If wolves return, who protects the ranchers?
ASPEN – The Western Slope, which has some 250,000 elk, could sustain more than 1,000 wolves, conservationist Rob Edward told a standing-room-only crowd in Carbondale on Wednesday.And that, said longtime Carbondale rancher Bill Fales, “scares the hell out of me.”Edward, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring native carnivores to their ancestral lands, presented a slide show at Dos Gringos restaurant on wolf reintroduction. Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop hosted the event. Whether western Colorado has room for wolves is a central part of a contentious issue, he said. The 50-year goal of Sinapu, which is the Ute word for wolves, is for the animals to regain the habitat they had before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Their range was from the Arctic to just north of Mexico City, Edward said. Sinapu concentrates on the southern Rockies ecosystem, from southern Wyoming to New Mexico, including the Western Slope of Colorado.
Because of the successful Yellowstone National Park reintroduction program, wolves are already coming back to Colorado. A wolf from the national park was killed on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in June 2004.Colorado has four prime spots for wolf reintroduction, including one that stretches from Grand Mesa near Grand Junction to the West Elks near Crested Butte. That is just over a couple of mountain passes from the Crystal River Valley and the Fales ranch.Fales and his wife help run the Mount Sopris Hereford Ranch outside Carbondale. He said most of the Western Slope’s critical wintering habitat for elk is on private land and wondered whether there would be protections for landowners when the wolves come back.It is not a matter of if, but when they arrive, Fales said, also noting the I-70 wolf. His father-in-law, Bob Perry, has owned and run the Hereford Ranch for 65 years. Perry, 88, was not at the meeting, but said earlier in the day that western Colorado would be better off without wolves. He remembers wolves doing “so much damage” when his father ranched.”They were really considered a pest,” Perry said. “I have no problem with them if they’re out there where there’s no people, but this idea that every state’s gotta have some wolves back, I think is silly.”Edward said such concerns “may not be grounded entirely in reality.” Where they have been reintroduced, wolves kill less than one in 10,000 livestock animals annually.
“More are killed by lightning,” he said.And wolves’ impact on the Yellowstone environment has been remarkable since their reintroduction in 1995, Edward said. In one valley where 60 wolves were freed, the coyote population dropped by half, he said. They are also changing the behavior of bison and elk, he said, putting up a slide titled “The Ecology of Fear.”Fear is good because it keeps herds on the move, which allows grasses and trees to grow back. Fledgling trees draw back migrating birds and also provide resources for beavers, he said. The trees also shade streams, dropping the water temperature and improving fish habitat.”They have habitat they didn’t have from 1900 on,” Edward said. Wolves “are as important to the landscape as wildfire.”He asked why Colorado shouldn’t have wolves acting as wildfire does in many places.He also said wolves could potentially eliminate chronic wasting disease because of their nature of picking off the sick and weak in herds.
That’s a theory Fales hasn’t bought into. He contended the predator-prey relationship would actually concentrate herds and make chronic wasting disease worse.Such beliefs that livestock and wolves cannot coexist led to a concentrated effort in the western United States to exterminate wolves at the turn of the 20th century, Edward said. Scratching out a life in the West in the early 1900s was difficult enough without wolves, and he said the campaign to eradicate the animals to protect livestock is easily understood. But Edward noted that wolves had little choice but to go after cows, chickens and sheep because man had killed almost all the bison and a lot of the elk.The anti-wolf campaign lasted for 70 years and was all too successful. The state’s last wild wolf was killed in 1945 in the San Juan Mountains.If wolves do return to Colorado, Edward said, there are plans to reimburse ranchers for any livestock lost to the predators. But Fales said animals can be killed and their carcasses eaten before ranchers can document the loss.”Economics is a big part of it,” he said. “We raise these animals to feed people, not wolves.”I just don’t see how (people and wolves) can coexist.”
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