Opinion: Wolves will restore the natural balance | SteamboatToday.com

Opinion: Wolves will restore the natural balance

Eric Washburn
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

On Feb. 18, the Steamboat Pilot & Today published an opinion piece by Mark Holyoak of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on the costs and benefits of wolf restoration. Before getting into a detailed rebuttal, I would like to say that as a passionate elk hunter, I revere the land conservation work done by the foundation. According to its website, it has completed more than 12,400 conservation projects, protecting or enhancing more than 7.9 million acres of wildlife habitat. It is hard to imagine a greater contribution to habitat conservation in the Rocky Mountains in the modern era.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 57% of Colorado’s deer herds, 37% of its elk herds and 22% of its moose herds are already infected with the always fatal chronic wasting disease — CWD. So, wolves spreading the disease is hardly an issue. But by targeting diseased prey, wolves will help control Colorado’s growing CWD problem.

A 2011 study by researchers at the National Park Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State University in the “Journal of Wildlife Diseases,” noted: “as CWD distribution and wolf range overlap in the future, wolf predation may suppress disease emergence or limit prevalence.”  Mountain lions, which are ambush predators, kill CWD-infected animals at over three times the herd infection rate. 

Wolves, which are “coursing” predators (i.e., they chase prey to determine which are diseased and lame), should kill CWD-infected animals at an even higher rate. Wolves may not eradicate CWD. Apex predators like wolves are Colorado’s only hope of limiting the spread of this deadly disease. If Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation disagrees, then it needs to put forward a credible plan to reduce Colorado’s CWD epidemic that does not further expose human hunters to the disease.

Dozens of studies have documented the fact that wolves can help restore Rocky Mountain ecosystems, which could be crucial in allowing our high-country ecosystems adapt to climate change. I have been to Yellowstone National Park and seen with my own eyes the stream banks whose vegetation has been restored since wolves were introduced 25 years ago.

The aspen and willows that have recovered provide habitat for songbirds, shade for streams and food for beavers. The beavers, in turn, have recolonized these streams, building dams, improving high elevation water storage and trout habitat — important benefits in a state like Colorado whose future snowpack is expected to diminish due to climate change. 

In 1883, William Jennings Bryan said: “It is useless to argue with a man whose opinion is based upon a personal or pecuniary interest; the only way to deal with him is to outvote him.” For too many Americans, wolf restoration, like climate change, is seen as a battle front in the ongoing national culture war. And as long as it remains so, there will always be some who deny the ecological benefits of wolves on the landscape, just as there will always be some who deny the existence of climate change. 

As a fifth-generation Coloradan, I appreciate that Colorado is changing. In 2018, it elected a hovernor and a state legislature that has made it their mission to effectively take on climate change. And according to a CSU poll done last August, 84 percent of Coloradans see the immense value of restoring wolves to our mountains. In November, they will very likely outvote those who chose to turn a blind eye to the science of wolf restoration. And Colorado’s mountains will be better off for it.

Eric Washburn is a big game hunter and conservationist who lives in Steamboat Springs.

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