Opinion: Restoring gray wolves is good for Colorado

The myth of the gray wolf is strongly embedded in human culture. Through fairly tales like The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, many of us have been told since childhood that wolves are scary creatures to be feared. And in Colorado, in the 1940s, we killed our last gray wolves. 

But thanks to the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995, and the subsequent quarter century of research that has taken place — in many cases by Colorado scientists — we know that the reality of gray wolves is quite different from the myth. We know that bringing back the gray wolf will restore the natural balance of nature, causing positive changes to ripple across our mountains. 

With the return of the wolf, deer and elk will behave more naturally, avoiding browsing in the open along stream banks and stripping them of aspen and willows — a serious problem in places like Rocky Mountain National Park. By allowing aspens and willows to grow back, stream banks will be less vulnerable to erosion, songbirds will have better habitat and beaver will return, building dams, storing water in high elevation streams, and improving trout habitat. And we know that when wildfires rip through the mountains, often the only green vegetation left standing is around beaver dams.

All of this will help our mountains adapt to climate change, which is reducing snowpack, Colorado’s natural high elevation water storage system.

And because wolves specifically target weak and diseased prey, they will play an important role in keeping elk and deer herds vibrant, healthy, disease-free, which is particularly important since so many of Colorado’s elk and deer herds are now infected with always-fatal chronic wasting disease.

As to the myth of the big bad wolf, the last quarter century of experience in the Northern Rockies shows that wolves coexist well with people, livestock, deer and elk. In fact, where wolves and livestock share the range, wolves are responsible for less than one-10th of one percent of livestock mortality.

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After a quarter century of living with wolves, the Northern Rockies states elk herds have grown by 40,000 animals, and no one has been attacked by a wolf.  Healthier elk populations, largely free of CWD, are well above state management objectives in Montana and Wyoming and in most of Idaho.  Not surprisingly, elk hunting success rates in those states are substantially higher than in Colorado, which increasingly will encourage out-of-state hunters to spend their time and money to the north of us. And since wolves were reintroduced into the Northern Rockies in 1995, revenues from hunting license sales in each of those Northern Rockies states have roughly doubled. In contrast, Colorado’s revenues from hunting licenses in the last quarter century have grown by an anemic 37%. 

It is important to recognize that wolves will occasionally take livestock and, in some cases, can even have an impact on calf weight. Ranching is a tough business, and our ranchers deserve to be compensated for any losses. And under Proposition 114, they will be. In fact, I would hope and expect that they would have a prominent seat at the table when CPW designs its compensation program.

And it’s clear from poll after poll that Coloradans want wolves. In 1994, a year before gray wolves were restored to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho, a Colorado State University poll found that 71% of Coloradans supported wolf restoration.  A quarter century later, in August 2019, another CSU poll found 84% support for wolf restoration, including strong majorities on the rural Eastern Plains and West Slope. 

Colorado has a proud tradition of wildlife restoration, including the successful reintroduction of Shiras moose in 1978 and Canada lynx in 1999.  In 2019, 215,000 Coloradans signed a petition to put Proposition 114, which would require CPW to restoration of gray wolves to Colorado and to compensate ranchers for any losses, on the 2020 statewide ballot.  

Some have claimed that it is not appropriate for Coloradans to decide this issue for themselves through the democratic process of voting on a ballot measure. Instead, they argue that it should be left to a handful of politically appointed game and fish commissioners. 

For so many reasons, Colorado needs gray wolves now. But the only way that will happen is if the public takes the reins back from the politicians and makes the decision for themselves to invest in a healthier Colorado. 

Eric Washburn is a fifth-generation Coloradan and big game hunter who lives in Steamboat Springs.

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