Local ranchers join debate over wolf reintroduction

As the years-long debate over wolf reintroduction continues to swirl in the state, a group of western slope ranchers have formed a coalition to oppose those efforts and at least one local cattleman is speaking out in support of their campaign.

Last year, the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition was formed to oppose any future wolf reintroduction into the state, made up of ranchers, farmers and sports enthusiasts from throughout Colorado. In Grand County, more than a few local ranchers are adding their names to the chorus of those who oppose wolf reintroduction, including Jody Hill from the Kremmling area.

Born and raised on the high country grazing meadows around Kremmling, Hill is a fifth generation Grand County rancher who one day hopes to pass his family business down to his grandchildren. He runs a cattle operation, with about 450 cow calf pairs, north of Kremmling and just a few short miles away from where a gray wolf was shot by a coyote hunter in 2015.

Hill did not mince words over his view on the subject.

“I absolutely don’t want to see it,” Hill said. “We have been ranching up here for 100 years. If they bring wolves in, it will wipe out the sportsman’s paradise we have. It will become detrimental to ranching families.”

Hill stressed the complicated nature of the cattle business.

“We get paid on our calf crop,” Hill explained. “We have enough problems out there between weather and predators. We already have too many lions and bears. We don’t need wolves. Wolves are large animals and hunt in packs. A pack can do a lot of killing.”

While Hill is not officially a member of the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, he said he knows the individuals involved in the organization and whole-heartedly supports their efforts.

“I really hope and pray that the DOW and other people get behind this and stand up to this,” Hill said. “It would be terrible for everybody I think.”

Denny Behrens, co-chairman of Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, echoed Hill’s sentiments.

“Our mission is to educate the general public to the harmful consequences of any wolf introduction in the state of Colorado,” Behrens said.

Behrens said the coalition was officially formed roughly three months ago and was a reaction of sorts to planned actions from proponents of wolf reintroduction. According to Behrens, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and the Turner Endangered Species Fund plan to push for a ballot initiative on wolf reintroduction in Colorado in 2020.

“That is why we formed the coalition,” Behrens said.

While the Stop the Wolf Coalition highlights many of the same points expressed by supporter Hill, Behrens delved into the issue of hydatid disease.

Hydatid disease is a type of parasitic infestation that is spread through fecal matter of dogs and some wild carnivores such as wolves. Officials from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game list gray wolves as one of the primary species affected by the disease. Hydatid disease is transmittable to humans and can potentially be contracted from wolves. The disease can be fatal to humans, livestock and wildlife. The World Health Organization estimates over 1 million people have the disease.

“Most people in the Lower 48 have never heard of it, but it is well known in Europe, Asia, Canada and Alaska,” Behrens said. “We have never had it in the form it is in now and its because they brought wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone. It is spreading and it is going to be a huge consequence for people in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.”

Gray wolves, sometimes called timber wolves or simply wolves, are apex predators capable of taking down the largest animals in North America. While wolves were once a natural feature of Colorado’s wildlife ecosystem they were slowly eradicated from the state as human settlement progressed. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife the last native Colorado gray wolves were killed by about 1940.

For roughly six full decades afterwards wolves were essentially nonexistent in the state. That all changed in 2004 though when a gray wolf, from the Yellowstone area, was hit and killed by a vehicle near Idaho Springs. In 2009, another wolf, from Montana, was found poisoned in Rio Blanco County. The issue of wolves hit closer to home in 2015 when a hunter mistook a wolf for a coyote and shot and killed it not far north of Kremmling.

Apart from these confirmed cases, which all involved verifiable wolf carcasses, there have been numerous reports of wolf sightings across the state over the years. Grand County’s proximity to the Wyoming border, a state where wolves have already been reintroduced, indicates that more wolf encounters are likely to happen locally in the future.

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