I was thrilled the first time I saw a wolf in the wild. I was in Denali National Park in Alaska, and I remember to this day the excitement of catching a short glimpse of a pair of wolves as they darted through the arctic willows.
The more I have learned about wolf reintroduction into the lower 48, though, the more misgivings I have about the wisdom of reintroducing them to Colorado. Let me say up front that I am not by any means a wolf expert, nor do I have a degree in wildlife biology or any related discipline. I have no special qualifications to write about this, other than I have done some thoughtful research, and I am a native Coloradan who loves and cares about the outdoors and wildlife and my friends and neighbors who make a living raising the food we eat.
In the April 7 Durango Herald op-ed: “Wolf restoration – Keeping every cog and wheel” by Mike Phillips, the author quotes Aldo Leopold, who opined: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” I guess what concerns me are the unintended and long-range consequences of any “tinkering” of the existing balance of natural predators in the state, “intelligent” or otherwise.
Phillips says in his article that depredation to livestock is minimal. Let’s look to our neighbors in New Mexico for some information about the affects to livestock and ranchers of wolf reintroduction. Consider the study conducted by a wildlife investigator hired by Catron County, New Mexico, to investigate wolf depredation after the reintroduction of the Mexican Grey Wolf in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
Depredation on five ranches within the Recovery Area was studied. One ranch was studied from 2005 to 2007, and the other four from 2008 to 2009. Total losses for the five ranches were 651 animals, valued at $382,199. Two of the ranches went out of business and sold, a third sold all livestock and did not restock. Phillips suggested that livestock owners could be better compensated for their losses. Compensation is historically very low, and losses can be difficult to verify. Some animals just disappear. Wolves are known to eat calves, hair, bones and all, leaving no trace to verify. Total compensation paid to the ranches above for their losses was a mere $8,407. Because the wolf is on the endangered species list, ranchers have absolutely no recourse against wolf depredation and face stiff penalties, including imprisonment, for violating the Endangered Species Act.
Trophic cascade is mentioned as a benefit from wolf reintroduction. Trophic cascade is the effect on different levels of an ecosystem when changes are made at the top level. When more predators are introduced, there are fewer grazing animals, and plant life flourishes that would have been more heavily grazed.
In the case of the Yellowstone Area elk herd, the reintroduction of wolves led to a crash in their numbers from over 19,000 in 1995 to around 5,000 in 2010. This prolific predation led to a wolf population explosion that in 2005 resulted in more than three times as many breeding pairs of wolves as predicted by the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These are not the small numbers of 2 percent predation quoted in the editorial by Phillips. Are we really ready to accept anything remotely close to these predation numbers in Colorado?
Because the wolf is a “listed” animal, the states most affected by the Yellowstone reintroduction – Wyoming, Montana and Idaho – had no way to manage the wolf overpopulation and loss of wildlife and livestock. It literally took an act of Congress to correct the devastating impact of wolf reintroduction in these states. Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation that delisted the grey wolf in parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. On April 15, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law, representing one of only two times that the Endangered Species Act has been amended.
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are sparsely populated with vast wildland areas. The combined population of these three states is around 3.3 million. Colorado on the other hand has a population pushing 6 million. We simply don’t have the space for wolves.
I do not think that wolf reintroduction makes sense in Colorado, but if wolves are reintroduced, let’s not make the same mistakes made in other states. Phillips says that “If wolves were reintroduced, however, the federal law could be relaxed and management acts employed to resolve problems.” Amen! But make sure this is done in the right order with the federal laws allowing the state to delist the wolf as and where needed and have management plans in place before the first wolf is reintroduced to Colorado.
Charles Minkler of Ignacio is a 36-year resident of La Plata County. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-6304.