy needed to make that dream a reality. For more info, visit the website for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club at sierraclub.org/rockymountain-chapter/wolves.
Wildlife chair, Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Chapter