My visit to the Durango Wolf Symposium last November brought me hope – hope that a new restorative relationship with our natural world is in our future.
Hope is not wishful thinking – rather, hope is born of the knowledge, facts and experience from decades of research that has documented the essential role of gray wolves in restoring a natural, dynamic balance to our lands.
A new generation of dedicated range managers and ranchers have learned how to successfully live with wolves and avoid losses.
Western Colorado provides the last great expanse of wolf-less wildlands in North America, where wolves can still thrive. Colorado is the gap, and the key, to reconnecting wolf populations across the lower 48 landscape – an enormous conservation achievement but more importantly, essential to the genetic health of the gray wolf population and consequently to the health of the land.
Decades of reliable scientific studies demonstrate that if wolves are common enough for long enough and are not persecuted, they can restore the natural balance between predator and prey, and by so doing, improve ecosystem health and biological diversity.
As an ecologist, I have witnessed the effects of our wolf-less wildlands in the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, which is rampant in Colorado, in the streams whose corridors are over-browsed, in the aspen forests that are dying from excessive elk use and in the soils that are over-grazed and eroding. The symptoms of this dysfunction are found in the declines of songbirds, beaver, fish and pronghorn, and the over-abundance of coyotes.
What we’ve learned from decades of research is that the real wolf is nothing like the mythical wolf of European nightmares. We’ve learned that gray wolves have powerful effects on the landscape by having powerful effects on structuring food webs – effects that result in healthier forests and riparian vegetation; effects that enhance biological diversity.
We’ve learned that wolves depend on cooperation for survival and are thus supremely social. Family is everything – the loss of family leaders to hunting and trapping results in the loss of generational hunting knowledge, which can have the effect of pushing the surviving young to prey on livestock, which are much easier to kill and less dangerous than elk.
We’ve learned that gray wolves can coexist with livestock with exceedingly minimal impact to producers. For example, in Montana in 2016, in wolf country where there are about 500 gray wolves alongside 550,000 cattle and 165,000 sheep, verified losses to wolves were reported as 52 cattle and five sheep.
In 2018, John Steuber, director of Wildlife Services in Montana, reported that gray wolves accounted for a total of 92 complaints of livestock depredation or injury, grizzlies for 138 complaints, mountain lions for the deaths of 187 livestock, and that coyotes had killed three cattle, 296 calves, four goats, 92 adult sheep and 1,482 lambs.
Historically, wolves occupied every corner of the continental U.S. But from the time of European settlement, they were systematically and viciously eliminated by settlers following a “manifest destiny” that demanded a zealot’s embrace of dominating and subduing the land and all its native inhabitants.
Restoring the gray wolf to Colorado gives me hope – hope that we can reverse our degradation of the land upon which we all depend, and that we can have a restorative relationship with nature that advances justice and equity for all life, human and wild.
Delia G. Malone is the wildlife team chair of the Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club in Redstone.