Stalking prey: How hunters could help control an influx of apex predators into Grand County
For Sky-Hi News
Part three in our series on the coming wolf reintroduction in Colorado.
May 13 — Stalking prey: How hunters could help control an influx of apex predators into Grand County
Every year, hunters from across the country flock to Colorado’s sage brush prairies, thick aspen forests, and moody Rocky Mountain glens to stalk, and hopefully harvest, the state’s abundant elk, deer, pronghorn antelope and moose. But as early as the next year and a half, hunters won’t be alone as they pursue their prey in Colorado’s breathtaking wilderness. Wolves, the historical apex predators of North America, are due to make a comeback to the Centennial State. Because of this, some hunters are beginning to speculate — and worry — about how wolves’ presence will affect their ability to harvest big game.
Who will be the top dog in Colorado’s prolific hunting grounds?
In fall 2020, voters passed Proposition 114, which required Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop and implement a plan to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. The ballot measure passed, but by a very slim margin — with only 50.4% of the vote favoring reintroduction. Now, Parks and Wildlife is slated to begin the process of reintroducing wolves to the state, with the first pack of scheduled for arrival by December 30, 2023.
The decision to reintroduce wolves has been met with enthusiasm by one half of the state, and apprehension by the other. Ranching communities in the western and northern parts of the state are concerned that reintroduction of wolves will lead to wolves killing their livestock, losing them money and preventing meat from reaching grocery store shelves.
Proponents of Prop. 114 are heralding the return of the wolf as a success, and something that can restore balance to Colorado’s ecosystems — lost when Colorado’s last wolf was killed in the 1940s.
But one group has been noticeably absent from the discourse about Colorado’s wolf reintroduction: hunters.
The balance between hunters, wolves and game animals
Colorado’s elk, deer and moose populations are some of the most prosperous and largest in the nation. As of 2021, Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimated that there were 308,901 elk, 416,426 deer, and 3,505 moose living in the state. Those numbers are part of the reason why proponents of wolf reintroduction believe they should come back — an abundance of natural prey, in tandem with Colorado’s 8.3 million acres of public land, could lead to a thriving population.
But the same reasons why Colorado would make for prime wolf habitat are also why the state is so popular among hunters. Because of this, the question arises: How will hunters and wolves coexist?
Steve Znamenacek, the owner of One80 Outfitters in Steamboat Springs, has over two decades of experience in wildlife management in Colorado. As an avid hunter, Znamenacek also has valuable insight into how Colorado hunters and their prey may be impacted by the reintroduction of wolves.
Znamenacek says when wolves are reintroduced, the numbers of ungulates in the state will likely change, depending on how large Colorado’s wolf packs get. He also points out that wolves impact the distribution and movement patterns on elk and deer within a given environment. Because of these changes, hunters will be faced with new circumstances when out in the field.
“Those impacts on population numbers could affect the licenses that are available, and could reduce their success — less hunters in the field who actually get to harvest an animal,” says Znamenacek.
As a result, Parks and Wildlife could have less funding to effectively manage the state’s open spaces and animals.
In 2021, the agency estimated that hunters harvested 35,230 elk, 40,561 deer and 411 moose. As Colorado big game tags cost anywhere between $42.01 to $2,343.10, depending on a hunter’s residency status and the animal they apply to hunt, the state raises a significant amount of money through the sale of hunting licenses.
Colorado generates a massive amount of funding through hunting and fishing license sales. This money helps fund the state’s wildlife management and resource conservation programs, while also boosting the state’s economy. According to the Colorado Wildlife Council, the hunting and fishing industry brings as much as $3.25 billion dollars into the state annually, and supports over 25,000 full-time jobs.
Colorado also manages wildlife through hunter participation. The state models wildlife populations, sets goals for how large a species population they want, and sets quotas for how many permits can be issued in a given hunting season. This way, hunters can harvest big game animals in a way that maximizes the amount of people who go home with an animal while also ensuring that the state’s big game populations remain sustainable.
Hunting in Colorado is a win-win when it comes to managing game populations. Hunters win as they are given the chance to stock their freezers with wild game. Parks and Wildlife, and the animals, win as a healthy, sustainable population is maintained to help balance out the ecosystem.
The state is not concerned about a noticeable decrease in ungulate populations post-reintroduction according to Travis Duncan, a spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We do not expect statewide impacts to ungulate populations from having wolves on the landscape,” says Duncan, “CPW has initiated intensive monitoring of some ungulate populations prior to the reintroductions occurring so that we have data to make informed statements.”
Duncan also states that the reintroduction of wolves will give wildlife biologists and other researchers “an opportunity for a wealth of research on how wolves may navigate more populated areas, how the species adapts to the effects of a changing climate, and potential roles in disease control or impacts on vegetation on the Colorado landscape.”
Nor are wolves the wanton, bloodthirsty killers they are made out to be, according to Rob Edward, a cofounder and strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project
“Unlike mountain lions, for example, which hunt by ambush, wolves hunt by going out as a family group, and getting in the face of their prey, literally testing them, and trying to get them to run,” said Edward.
Once their prey moves, they try to separate weaker members of a herd, say an elk that’s sick, an elderly mule deer or a moose calf, Edward said.
“They are very good at identifying infirmities that make prey vulnerable,” he added.
So, because of how wolves hunt in nature, it’s likely not realistic to assume that these controversial canines will go out of their way to kill off an entire elk population. It wouldn’t make sense to do so when going after a elk with chronic wasting disease is much more efficient than trying to take down a fully grown bull elk.
It’s currently assumed, then, that the amount of healthy individuals a hunter would actually want to kill and eat would not be directly affected by wolf predation, as mainly sick or elderly individuals would be taken out by wolves.
A dividing issue
Regardless, wolves are still a touchy subject in Colorado.
Prop. 114 was passed by mainly non-rural counties in Colorado (think Boulder, Denver and Larimer), while more rural counties, home to many of Colorado’s ranching communities, tended to vote against the ballot measure. Since the vote was so tight, the debate about wolves in Colorado can often become heated.
“Ballot box biology is a big problem,” says Znamenacek. “Less than 1% difference in those who want it and don’t want it is a though pill to swallow, especially since those who want reintroduction lie outside the reintroduction area.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has designated the area in which wolves will be reintroduced as “those lands west of the Continental Divide in Colorado that the commission determines are consistent with its plan to restore and manage gray wolves.”
“Those lands” are largely on the opposite end of the state from the Front Range, where many of the votes to reintroduce wolves came from. Because of this, many people who live on Colorado’s Western Slope or in the northern part of the state, where wolves will be reintroduced, have grown bitter about urban voters.
“Politics have become such a big part of wildlife management,” said Znamenacek. “Our wildlife professionals, which I used to be one of, are hired by the state to manage this wildlife resource for the people of Colorado. They were not allowed to interject their professional decision on the wolf reintroduction during this process — that was a political decision.”
A place where this issue rears its head is in how wolves are managed. Shooting a wolf in Colorado is illegal, due to the canines’ designation as an endangered species. Parks and Wildlife states that wolves, “may not be killed for any reason other than human self-defense,” and that “depredation is not a legal reason for killing a wolf.”
Znamenaceck points out that, since hunters currently play a large role in managing wildlife populations in Colorado, that they could play a part in the future management of wolves. Predator control by hunting has been done in Colorado before — the state manages black bear populations in the state by selling a fluctuating number of hunting licenses each season, based on the current bear populations. Znamenaceck states that wolves could be managed in a similar way.
“We need to start the management of the wolf sooner rather than later,” says Znamenacek.
It seems unlikely that Colorado will delist the wolf from the endangered species list and allow hunting anytime soon, unlike Wyoming, Idaho or Montana, whose policy towards wolves is more hostile than the Centennial State.
A changing reality
Wolves will be reintroduced to public lands, which include spaces used by hunters, ranchers, skiers, hikers and others. As the animals arrive, being for or against reintroduction will likely matter less as time goes on.
“The people of Colorado, through the wonder of democracy, have spoken, and they said, ‘we want wolves back,’” says Edward.
Even Znamenacek, who voted against Prop. 114, admits that there is room for wolves in Colorado, with the condition that they need to be effectively managed.
It remains to be seen how much this will include hunters.
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