As a former ranch manager in western Colorado, and an applied scientist and conservationist who has worked on improving coexistence with gray wolves and grizzly bears in Montana and Wyoming, I have a few thoughts on restoring wolves to western Colorado — the premise of Proposition 114 on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Where I ran cattle, I saw bears and coyotes often but never lost a calf to either. The cows, kept in a tight herd for planned grazing management, learned to mob up and fend off coyotes — or any other canine. That experience inspired me to work with ranches in the wolf and grizzly country of Montana and Wyoming, where I found that wolves mostly kill elk and deer. Yet those states have more elk now than when wolves were reintroduced, and hunting thrives.
Sure, wolves occasionally kill livestock, yet ranching continues. I found that most ranches had little or no conflict with wolves. Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have programs to investigate livestock loss, and it turns out that confirmed predation by wolves affects just under 0.01% of cattle in counties where wolves are present. Even if we triple that number to estimate incidents never found, the number is still far smaller than one might imagine.
Conflict with wolves is more imagined than real — so much so that we should ask what people are really arguing about. Wolves, an embodiment of wildness, are a symbol for how we view the vast wildlands of the West: on one extreme is the view that there is no place for wolves; the other extreme is the view that there is no place for human land uses like ranching or hunting. Honest conservationists know that beyond these extremes is the potential for a West that embraces the best of both the wild and the domestic.
Wolves were forced out of western Colorado by a culture that had little use for wildness, that saw conquering the continent as its manifest destiny, replacing its native peoples, and replacing its wild animals with domestic ones. A century ago, market hunting had decimated native wildlife, but since then we have restored most of our wildlife populations. Colorado now boasts more elk than any of the northern Rockies states. But the largest carnivores, the ones with whom we share the top of the trophic pyramid, are still missing.
Opponents of wolf restoration have resorted to catch-phrases: “forced” wolf “introduction” is pure propaganda, and most Coloradans recognize it as such. The same is true of the proposition “ballot box biology,” as the proposal requires that the biologists at Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department conduct the planning and implementation, using the best available science. Nor does it represent an often-invoked urban-rural divide; in fact, a 2019 survey by Colorado State University found that nearly 85% of Coloradans, 80% of western slope residents, and 70% of ranchers support wolf restoration.
The proposition is really a referendum on values: are we finally willing to share the West with its native wildlife? Are we willing to recognize death as part of life? Are we willing to recognize ourselves as part of nature, and wild nature as part of ourselves?
We can lead the change. Here, that could mean a Colorado-led process with state control and management flexibility, rather than letting wolves remain fully protected under federal control for decades to come. It could mean that we study the lessons of coexistence already learned in the northern Rockies and western Great Lakes — and then improve on them. It could mean that we reinvent compensation to pay ranchers for producing what Coloradans want — wolves — while incentivizing conflict prevention. And it could mean a wilder, more complete version of our western heritage.
Matt Barnes is a rangeland scientist, owner of Shining Horizons Land Management, and a research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, as well as a former ranch manager in western Colorado.