At first blush, the topic of restoring wolves to the wild spaces of western Colorado appears to pit those who trust in modern science against those who believe the only truth out there is what they and those like them think.
Dig deeper, though, and you’ll discover that those who oppose wolves do trust in science, but they know that the science of wolf ecology and recovery means that they will have to make some changes – and that unsettles some of them.
Every time I get into a car or bus or plane, I put my trust in a host of engineers, mathematicians and planners that I will arrive at the other end of my journey in one piece. Likewise, when I go to the doctor, I have confidence she will diagnose and treat me based upon centuries of accumulated scientific understanding. People who grow sheep and cows trust these same engineers and scientists, for the very same reasons, just as they believe the science behind veterinary medicine and animal husbandry.
If we all trust scientists on matters of modern engineering and medicine, you’d think we’d find common ground on the science behind wolf restoration. Yet some livestock producers act as if it is heretical to believe the scientists showing that wolves, livestock and humans can share common ground.
How is a person to make sense of all this hubbub?
A place to start is to meet assertions with, “Show me the science.”
When the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project claims that free-roaming wolves may help to mitigate the habitat damage caused by overabundant elk, primarily by keeping them moving around, that assertion is rooted in nearly two decades of peer-reviewed, published scientific inquiry.
By contrast, when wolf opponents claim that Yellowstone’s elk herd in the Northern Range was “decimated” by the reintroduction of wolves, they can’t point to a single scientific article that supports that assertion. Science shows that wolves played a minimal, additive role in the decline of the elk herd, which had reached a peak of overabundance by the mid-1990s.
Some wolf opponents go so far as to claim that, left unchecked, wolves will eat their way out of house and home. One doesn’t need a scientist to put the lie to that one – if the assertion were true, wolves would have gone extinct long before humans settled the Americas.
When considering the relative risk to human safety posed by wolves, wolf advocates point to both historical and contemporary data from North America demonstrating that wolves pose no significant threat. They also point out that statistics from the U.S. government shows that dozens of people are killed every year by livestock. Given those facts, the anti-wolf camp’s contention that wolves will pose a danger to humans smacks of a double standard.
How about the claim that ranchers will be “put out of business” by wolves?
Well, there’s no scientific evidence to back that assertion up. Although individual ranchers may suffer some losses from time to time, a well-planned compensation program can take the sting out of those losses.
Finally, how about the claim that there’s no room for wolves in the “settled” landscape of Colorado?
Multiple published studies directly refute this assertion. The people of the United States, collectively, own and manage nearly 70 percent of Western Colorado as federal lands, and those lands will never be “settled.”
Until 1945, wolves roamed almost everywhere below tree line in Colorado. Wolves vanished not because of a lack of prey but because agricultural interests aggressively pursued their extermination. The landscape and big game that wolves relied upon in Colorado are still available to sustain these big carnivores.
So, as we navigate the discussion of restoring wolves to Colorado, let’s all take a step back and commit to an honest assessment of what science can reveal.
Nobody denies that wolves occasionally prey on livestock. But, given a chance, Colorado can blaze a new path where conservation biologists, economists and ranchers collaborate on innovative ways forward.
For example, could we proactively pay ranchers who protect wolves that establish territories in the same areas frequented by their livestock on private land? That’s the kind of thinking that can bring about coexistence and open new lines of scientific inquiry.
Colorado certainly has the grit to blaze such new trails. All we need do is let science lead the way.
Rob Edward is a citizen member of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, in Denver.