‘Wolves have profound ecological and biological effects’
Supporters say wolf reintroduction is the right call for Colorado
For Sky-Hi News
On April 5, we ran a story focused on Grand County ranchers and their feelings about Proposition 114 —now state statute 33-2-105.8 — which directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife to take the steps necessary to begin reintroduction of gray wolves on December 31, 2023. Today we bring you another perspective, that of supporters of Proposition 114.
In the 2020 Colorado state elections, a slim majority of voters passed Proposition 114, officially authorizing Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce wolves into the northwestern part of the Centennial State by the end of 2023.
Yet the decision to reintroduce wolves was hotly contested by Colorado voters. The ballot initiative was only passed by 50.91% of Coloradans, the majority of whom live in 13 urban districts along the Front Range and in the southern portion of the state. Because of this, Proposition 114 is a very touchy subject, depending on who you talk to.
May 13 — Stalking prey: How hunters could help control an influx of apex predators into Grand County
Ranchers in places like Grand County largely don’t approve of the decision to instate Prop. 114, out of reasonable concerns that wolves will attack their cattle, costing them income and taking away grass-fed beef from American grocery stores.
But for advocates of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction, the benefits of bringing these controversial canines outweigh the risks.
According to Rob Edward, the Strategic Advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, Colorado needs wolves.
“Wolves are primarily the engine of evolution in the wild mountainous landscapes of Colorado,” says Edward. “Wolves have profound ecological and biological effects not only on their prey but on the broader environment that their prey animals are a part of.”
To back this up, Edward points to the reintroduction of wolves in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Yellowstone’s ecosystem was completely thrown out of balance with the extermination of wolves. Unsustainably large elk and deer populations overgrazed the national park’s grasses, leading to habitat loss for other animals, rampant erosion, an explosion of chronic wasting disease among elk and a plethora of other unforeseen environmental consequences, all of which were caused by the removal of Yellowstone’s wolves. But after wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995, the park elk herds have reached sustainable numbers and erosion has slowed as overgrazing stopped.
“We wiped wolves out in the early 1900s and we had no understanding of the ecological consequences of doing that, but since then, science has helped us to understand what it meant to eliminate wolves,” said Edward.
Evidently, wolves play a critical part in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. But for cattle ranchers in places like Grand County, livelihood comes first. Many members of rural communities who generate revenue from raising cattle feel that the reintroduction of wolves was not thought through enough by urban votes.
Matt Barnes, a research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, and who previously worked for the USDA in Grand County and managed a ranch in Montrose and Gunnison counties, works to apply range management methods to make livestock less vulnerable to predation by potential native predators.
Barnes says that there are ways for ranchers, their livestock and wolves to coexist in a way that minimizes the amount of cattle lost to wolf attacks.
Barnes suggests that a method of raising cattle called “low-stress livestock handling” could be employed to effectively train herds of cows to behave like herding animals in the wild, such as bison or elk, when threatened by predators.
“Cattle that are kept together with a combination of low-stress livestock handling and rotational grazing management learn that together, as a herd, they can mob up and chase off that potential predator,” said Barnes. “A line of 50 or 100 cattle coming after you is a pretty scary thing if you’re a small canine.”
According to Barnes, wolves can only hunt effectively if they get their prey to run. So, by training cows to act defensively on their own accord when confronted by wolves, the risk of having wolves kill a cow is drastically reduced.
Yet another argument against the state’s reintroduction of wolves into Colorado grows from the fact that they are already here.
In 2019, a lone female grey wolf migrated from the Snake River Pack of Wyoming and took up residence in Northern Colorado. This wolf, called F1804, was joined in 2020 by a male, and by the summer of that year, the pair had produced a litter of six pups.
Because of this, opponents of Proposition 114 say that the physical reintroduction of wolves by humans is unnecessary, since they are here on their own accord.
But according to Edward, the fact that wolves even made it into Colorado is an act of sheer luck.
“Southern Wyoming is big open country that has a pretty low prey density, is bisected by I-80, and is riddled with roads and a lot of pickup trucks with guns on the back,” said Edward. “Wolves just disappear when they come out southward from Yellowstone.”
Edward explains that, in 2020, a drastic reduction in Wyoming traffic, caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, allowed F1804 and her partner to make it into Colorado. But, as COVID-19 cases have declined and as society returns to pre-pandemic normalcy, the likelihood of wolves migrating to Colorado naturally has drastically declined, he says.
Because of this, it’s highly unlikely that the Jackson County Pack, who entered Colorado in the span of a year, would be able to survive, due to a lack of genetic diversity. This, according to Edward, is the exact reason why wolves need to be reintroduced by the government, so that the population that’s here can actually become sustainable.
Barnes and Edward both say that wolves and humans can coexist in Colorado. And according to Edwards, since wolves will be introduced to Colorado’s public lands, every Coloradan has the right to decide, through democratic means, what happens on those lands, including the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado.
Sky Hi News will continue to cover wolf reintroduction as the Colorado issue evolves.
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