By Eilene Lyon
I have seen only one wolf in the wild. It was in Denali National Park. Not deep in the wilderness, but at the park entrance, crossing a road into the campground. It was big, it was black, it was unquestionably a wolf. It was one of those whiplash moments where you drive by and then wonder, “Did I really just see what I think I saw?”
The gray wolf’s native habitat once stretched across the Lower 48, Canada, and Alaska. In the continental U.S. they were hunted to near extinction, extirpated from most states, by the 1920s. The last wolf in Colorado met its fate in 1945, none to be seen again until recently.
Reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the 1990s, they now roam through the Northern Rockies and into the Pacific Northwest. Once protected as endangered, the federal government delisted them in 2020 and they are regularly hunted in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Because anti-wolf sentiment is especially fierce in Wyoming, it is a rare wolf that can run the gauntlet to emerge unscathed in northern Colorado. But it has been done.
Last year, the first wolf pups to be born in Colorado in nearly a century emerged from a den near Steamboat Springs. However, this natural reoccurrence is too little for some people, and too much for others.
In November 2020, Colorado voters (voting by mail) had a record turnout (above 86%), going for Biden/Harris over Trump/Pence by 55% to 42%. They also passed Proposition 114 by the slimmest of margins: 51% to 49%.
This citizen initiative directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to reintroduce and manage gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023. Should this really be up to humans at all?
There are countless wolf books on the market. Many years ago I read Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963), and saw the film based on it. Thanks to one of my book clubs, I recently read three more titles.
The club read Wolves at Our Door (2002) by Jim and Jamie Dutcher. The Dutchers are wildlife documentary filmmakers. Jim created a captive pack of wolves, kept in an enclosure in north-central Idaho, for purposes of observing and filming wolf behavior. While they could see pack dynamics at work in socialization, they could not observe some natural acts, such as hunting.
From my shelf, I also read American Wolf (2017) by Nate Blakeslee, about the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, and The Last Stand of the Pack (Critical Edition, 2017) by Arthur H. Carhart, with essays by Andrew Gulliford, Tom Wolf (yes, really), and others. Carhart’s 1929 book is about the deliberate slaughter of wolves in Colorado by government agents in the 1920s. The added essays primarily expound on whether or not wolves should be reintroduced to Colorado.
In addition, I attended a webinar on wolf status hosted by WildEarth Guardians, an organization I support financially. One of the panelists happened to be Carter Niemeyer, who appears in American Wolf. He trapped the wolves taken to Yellowstone N.P. in 1995. Blakeslee points out that in order to earn the trust of Canadian trappers, Niemeyer had to participate in a wolf-skinning contest.
Reading Last Stand takes a strong stomach. After the first couple chapters, I had a nightmare in which I mutilated my beloved dog, Sterling. Carhart’s imagery of wolves suffering in traps is vivid. He was a government man who supposedly had a change of heart about carnivores, along the lines of Aldo Leopold’s conversion.
His anthropomorphizing is appalling, ascribing to the wolves such emotions as deep-seated hatred.
“Rags, lonely, heartsick of the killing, wanted peace, just comfortable old age peace…All he wanted now was comfort, friendliness, no more hiding, slinking, mad killing. Suddenly he was sick of it. He yearned hungrily for some kindred spirit…”
Carhart should have been writing for Disney. As I noted in the margin: Gag me.
Advocates for wolves
Advocates rightly point out that gray wolves are native to Colorado. They point to the habitat benefits for a variety of species when this top predator was brought back to Yellowstone. Their presence also drives tourism.
While I applaud Gulliford for including two anti-reintroduction essays in his edition of Last Stand, the overall sentiment is one of gushing admiration for wolves and their place in Colorado. WildEarth Guardians annoy me with their constant use of terms such as “iconic” and “charismatic” in their literature. These words represent human warm-fuzzies, not innate characteristics of the animals themselves.
A disproportionate amount of attention, dollars, and effort flows to “charismatic” megafauna, while cryptic plants, animals, and “ugly” things careen toward oblivion.
Wolf reintroduction should not be based on sentimentality. But given the voting pattern in Colorado, that is exactly what is happening. More scientifically-minded people hope for trophic patterns that will have a positive impact on plant and animal communities, such as in Yellowstone. This is probably wishful thinking.
CPW and other reintroductions
Let’s not overlook the agency tasked with implementing this reintroduction program. CPW obtains a large chunk of its funding from fishing licenses and hunting tags. Thus, their focus is mostly on bulking up big game populations, regardless of environmental concerns.
To that end, they’ve been trying to implement a mountain lion killing program, which has generated a lot of pushback. Black bear encounters with humans are on the rise. A Durango woman was killed recently. There are already many carnivores and omnivores in this state. If wolves want a seat at the snack bar, they are going to have some serious competition.
If they depress ungulate numbers, the pressure to kill wolves (and mountain lions) will build. Though it seems that deer have overrun our towns and rural neighborhoods, CPW states that elk and deer numbers in traditional habitat have plummeted in recent years. Will there be enough for wolves? Will wolves follow deer into our backyards?
In 1999 and 2000 Colorado relocated Canadian lynx to the southern Rockies. It was not a resounding success. Of the first ninety-six lynx brought to Colorado from 1999˗2000, forty-three had died by 2002. The earliest deaths were caused by starvation. As a result, protocols changed to hold the animals for several weeks and feed them.
It’s notable that no reproduction occurred in those early years of the project. Currently, it is believed the lynx population is stable and sustainable at around 150-200 animals. Annual reproduction varies from zero to fifty, but is usually low.
Prey abundance is one of the keys to successful reintroduction of a large carnivore. Unlike wolves, lynx have solitary habits, and are thus more difficult to track. It also makes them more likely to adjust well to being removed from a home territory elsewhere. Colorado’s lynx, managed by CPW, rely on U.S. Forest Service management to support snowshoe hare populations, i.e. lynx depend on human intervention to survive in Colorado.
Remember that near 50-50 vote to reintroduce wolves in Colorado? It is instructional to see the map showing which counties went “yes” (green) and which went “no” (red).
That’s right: Denver, Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Aspen, and Durango voted for Prop 114. Mostly urban areas and a few liberal enclaves (resort communities). It does not mean that there are no wolf advocates in the red counties, just that their neighbors out-voted them—and vice versa. The key thing to note is that those green zones will not be home to reintroduced wolves.
I voted against the reintroduction, not because I’m opposed to wolves in Colorado, but because I disagree with forcibly removing them from their current homes. Let them return on their own. Jim Dutcher expressed my thoughts even better than I could:
“I have always been an advocate of natural recovery, letting them come back on their own to places where they can sustain themselves, leaving us to focus our energy on protecting them and the corridors of wilderness habitat that they need.”
After the proposition passed, the state hired a consulting company to assess citizens’ attitudes and concerns:
“A general theme from commenters was they would like the provided educational content to be based in science, research and measurable data to address a lack of information or knowledge and/or to dispel misinformation, myths or misconceptions.”
We’ve seen how effective such educational measures have been at countering “misinformation, myths or misconceptions” in our nation’s political sphere in general, right?
“One value set considers wolf management from the lens of human interests, livelihoods, controlling against negative impacts, and the need for active wildlife management to support ecosystems. The other value set emphasizes the intrinsic value of wildlife, the positive ecological role of predators, and a desire to restrict human activities to restore natural balance and benefits to ecosystems.”
No conflict there.
My experiences and thoughts
Having spent hundreds of hours or more studying wildlife, I can say that wild animals have individual personalities. And wolf pack dynamics contribute to wolf survival. What happens when you “kidnap” a wolf and forcibly remove it from its home, and possibly its family?
Dutcher cites a study of elephants removed from their social structure and how those animals developed “delinquent” behavior. What if relocated wolves also become maladjusted? Aren’t they more likely to behave in ways that humans find objectionable?
Am I against all wildlife reintroductions? Not exactly. My default is to focus on habitat improvement and connectivity while leaving as much alone as possible. A reintroduction of brown nuthatches into the Missouri part of their range has proven successful. Even some mammal reintroductions are possibly worth the effort, such as black-footed ferrets and the recent relocation of kit foxes by CPW to Wyoming.
If you have ever empathized with the apocryphal story about the girl throwing stranded starfish back into the sea—“It matters to that one”—then how can we blithely sentence some untold number of wolves to their deaths by taking them from their homes and dropping them into unfamiliar surroundings?
Rather than focusing our attention on one “iconic” species, we should plan environmental connectivity that would benefit many types of wildlife. We don’t know all the ways that species interact with one another. We don’t know that a particular patch of territory contains everything needed to sustain a large carnivore. Let them decide if it suits them or not. Only they can determine if there are sufficient habitat services to ensure reproductive success.
Important considerations have to be whether the animal lives in a social group which is key for learning adaptive behaviors, and the attitudes of humans in the reintroduction area. Human-wolf encounters are bound to be fraught with emotion: both positive and negative.
The Mexican wolf project in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona has been troubled by illegal killings and other woes. Little is happening on the Mexican portion of their range. Are we doing these canids a disservice to satisfy our guilty consciences over their near extinction?
Wolves have been delisted in order to allow hunting in states adjacent to Yellowstone: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Yes, it was political, not a science-based decision. Niemeyer, who supports wolf populations in the U.S., stated that he had given up trying to have reasoned conversations with people in those states. Wolf hatred is alive and well, and not necessarily rational.
The Guardians pointed out that livestock killed by wolves number in the few hundreds each year, and ranchers are fully compensated for these takings. Other fatal incidents, such as poisoning by larkspur, cause losses in the tens of thousands of head—netting ranchers not one dime in reparations. As Blakeslee noted, appeasing ranchers does nothing to change attitudes.
Tom Compton, rancher and PhD zoologist, points out in Last Stand that the Western Slope of Colorado is not Yellowstone. While there is some wilderness area, it comes nowhere near the size of Yellowstone.
While I can appreciate Compton’s concern for the survival of ranching businesses and the environmental services they provide, there’s little evidence that wolves would do anything to cause their demise. Particularly when there are funds allotted for livestock depredation losses (which, I remind you, tend to be quite minimal). If ranches go under, unsustainable business practices are more likely to blame.
And how many more people will come trampling our already teeming wilderness areas in hopes of spying a wild wolf?
What Gulliford et al. did not assure me of is that human attitudes toward wolves have been adequately addressed by reintroduction proponents. At least among Euro-American citizens, the fear and loathing goes back centuries, possibly millennia. There are ample quotes in any wolf news story from livestock producers professing their intention to kill any wolf even suspected on preying on their herds.
Why torment these animals by relocating them, only to find them gunned down by those who believe they need killing? The way the law currently stands, a hunter need only say “I thought it was a coyote” to be completely off-the-hook for an illegal wolf take. They will die by human hands.
CPW took a long look at the viability of a wolf reintroduction program in 2016 and decided not to proceed (this pertained to Mexican, not gray wolves). The voters have taken the decision out of their hands. My heart breaks for the creatures tethered in a human tug-of-war, a lose-lose situation.
The clock is ticking down to 2023 and forcible wolf relocations. Will the people of Colorado be ready? Will the wolves survive? Time will tell, but it probably won’t be a pretty story.
Arthur H. Carhart, in collaboration with Stanley P. Young. Andrew Gulliford & Tom Wolf, eds. The Last Stand of the Pack, Critical Edition. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017).
Jim and Jamie Dutcher, with Jim Mansfull. Wolves at Our Door. (New York: Pocket Books, 2002).
Nate Blakeslee. American Wolf: A Ture Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. (New York: B/D/W/Y Broadway Books, 2017).
https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/CON-Wolf-Management.aspx (Including the link to the Keystone report)