Opinion: Restoring gray wolves will be good for Colorado’s mountains and its people
Eric Washburn, big-game hunter
After inhabiting Colorado for thousands of years, the state’s last gray wolves were killed in the 1940s. Since then, wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho and spread naturally around the Northern Rockies states, fostering pioneering wolf research.
We learned that when an apex predator like a wolf is removed from the Rocky Mountains, it creates an imbalance that ripples across these high elevation Alpine landscapes. In the absence of wolves, deer and elk change their natural behaviors: They become less wary and browse in the open along streambanks, stripping them of aspens and willows, a problem that is particularly acute in Rocky Mountain National Park. The depletion of this riparian vegetation leaves streambanks vulnerable to erosion, deprives songbirds of natural habitat and removes a source of food for beavers. The loss of the beaver from these systems means less water is stored in high-elevation streams and trout lose valuable habitat — problems that are becoming more serious as climate change reduces snowpack, Colorado’s natural high-elevation water storage system.
Reintroducing wolves restores the natural balance in these systems. Moreover, wolf-kills provide year-round food for important scavengers like black bears, Canada lynx, pine martens, foxes, raccoons, wolverines, eagles and hawks. And because wolves specifically target weak and diseased prey, they play an important role in keeping elk and deer herds vibrant and healthy.
As a result of what we have learned in the past quarter-century about the role of wolves in keeping Rocky Mountain ecosystems healthy, a group of conservationists in Colorado, propelled by the signatures of over 215,000 fellow Coloradans on a petition, have put Proposition 114 on the Nov. 3 statewide ballot. It would require Colorado Parks and Wildlife to restore gray wolves to our mountains, scientifically manage them, and provide fair compensation to ranchers in the rare cases that they lose livestock.
It was written in the spirit of the late historian Steven Ambrose who said, “In the 19th century, we devoted our best minds to exploring nature. In the 20th century, we devoted ourselves to controlling and harnessing it. In the 21st century, we must devote ourselves to restoring it.” In Colorado, we have a successful record of restoring species like shiras moose and Canada lynx, and there is no doubt that Parks and Wildlife, with input from the public, will do a great job of restoring and managing gray wolves.
A lot has been said about wolves by the opponents of Proposition 114, none of which has been supported by the decades of research that have been summarized by scientists at Colorado State University’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence.
According the CSU’s work, in the Northern Rockies, where ranchers have lived side by side with wolves for 25 years, conflicts with livestock have been rare. In fact, in areas where wolves and livestock coexist, wolves are responsible for less than one-tenth of 1% of livestock mortality. Moreover, Proposition 114 calls for providing fair compensation to ranchers for any livestock losses to wolves, just like the compensation Parks and Wildlife already provides to ranchers for bear and mountain lion predation. There are 40,000 more elk in the Norther Rockies states today compared to the time before wolves were reintroduced. Over 100 million people have camped and hiked in Yellowstone since wolves were reintroduced. Many have gone specifically to view wolves and witness the many ways in which they have improved the health of the park. No one has gotten attacked by a wolf, and the local economy has grown from the $35 million per year wolf tourism industry.
To their credit, Coloradans have not been fooled by the baseless claims of those opposed to wolf restoration. A poll by CSU scientists in 2019 found that 84% of Coloradans support this idea, including strong majorities on the rural Eastern Plains and Western Slope.
Restoring the gray wolf to Colorado will not only be an act of ecological redemption, it will help make our mountain wildlife communities healthier, improve the natural storage of fresh water in high-elevation beaver ponds, and thus make our state more resilient to climate change, which will benefit all Coloradans in the years ahead. Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior under President John F. Kennedy, perhaps said it best: “Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife, are in fact plans to protect man.” A vote for wolves is a vote for our mountains, ourselves and our collective future.
Jim Pribyl is a former chair of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission who lives in Frisco. Eric Washburn is a fifth-generation Coloradan and big-game hunter who lives in Steamboat Springs.
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