Crying wolf: Apex predator makes its way back into Colorado

Jim Patterson
This adult gray wolf is part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, which, beginning in 1995, reintroduced wolves from Canada and northern Montana to the park. This animal was photographed in the park after being tranquilized for study by Wolf Project scientists.
Courtesy Photo

Though the gray wolf is indigenous to Colorado, a wild pack hasn’t been seen here for nearly a century. The last were killed in the first half of the last century as part of a nationwide campaign — in many cases, encouraged by federal and state bounties — to eradicate the wolf from the American landscape.

Since the mid-1990s, however, active efforts to restore the wolf to areas both north and south of Colorado have brought about a resurgence of the animal. Stable packs now make their homes in Yellowstone National Park, as well as parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona.

To date, there has been no reintroduction effort in Colorado, nor will there be in the immediate future. On Jan. 23, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted against the reintroduction of wolves into the state.

Even so, lone wolves are beginning to make their way south and across the Wyoming border on their own — a development that raises several questions.

• Could wandering wolves establish stable packs in Colorado without an active reintroduction effort?

• If not, should such an effort be undertaken?

• And if wolves do eventually return to the state — either on their own or as the result of human intervention — how will they be managed?

To the brink and back

At their height, an estimated 2 million wolves ranged from the lowland forests of the East, westward through the Pacific Northwest, then north and south into Canada and Mexico.

But despite their vast numbers and sweeping territory, by 1935, most had been eradicated from the North American landscape through more than 100 years of aggressive hunting and poisoning.

The gray wolf: Myth versus fact

Myth: Wolves are extremely dangerous to human beings.

Fact: According to wolf biologist Dr. Douglas W. Smith, the danger to humans from wolves is vastly overestimated. Smith said that, whereas a bear or a mountain lion will attack a human on first contact, wolves are naturally fearful of humans and pose very little danger unless they are conditioned to overcome this natural fear.

Myth: Wolves kill livestock “for the fun of it.”

Fact: According to Smith, the large majority of wolf hunts are unsuccessful, and because they take large prey, such as elk, deer and moose, they are risking their lives with each attempt. Smith said many wolves are seriously injured or killed in their attempts to bring down large prey.

Myth: Wolves kill large numbers of cattle and sheep.

Fact: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 6 million head of cattle live in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the three states where the majority of wolves in the West live. For those states in 2014, wolves killed 136 head of cattle, or 1 cow out of every 44,853. In the same three states, where 820,000 sheep live, reports show wolves killed 114 sheep, or 1 in every 7,193, in 2014. However, because these losses are unevenly distributed, they can take a toll on a single producer.

Myth: The wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid 1990s were non-native Canadian wolves.

Fact: While some of the wolves released into Yellowstone and central Idaho did originate in Canada, but the wolves that historically ranged much of North America are of the same species, Canis lupus, as “Canadian” wolves.

Myth: Reintroduced wolves are killing all the elk and deer.

Fact: In Montana, one of the largest wolf recovery areas in the nation, the elk population, while variable, has, on the average, held steady through the 20 years since reintroduction. And while some elk herds in Wyoming have experienced decline, the reintroduction of wolves is likely only part of the reason. A three-year study conducted by the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming, which concluded in 2013, found evidence that the Wyoming elk decline was based on a complex set of variables, including habitat, weather, hunting, bears and wolves.

According to a 1998 publication by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in U.S. history.” By the middle of the 20th century, it was estimated that only 500 wolves remained in the U.S., most of them cornered into remote regions of the upper Midwest.

As a result of this near eradication, the wolf was among the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1974.

But even 30 years before the ESA listing, some were already suggesting the eradication of the wolf from its natural territories had left a mark on the associated ecosystems.

In 1944, American ecologist, forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold became the first to propose the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

In one way, this represented an ironic turnabout on Leopold’s part, since 35 years earlier — as a 22-year-old officer in the U.S. Forest Service — he had participated in killing one of New Mexico’s last wolves.

But in another way, it was perhaps the unexpected swirl of emotions accompanying the event that planted the seeds of conservation in Leopold’s mind and led to his eventual call for the wolf’s return.

“In those days, we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” he would later write. “I thought that, because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no more wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise.”

But as he watched the “fierce green fire” fade from the dying animal’s eyes, he wrote, “I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

The return of the wolf

It would take another 50 years for Leopold’s vision to reach fruition, but, beginning in 1995, gray wolves were reintroduced to both Yellowstone and parts of central Idaho. About the same time, similar projects were releasing the gray wolf’s smaller cousin, the Mexican red wolf, into parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

Through the next three years, 41 wolves, transplanted from Canada and northern Montana, were released into Yellowstone, and though numbers have fluctuated through the two decades since, as of December 2015, the park was home to 99 wolves living in 10 packs. Wolf biologist Dr. Douglas W. Smith, who heads the Yellowstone Wolf Project, calls that number a “stable population.”

But the success of the Yellowstone wolves came with a wrinkle: natural migration.

In the past 10 years, isolated wolves — mostly young adults crowded out of growing packs — have begun to make their way back into Colorado, and while opinions are mixed, some think it’s only a matter of time before these solo wolves begin to establish stable populations here.

According to a 2004 report from the Colorado Wolf Management Working Group, “Dispersing wolves could enter Colorado as a result of expanding populations from recovery programs to the north and south, as evidenced by a wolf killed on Interstate 70 in June of 2004.”

And though wolf sightings have so far been difficult to verify, there have been others.

In February 2009, the Denver Post reported an 18-month-old female wolf from Yellowstone had been identified and located via a radio collar in Eagle County, some 450 miles from the park.

In April 2015, wildlife biologists determined through genetic testing that a “wolf-like” animal, which had been shot and killed near Kremmling, was, in fact, a gray wolf.

Even so, Jim Haskins, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager based in Steamboat Springs, said wolf sightings in Colorado are often reported but seldom authentic.

“Most of them turn out to be coyotes,” he said.

According to Haskins, there have been no reports of wolf packs spotted in Colorado.

But given that Yellowstone wolves are now beginning to migrate here, it is possible they might eventually begin to form packs here.

Smith, who has studied wolves in the wild for nearly 40 years, doesn’t think so. Without human assistance, he said, wolves migrating to Colorado would never achieve the pack resiliency or genetic diversity needed to survive.

“Yeah, we’ve had wolves from Yellowstone go there (Colorado), but they never survive,” Smith said. “They either get hit by a car or somebody kills them.”

He said establishing a viable wolf population in Colorado would require more than a single male-female pair — or even a small group of such pairs — because the level of genetic diversity necessary to support a stable population would be impossible to reach with such a limited numbers of animals.

That’s why the Yellowstone reintroduction was carried out in three separate releases during as many years, each involving wolves from a different geographical region.

Smith said the minimum number of wolves required to establish genetic viability is still a subject of scientific debate, but in the case of Yellowstone, 41 turned out to be the magic number.

Regardless of what the precise number is, he said, isolated migrations will likely never be enough to reach it.

“And that strongly argues in favor of reintroduction,” Smith said.

Differing views at home

Back in Colorado, the mere mention of that word — reintroduction — is a polarizing proposition. Some enthusiastically endorse the idea; others vehemently oppose it.

Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that actively supports reintroduction, called the wolf a keystone species whose presence — or absence — has an “enormous impact” on the ecosystem.

Conversely, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, in a viewpoint piece published on its website, took exception to this line of thinking. The organization argued a healthy ecosystem has the ability to adapt to changing conditions and wildfires, floods or the removal of an apex predator such as the wolf can be an ecological benefit.

The CCA wrote that the greater concern should lie with the high potential for conflict in wolf/human interactions, “particularly interactions between wolf populations and domestic livestock populations.”

Proctor said such interactions are exceedingly rare.

“A very, very small percentage of livestock kills are wolves,” he said. “There are much greater issues with coyotes, bear and mountain lions.”

Closer to home, opinions are similarly mixed.

Local rancher Marsha Daughenbaugh, who also serves as executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance and is a member of Routt County Cattlewomen, said she thinks reintroducing the wolf to Colorado would cause problems for the state’s ranchers, even though she appreciates wildlife.

“They’re predators, and they can do a lot of damage,” Daughenbaugh said.

She added she has researched wolves and has heard too many sad stories from other ranchers.

“When they (wolves) kill, it’s usually a nasty kill,” she said. “It’s almost like they’re doing it for the fun of it. Years ago, I saw a bumper sticker that made me chuckle. ‘Restore the wolf — restore the balance,’ it said, and I thought, ‘Do we really want that kind of balance here?’”

But Jay Fetcher, another local rancher, cited that balance as part of the reason he supports wolf reintroduction in Colorado.

“I can’t wait for the wolves to come back,” Fetcher said.

And why?

“Too many elk,” he said. “That’s the short answer. … I just think that the elk need harassed where we are, and the problem is, when hunting season comes, the elk are gone. They know when that opening season is, and they go to private lands. In June, they’re all in my hay meadow, calving.”

But Fetcher’s support for wolf reintroduction comes with two caveats.

“When they come — not if, but when … we need two things,” he said. “We need to be able to scare the hell out of them … shoot over their heads and put the fear of man in them … and the other thing is a very quick compensation when we have loss with a fairly easy proof of that (loss).”

There is a plan

Gray wolves remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in most of the United States, including Colorado.

But in several established reintroduction areas in which populations have rebounded, wolf management has been returned to state control.

In April 2011, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson successfully amended a must-pass appropriations bill to include a rider removing wolves from federal protection in their respective states.

Wyoming wolves were also briefly delisted but were returned to federal protection due to the state’s lack of a satisfactory wolf management plan — a prerequisite to delisting.

And while wolves remain a protected species in Colorado, the state has a management plan that could be implemented if the wolf returns in sufficient numbers to warrant a delisting here.

In December 2004, the 14-member Colorado Wolf Management Working Group — composed of wildlife biologists, local government representatives, ranchers, sportsmen and wildlife advocates — met for two days in Golden to draw up the document, titled “Findings and Recommendations for Managing Wolves that Migrate into Colorado.”

The 66-page management plan identified a number of specific recommendations, including the following.

• Allow migrating wolves to live with no boundaries where they find habitat.

• Employ an array of flexible managing tools to address problem wolves.

• Implement a wolf monitoring program.

• Work toward avoiding or mitigating wolf-livestock conflict and allow producers to use non-lethal means to reduce the potential for such conflict.

• Maintain and operate a wolf damage fund to cover livestock losses, paying 100 percent of confirmed losses and 50 percent of probable losses.

• Through time, bring the wolf into existing management programs and policies maintained for other carnivores.

• Work cooperatively to achieve the state’s wolf management goals.

• Develop and implement an information, education and pubic outreach program to parallel wolf management activities in Colorado.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has since approved the plan, though it still opposes active wolf reintroduction in Colorado.

The question of whether wolves will ever be reintroduced here remains open, and the prospect of them returning on their own is even more nebulous.

But one thing is certain — some wolves have made it to Colorado, and others are likely to follow.

And when human beings and wolves — two apex predators competing for the same resources — are thrust into the mix together, sound management practices will be essential if both are to survive and thrive.

According to Smith, these practices will best come as a blend of conservation and hunting.

“Wolves need to be managed as a mosaic of protection and hunting,” he said. “I think in this day and age of polarization about everything, we need to comprom5ise on wolf management, and what that means is, in areas where there are too many people, we need to hunt wolves. But they also should be protected in some places.”

To reach Jim Patterson, call 970-871-4208, email or follow him on Twitter @JimPatterson15

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