Reintroducing wolves helps ecosystem
In a recent letter to the editor, Barry Vaughan questions Delia Malone’s March 5 editorial endorsing the reintroduction of the wolf to Colorado. Vaughan raises some interesting issues but his suggestion that proponents of wolf reintroduction are motivated by a need to ease some collective sense of guilt over our ancestors wiping out this magnificent animal is chicanery. Most proponents of reintroducing wolves to Colorado have given the issue careful thought based on ecological science and through studying what has now been more than 20 years of experience in the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Anyone with even a superficial interest in wildlife biology understands the concept of trophic cascades and the role of apex predators such as the wolf, the mountain lion and the bear in that dynamic. The concept is simple: eliminate an apex predator and its prey gets out of balance not just in terms of numbers but in terms of behavior. Subsequently the whole food chain of plants and animals in that region — willow trees, aspens, beavers, songbirds, trout – fall out of balance, both in numbers and behavior.
While one could argue that we control elk through hunting tags, that misses the point. Wolves do a much better job of culling old and unhealthy animals than hunters who have much less discretion in what they shoot. For example, Colorado has an epidemic of Chronic Wasting Disease, a degenerative neurological illness, among its deer and elk population. Since wolves take the sick animals first, it’s eminently logical to assume that wolves could dramatically improve the health of our elk herds.
As we’ve seen in the 20 years of the wolves inhabiting Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, wolves also change the grazing and migration patterns of elk and deer. Without an apex predator in the territory, elk and deer spend an inordinate amount of time in river bottoms, putting a heavy toll on riparian ecology. With the wolf in the area, the deer and elk tend to travel out of the riparian areas for survival, and the riparian areas rebound in kind.
The idea that wolves have decimated elk in Idaho’s Lolo region as suggested by Vaughan, is disputed by many accredited scientists who suggest the falling populations are due to other factors, including poor habitat. What we do know is that Montana and Wyoming have more elk than they can handle even with 20 years of wolves.
Wolves also have a controlling effect on coyotes — mesopredators — far more sophisticated and effective than our federal predator control program despite the billions of dollars spent over the years. Finally, according to a University of Montana study, the reintroduction of wolves has added some 35 million dollars annually to the tourist economies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
So to answer Vaughn’s question, “Why should we reintroduce wolves to Colorado’s backcountry?” The answer is simple: They are magnificent animals who will make our ecology and our economy stronger. Guilt has nothing to do with it.
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