Wolves Won't Wait

In November, Colorado will make history when it lets voters decide whether to reintroduce gray wolves. But the discovery of the state’s first confirmed pack in nearly a century is casting an old debate in a new light.
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A wolf in Yellowstone National Park

The black-furred animal could be a dog at first glance, a wayward husky taking itself for a walk through the hills. In the shaky video, shot in northern Colorado’s Jackson County, it bounds across the frame before gradually slowing to a trot. Finally, it stops, its nose raised, and swivels its head from side to side, scanning the summer-green scrubland. It’s only then, as the video comes into focus, that you notice the straight, fluffy tail, the long snout, and the radio collar around its neck, and it becomes obvious that this is no dog.

In Colorado, 2020 may end up being the year of the wolf. Voters will decide this November whether to pass an unprecedented ballot measure mandating that the state develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves. The measure is a last-ditch attempt by wildlife advocates to restore an iconic species, and is designed as an end run around a federal and state government that have proven unwilling to pursue reintroduction on their own. It’s pitted environmental activists against hunters and ranchers who are afraid of the effect that a new population of predators would have on game and livestock. And for the first time ever, voters will decide directly.

But even as the debate about wolves has raged on, something remarkable has happened: The wolves have begun to reintroduce themselves. In January, following months of reported sightings, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced it had confirmed the presence of a six-animal-strong group of wolves in the state’s far northwestern corner, the first of its kind in almost a century. Since then, credible reports have continued to trickle in: an elk carcass stripped to the bone, pup sightings, paw prints. It’s clear that wolves are already back in Colorado. Whether they’re there to stay? That’s a different question.

By the time the last Colorado wolf died in a federal leghold trap in 1945, the US had been at war with the species for more than 300 years. Pre-contact, wolves were one of the continent’s most widespread predators, ranging from California’s Sierra to the northern Atlantic Coast. While some Native people hunted wolves sporadically, it wasn’t until European settlers—with their reliance on animal agriculture and a worldview that projected their strict moral norms onto nature—arrived in the Americas that wolf-killing became systematized. In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay colony passed the first bounty on wolves, which Roger Williams, a minister who later went on to found Rhode Island, called “a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor.”

Settlers brought their vendetta against the wolf with them as they moved west; Colorado established its own bounty in 1869. By the 1950s, the gray wolf had been shot, trapped, and poisoned to virtual extinction in the lower 48 states, except for relict populations in Minnesota and on Michigan’s Isle Royale.

But even as park managers and ranchers were celebrating the wolf’s extermination, some scientists were beginning to sound the alarm, including forester and pioneering wildlife manager Aldo Leopold. In his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, Leopold described the environmental degradation he had observed in areas where deer lived unchecked by predators—”every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death.” Dubbed ‘trophic cascade,’ that concept—that wolves ensured the health of the entire food web by controlling herbivore numbers and preventing them from overgrazing—would become a rallying cry for activists fighting to reintroduce wolves to the natural environment.

Nearly fifty years and countless court challenges later, wolf advocates finally got their wish. Beginning in 1995, the Fish and Wildlife Service released the first of 31 Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Since then, the number of wolves in the park has grown: Today, the population in the park proper fluctuates between roughly 80 and 175 individuals, one branch of a total of 1,700 wolves living in the western US today. For wolf lovers and ecotourism boosters, it’s been a resounding success; one study from the University of Montana estimated that wolves bring in about $35 million in revenue to surrounding communities every year.

It’s that success story that Rob Edward hopes to emulate in Colorado. As president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, Edward drove the effort to put wolf reintroduction on the ballot in Colorado. To hear him tell it, the effort isn’t just about a single species. In a very real sense, it’s about healing the planet.

“Look at what’s happened around the West just this summer, including in Colorado, with all the wildfires,” he says. “There is no more clear evidence that we have to do everything and anything possible to ensure the resilience of our public lands and the wild forest to long-term climate change. And one of the key components of healthy Western ecosystems is the gray wolf.”

Edward has spent almost thirty years organizing on behalf of one of North America’s most vilified predators. After serving in the Air Force and graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a political science degree in 1991, Edward’s interest in ecology led him to work for the New England Aquarium in Boston. Shortly after that, Edward was on a road trip to Alaska with his brother when he encountered the animal that would become his life’s work.

“I got a big eyeful of the environmental destruction brought by the logging companies to a lot of the Pacific Northwest, and on one of my excursions to a big, city-size clear cut, I encountered my first gray wolf,” Edward recalls. “It stuck with me that that particular creature was out there, trying to make a living, despite all the human-wrought destruction that was going on around it.“ In 1994, he went to work for Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental organization dedicated to restoring predators, where he managed volunteers and traveled around the state educating members of the public about wolf reintroduction.

No state has ever reintroduced wolves via the ballot box before—reintroductions have traditionally been federally-led—and going directly to voters wasn’t originally Edward’s first choice. But when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed taking the gray wolf off of the endangered species list in 2013, Edward says, it was obvious that the feds had lost their appetite for predator restoration.

The state wasn’t any more willing: Despite Edward’s advocacy, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife working group of which he was a member decided not to pursue wolf reintroduction in 2004, and the agency hadn’t budged from its position in the 9 years since. Going directly to voters, which required collecting 124,632 signatures, was a last-ditch effort.

“Given that Colorado has the ability for citizens to legislate, we decided we would legislate,” Edward says. “And that’s what brought us to Proposition 114.”

If it passes, Proposition 114 would direct Colorado Parks and Wildlife to draft a wolf reintroduction plan “using the best scientific data available,” and, after a period of public feedback, begin releasing the animals on public land no later than 2023. Opponents have objected that by using a popular vote to decide on reintroduction, the measure would take an important wildlife management decision out of the hands of experts; Edward, however, counters that it’s written specifically to leverage CPW’s knowledge and skill.

Like Aldo Leopold did 71 years ago, Edward points to the theorized ripple effects that wolves have on the landscape—speeding tree growth and restoring wetlands by keeping ungulates in check—as an argument for reintroduction. Beyond that, he says, Colorado is just plain good wolf country. In a 2009 report for Defenders of Wildlife, Edward identified three core areas of prime habitat, totaling about 1.3 million acres, in west-central Colorado, much of it roadless wilderness that could easily host packs without putting them in conflict with humans. The state also has abundant prey: It’s home to the lower 48’s largest elk herd and one of its largest deer populations. As biologist and Montana State Senator Mike Phillips, one of the architects of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program and a supporter of Proposition 114, put it in the report, “the Southern Rockies are the mother lode for wolves.”

It’s an inspiring pitch, and it’s won them allies: Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund’s coalition includes more than two dozen non-profits, ranging from the Global Indigenous Council, to environmental heavy-hitters like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, to celebrity ambassadors like former Senator Mark Udall, actress Pamela Anderson, and author-entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, who donated $100,000 of his own money to the cause. Wolf reintroduction’s most compelling supporters, however, didn’t arrive until last fall.

That black-furred wolf caught on video had a name, or a number at least: 1084-M. The 3-year-old male hailed from the Snake River Pack in Wyoming, a now-disbanded group that made its home in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And thanks to the tracking collar he wore, we have a rough idea of how he ended up in Colorado.

In a story for the Jackson Hole News and Guide, reporter Mike Koshmri chronicled 1084-M’s journey, which began in October 2018 when a pilot working for the Wyoming Fish and Game Department located him just south of Yellowstone National Park in the broad river valley known as the Thorofare, famous as the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 states. Over the next few months, 1084-M headed east, wintering in the Absaroka Range and following the South Fork of the Shoshone River. The wolf registered one last time on South Pass, near the edge of the Wind River Range, before falling off of biologists’ maps on February 12, 2019, five months before it reappeared in Colorado.

1084-M’s arrival was the first confirmed sighting of a wolf in Colorado in nearly five years. (Two sightings earlier that summer in neighboring counties are still unconfirmed.) But the young wolf’s trek was far from unheard of. Wolves both male and female frequently leave their birth packs between about 9 months and 3 years of age, often motivated by sparse prey or competition for mates. Known as lone wolves or “floaters,” these individuals often travel hundreds of miles, crossing park, state, and even national borders in search of a new home range. It’s a perilous journey: Besides the possibility of dying in a confrontation with a local pack or succumbing to starvation, lone wolves risk being shot by hunters or ranchers, or being hit by cars along the way.

If 1084-M’s cross-country trip was unusual, the next report that wildlife authorities received was unbelievable. In October, a party of hunters spotted a group of at least six canines near Irish Canyon, a narrow, rocky defile in the state’s far northwest corner, catching two of them on video. In the footage, there’s no mistaking the thick-coated gray animals loping through the tall brush.

The pack, if that’s what it was, was an anomaly, the first to make its residence in Colorado in almost a century. And the evidence for its existence continued to build: In January, when a passerby discovered a heavily scavenged elk carcass just a few miles from where the original sighting had occurred, Colorado Parks and Wildlife sent its district wildlife managers to investigate.

The proof the investigators found was compelling: Around the elk’s stripped bones, officers discovered “several large canid tracks from multiple animals,” as the agency put it, and heard howls in the distance. After a search of the area, they managed to spot about six wolves through binoculars, about two miles away from the scene. When genetic tests of scat found in the area confirmed the presence of four related wolves, wildlife officials officially announced what they had suspected: Colorado had a pack again.

For opponents of reintroduction, that chewed-up elk carcass is a portent of what’s to come if wolves’ supporters get their way.

“As an apex predator with no natural predator to manage or control it, a forced wolf introduction will have measurable impacts on elk, deer, and moose populations,” says Mark Holyoak, communications director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

RMEF, a 36-year-old organization from Montana that advocates for elk hunters, has contributed more than $260,000 towards stopping wolf reintroduction in Colorado according to campaign finance disclosures, making it the leading single donor to Proposition 114’s opposition. (Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, an issue-specific campaign organized by the Colorado Farm Bureau which has raised $633,000, is the largest contributor overall). And it’s not alone: Along with ranchers, Colorado’s El Paso County, and the government of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, big game hunters have been a bulwark of opposition to wolf reintroduction. They argue that elk, a favored prey of gray wolves, are already under pressure in the state (it’s worth noting that elk were reintroduced to Colorado in 1913, after being hunted to nearly nothing in the 1870s). RMEF uses the example of the northern Yellowstone elk herd, which shrunk from 17,000 individuals before wolf reintroduction to a low of about 4,000.

In an emailed statement, Holyoak said that as of last December, 54 of the 64 elk and deer units in Colorado whose numbers were below target were in the south or west, where reintroductions are likely to take place. Tags for those elk help pay for conservation in the state to the tune of millions of dollars per year; according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 70% of the agency’s funding comes from hunting and fishing licenses.

Rob Edward, the wolf advocate, calls the idea that wolves will do any kind of widespread damage to the elk population “ridiculous on its face,” and points out that overall elk numbers in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have held or increased since wolves were reintroduced.

“From a common sense perspective, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “If wolves were prone to wiping their prey out, they wouldn’t exist.”

As for ranchers who worry about losing their cows and sheep to hungry packs, Edward acknowledges that predation does occur, albeit rarely; Proposition 114 would set up a fund to compensate livestock producers for animals lost to predators. He argues that the costs would be modest: Wyoming, which has a similar program, paid $382,601 to settle a total of 34 claims last year.

Holyoak counters that animal deaths are only part of the effect that wolves have on livestock producers, and that cattle exposed to wolf predation often lose weight or even miscarry because of the stress. Research suggests that theory is at least plausible: A 2013 study by a team from the University of Montana found that average calf weight was 22 pounds lighter in herds that had experienced predation by wolves versus those that hadn’t, while another paper from the University of Wyoming estimated that reimbursing Wyoming ranchers for the indirect effects of predation could cost two to three times more than the state currently spends.

If RMEF and its allies want to stop reintroduction, however, they’ll have to deal with one big obstacle first: Wolves are very, very popular, more than any candidate on the ballot. A statewide survey published by Colorado State University in January found that 84% percent of Coloradans intended to vote for reintroduction, while just 16% said they would vote against it. Most strikingly, the survey found strong support across almost all demographics: Coloradans—rural and urban, male and female, rich and poor, young and old—wanted wolves back.

Like most Americans, Colorado’s new wolves have experienced ups and downs in 2020. In June, an off-duty biologist from Colorado Parks and Wildlife spotted an adult with a pup in tow in the state’s northwest corner; if confirmed, the sighting may mean the wolves are starting to reproduce. But the pack may have also lost members: In early September, Colorado Public Radio reported that three of Colorado’s wolves were likely shot in Wyoming. 1084-M is still there, CPW says, roaming solo through the canyons and scrublands of northern Colorado.

The arrival of wolves in Colorado has changed the tone of the debate around Proposition 114, but not the substance. The small handful of wolves confirmed in the state isn’t enough to establish a viable population, according to an information sheet released by Colorado State University’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence.

“These wolves are at risk. They might be killed or disappear, as has happened to other wolves that have migrated to Colorado,” the Center writes. “Also, while protected in Colorado, wolves that cross into Wyoming have no legal protection in most of the state.” Edward concurs, arguing that wolves migrating south from Wyoming have to cross a “killing field” along the way.

Opponents have seized onto the wolves’ arrival to argue that a “forced reintroduction” of the animals is a waste of taxpayer money when they’re naturally migrating into the state. They also expressed concern after CPW announced that some of the wolves were carrying the tapeworm that causes hydatid disease, an infectious disease spread via canine scat that causes lung and liver cysts in elk, moose, and, occasionally, humans. (The Center says it’s “extremely unlikely” that a person would catch hydatid from a wolf, and notes that there hasn’t been a documented case of a human developing the disease in the United States for years.)

Both sides of the debate around wolves appeal to science to argue their case. However, the messy and unsatisfying truth is that science may not have an easy answer for us. L. David Mech, a USGS senior research scientist who has studied and written about wolves since 1958, says that in his view, our understanding of wolves’ effect on the environment doesn’t suggest a course of action by itself.

“Colorado could support a wolf population,” Mech says. “Whether it should is up to the citizens of Colorado.”

According to Mech, while wolves generally tend to drive down numbers of prey species, other factors like weather play a significant role as well. Elk and other prey populations can rise or fall, he says, with or without wolves.

Even trophic cascade, the theory that inspired a generation of wolf activists, is still debated: While studies have generally found that woody plants flourished in Yellowstone after wolf reintroduction, it’s not entirely clear how much of that effect is due to wolves changing elk’s browsing behavior and how much is due to other animals, or even climate change. Regardless, as Mech wrote in a 2012 journal article, that research was done in a national park where wolves live under federal protection; outside of that densely-populated range, their cascading effect on the environment is likely to be minimal.

Without a scientific imperative, Proposition 114 could end up being a referendum on our values in the most literal sense. When Colorado voters turn in their ballots, they’ll choose between two competing visions for the state’s future. On one side is the status quo, the promise of security, and the appeal of a natural world shaped for human convenience. On the other, something a little harder to grasp: the knowledge that the world outside has become just a little bit wilder. A glimpse of gray fur through a pair of binoculars. A chorus of howls, somewhere out in the night.