Opinion: Benefits of wolf reintroduction overshadow imaginary costs

Erik Molvar
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Rachel Gabel’s opinion piece masquerading as news, “The price of ballot-box biology: Forced wolf reintroduction in Colorado,” is packed with anti-wolf propaganda and fake news buzzwords to mislead the public. Its original publication in The Fence Post (“Your Trusted Source for Ag News & Information”) should have flagged this piece of yellow journalism for Steamboat Pilot & Today editors, given the vitriolic hyperbole flooding the public discourse from Colorado’s livestock industry. Gabel presents one biased side of a many-sided story and ignores the science behind the ballot measure.

Gabel interviewed only one source, Mark Holyoak of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an opponent of wolf reintroduction. RMEF drew scorn from conservationists by funding $1,000 bounties to kill wolves in Idaho through the shadowy Foundation 4 Wildlife Management. Holyoak is merely its communications director, with no background in biology.

During the 1980s, hunters and state agencies blamed wolves for the decline of Alaska’s Nelchina caribou herd. Vic van Ballenberghe, one of my scientific co-authors, put this assumption to a rigorous statistical test. The data showed that hard winters compounded by hunter overharvest, not wolves, were the real culprits for the Nelchina herd’s decline. 

Today’s overheated rhetoric from the livestock industry and from hunter groups makes the same mistake. These groups focus on emotional reactions rather than the science on the animals they hunt. RMEF cites concerns about livestock and pet depredation by wolves, as well as “forced human interaction,” whatever that is. No facts back them up.

The Yellowstone ecosystem has had wolves for more than two decades now. The livestock industry is still there, grazing on public lands — even remote backcountry — and causing ecological problems, much as it always has. Pet losses to wolves are unknown. Visitors flock to Yellowstone by the millions every year. The number of wolf attacks? Zero.

A little fact checking reveals that lightning strikes pose more danger to livestock, pets and people than wolves. Enough already with the fairy tales, and with hunters and ranchers crying wolf. 

On the other hand, the return of wolves to Yellowstone changed the distribution of elk, taking pressure off streamside willows and cottonwoods and groves of aspen that are ecological hotspots for wildlife. The recovery of streamside vegetation spurred a resurgence of life, from songbirds to beavers, and trout streams benefitted, too. This ecological recovery would be welcome in Rocky National Park, where elk overpopulation is causing heavy damage to valley-bottom meadows. 

Yellowstone wolves also provide a measure of defense against chronic wasting disease, a rampant problem in western Colorado. 

But don’t jump to the conclusion that elk would disappear. With its wolves, Yellowstone remains arguably the best place in the world for elk viewing. In the surrounding mountains where elk hunting is allowed, elk are well above state population targets.

The real human impact of wolves in Yellowstone has been increased tourism and a wildness that enhances the quality of life for locals. Wolf watching has spawned a full-blown guiding industry, estimated to generate $35 million a year, benefitting Yellowstone area communities economically. To top it all off, Teton County, Wyoming, well inside the wolf recovery zone, has the single highest per-capita income of any county in the United States.

“You have almost 6 million people who live in Colorado, and that’s a lot different than [sic] up here in the Northern Rockies,” Holyoak asserts.

Bullfeathers! The Denver metroplex might have a dense population, but western Colorado is similar in population density to the valleys surrounding Yellowstone.

Real journalism requires fact-checking, and organizations like RMEF and the livestock industry require more fact-checking than most. The Pilot & Today would do its readers a service by rejecting stories from The Fence Post due to lack of objectivity.

If you take the time to research the facts and the science, you’ll quickly discover that wolves are ecologically beneficial and pose minimal threat to wildlife, people, and local economies. The wolf’s return to Colorado will be a welcome improvement.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist whose scientific research on moose has been published in Oecologia, Journal of Mammalogy and other peer-reviewed journals, and he is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife across the West. He also has written 17 public lands guidebooks, including “Hiking Colorado’s Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness.” He is an elk hunter in his spare time and got his elk this year. 

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