The last wolf was killed in Colorado in the 1940s. As a result, over the following 70-plus years, the balance that nature had settled on, through millions of years of evolution, has been thrown off. It is one of the key challenges, along with climate change, invasive pests, wildlife disease, and overuse and development, that imperils the ecological future of much of the high country. But as research conducted in the northern Rockies since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the 1990s shows, bringing back wolves can restore that balance and help ensure a better future for our beloved Rocky Mountains ("OPINION | Ballot issue would unleash the wolves on Colorado — imperiling livestock, wildlife," June 20).
The wolves have made Yellowstone a much healthier ecosystem and someday will do the same for the Colorado mountains. They have forced elk to spend less time in the open feeding along stream banks, causing changes that have cascaded through the system. Now, plants like aspen, cottonwoods, willows, and berry-producing shrubs are recolonizing and providing increased roosting and nesting habitat for songbirds. Beaver recolonization followed, leading to healthier streams and rivers, and improved high-elevation water storage, including deeper, cooler pools of water benefitting trout. Year-round wolf kills now provide food for scavenger species like black bears, eagles, hawks, ravens, and magpies.
Wolves will also improve the overall health of Colorado elk, deer, and moose herds. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has reported that as of July 2018, at least 31 of Colorado’s 54 deer herds are known to be infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) and at least 16 of 43 elk herds and two of nine moose herds are infected. Wolves — "coursing" predators that chase game to see which is sick, weak, or otherwise vulnerable — will be expected to take a disproportionate number of CWD-infested animals. And by causing elk and deer herds to break up into smaller groups, wolves help reduce the spread of disease.
Wolves don’t come without their challenges: They will undoubtedly kill some livestock. But in the northern Rockies, where 1,700 wolves now live, wolves are responsible for less than one-tenth of 1% of annual livestock mortality. Of course, the proposed 2020 Colorado ballot initiative anticipates some livestock mortality and calls for providing ranchers with fair compensation for their losses.
Wolves will never reclaim Colorado on their own. While a handful of individual wolves have made the long and difficult journey from Yellowstone into Colorado, they aren’t finding other wolves to breed with. Notably, those few wolves that do successfully migrate through Wyoming and across I-80 into Colorado now receive the full protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), leaving CPW no room for management to resolve wolf-livestock conflicts. In contrast, for wolves deliberately reintroduced into Colorado, CPW could actively manage that population to achieve ecological goals and population targets and address human and livestock interactions.
Finally, as a passionate hunter, I have been keenly interested in understanding the potential impacts of wolves on Colorado’s 280,000 elk and 400,000 mule deer. If, over time, the Colorado wolf population eventually grows to 250 wolves, they would be expected to take the equivalent of about 2% of the elk population per year. Many of those animals would be the old, weak, and diseased, making Colorado’s elk herds overall healthier.
The key issue for Coloradans is not how wolves get here — on their own or in trucks: it is that we know we need them here now. And the only way to establish a self-sustaining breeding population in Colorado is to deliberately restore them.
Two and a half years ago I found myself packing elk quarters down from about 11,000 feet in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. As I approached camp, something made me turn around. I looked back across a wide meadow, and there, standing about 250 yards away, was one of the very few wolves that had made it down from Yellowstone, past the gauntlet, and safely into Colorado. It made me wonder about what it would be like to have a self-sustaining population of wolves — not just one lone wolf without a mate — back in our mountains where they once roamed.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.” Returning the wolf to Colorado by passing a ballot initiative in 2020 and calling on Colorado Parks and Wildlife to draft and implement a science-based wolf restoration and management plan gives us a chance to take a step closer to that place.
The author is an avid hunter and sportsman in Colorado's high country.