IGNACIO – Colorado may never come to a consensus about whether to reintroduce wolves, but can residents come to an understanding?
In an age of fierce political divisiveness and endless volleys of attacks on social media, a local group tried Wednesday night in Ignacio to see if it’s possible to have a respectful dialogue about wolves in Colorado.
La Plata Civil Dialogue formed in April 2018 to “restore respect and build community” by bringing people together from different backgrounds to talk about controversial subjects, such as land use and homelessness.
“So many people yell at each other, whether in person or on social media, and there’s a tendency to get confrontational,” said Gary Skiba, a member. “And we don’t have to. We’re not trying to change minds, we’re trying to understand each other.”
The idea of reintroducing wolves in Colorado gained momentum in recent years and culminated in January when a petition received enough signatures to place the matter on the November 2020 ballot.
Skiba, a former Colorado Division of Wildlife employee (now Parks and Wildlife), spoke in favor of putting the animal that once roamed Colorado back on the landscape, speaking for the supposed ecological benefits.
Proponents say the apex predator will help cull elk herds by picking off the weakest in the pack. And, it would drive elk from overgrazing river corridors.
But Charly Minkler, president of the La Plata County Farm Bureau who is running for the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners, said there are a number of good reasons to oppose wolf introduction.
For starters, the petition was started and mostly fueled by people on the Front Range who won’t have to live with wolves. He said their efforts skirt the recommendation of state wildlife officials.
Minkler took issue with the idea that wolves would help elk populations.
Elk numbers are already suffering from unknown reasons, Minkler said, and unlike in places like Yellowstone where wolves were introduced, Colorado uses hunters to manage populations.
“We have a lot of people on the Front Range that don’t have skin in the game, saying let’s put wolves on this side of the state,” he said. “But a lot of people here make their livelihood with livestock, and they’ll be greatly impacted.”
J. Paul Brown, a sheepherder from Ignacio, said ranching already has slim business margins. Wolves, which can kill livestock grazing on public lands, could drive people out of business.
“That’s their livelihood,” Brown said. “I’ve been here for 44 years and … I’ve seen ranches split up just because they couldn’t stay in business.”
Emily Thorn, a Durango resident, asked about the effectiveness of a condition of the ballot measure that would include compensation for ranchers if a wolf kills their livestock.
“Wolves were of course exterminated from the landscape, but they are natural,” she said. “To what extent could both sides come up with an agreement for a smart, compassionate and comprehensive policy?”
But those against wolf reintroduction say it’s not that simple to compensate ranchers for their losses.
“It’s difficult confirming a wolf kill,” Minkler said. “And a lot of ranchers have livestock in the national forest, so by the time they find a dead animal, it’s been scavenged by other animals.”
Minkler and other opponents of reintroduction say they would be in favor of managing wolves should they re-enter the state naturally, evidenced by a pack spotted in northwest Colorado.
“If forced reintroduction occurs in the numbers proposed, wolves will have a devastating effect,” he said. “Let’s let nature take its course.”
Tom Givon, a rancher in Ignacio, said the debate about wolf reintroduction is a prefect example of Colorado’s changing demographics, where a more liberal population in urban areas is imposing values on rural parts of the state.
“It’s nice to have a civil dialogue, and it’s wonderful we remain civil,” he said. “But let’s face it. I’m not sure those two constituencies can ever compromise. Their interests are radically different.”