Opinion | Colorado needs wolves

By Eric Washburn and James Pribyl
Wolves from Yellowstone National Park's Eight Mile Pack, whose territory is located near the northern boundary of the park, make their way along a snowy path.
Courtesy Photo

On Dec. 29, The Sky-Hi News ran an online piece, “The price of ballot box biology: Forced wolf reintroduction in Colorado.” As the debate begins in earnest about whether to restore gray wolves to Colorado, misconceptions keep creeping in, and we wanted to take this opportunity to lay out the facts. 

For hundreds of years, stories like Little Red Riding Hood have led the myth of the wolf to gain a strong foothold in human culture and imagination. Fortunately, science has produced a more accurate portrait of the wolf, made possible through more than two decades of observation in the Northern Rockies.  

The case is overwhelming that wolves need to be restored to Colorado’s public lands. 

Importantly, we know from research in Yellowstone National Park that the restoration of wolves leads to a more balanced and healthier ecosystem. For example, the presence of wolves can change elk behavior, keeping them from grazing stream-side vegetation out in the open. By allowing aspen and willows to recover along those stream banks, songbirds return and beavers recolonize these areas, building dams and improving water storage and trout habitat. Wolves are not a panacea, but restoring wolves to their natural habitat in Colorado undoubtedly will, in the long term, send positive ripples through our mountain ecosystems.

By targeting diseased prey, wolves will help control Colorado’s serious and growing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) problem that we are now struggling to contain. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), 57% of Colorado’s deer herds, 37% of its elk herds, and 22% of its moose herds are infected with CWD, an always-fatal disease.

CPW notes in its CWD plan: “Not only are the number of infected herds increasing, the past 15 years of disease trends generally show an increase in the proportion of infected animals within herds as well.

Of most concern, greater than a 10-fold increase in CWD prevalence has been estimated in some mule deer herds since the early 2000s; CWD is now adversely affecting the performance of these herds.”

A 2011 study by researchers at the National Park Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State University in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, noted that “as CWD distribution and wolf range overlap in the future, wolf predation may suppress disease emergence or limit prevalence.” 

In fact, today in the Rocky Mountains, where there are large concentrations of wolves — in places like Yellowstone, Idaho, and western Montana — we find relatively little or no CWD.

Wolves will have a minimal impact on livestock. In the Northern Rockies, the roughly 1800 wolves that live there have taken less than one-tenth of 1% of the livestock that they share range with. Initiative 107 mandates fair compensation for those rare cases where Colorado livestock could be lost to wolves.

As to the oft-heard charge that wolves will “devastate” Colorado’s elk population, science speaks clearly. In the Northern Rockies, there are more elk today than there were in 1995 when wolves were first reintroduced to the region.

In fact, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all officially report more abundant elk and mule deer herds and larger hunter harvests than 30 years ago.  Also, during that time, there have been no wolf attacks on people in the Northern Rockies, despite over 100 million people visiting and camping in Yellowstone National Park among its wolves.

Finally, as to the charge of “ballot box biology,” all wildlife management is based on human values. And there is no better way to discern those values than through American-style direct democracy at the ballot box, which will supplant the unfortunate past decisions of a handful of politically appointed CPW commissioners.

We can restore and manage wolves in a manner that is respectful of the needs and concerns of all Coloradans. We owe it to future generations to restore Colorado’s natural balance by making room, once again, for wolves.

Eric Washburn, a fifth generation Coloradan and big game hunter, lives in Steamboat Springs. James Pribyl, former member and Chair of the Colorado Park & Wildlife Commission, lives in Summit County.

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