Thinking Outside the Classroom: Wolves in Colorado

Christina Wheeler
Thinking Outside the Classroom

At Keystone Science School, we teach critical thinking and curiosity through the lens of science. A common teaching approach is the utilization of our nonbiased framework when exploring environmental issues. We teach collaboration rather than competition, while investigating different perspectives before facilitating respectful dialogue. One of our newest curriculum themes is about the reintroduction of wolves and all of the various perspectives within this issue.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has confirmed a pack of six wolves living in Northwest Colorado. In Moffat County, there have been wolf sightings along with wolf paw prints surrounding an elk carcass. The question as to whether wolves should be reintroduced by humans in Colorado is one that every voter will be asked to answer in the upcoming November election.

The species of wolves proposed to be reintroduced to Colorado are the grey wolves, which are the largest of the wild dog species and specialize in taking down prey larger than themselves. Grey wolves are around 30 inches tall at the shoulders and 55-80 inches in length. Male wolves weigh 65-75 pounds and female wolves weigh 50-125 pounds. Grey wolves can be white, black, grey or a combination of all three colors. Grey wolves in the west are bigger than their Midwest counterparts. 

One of the most notable arguments in favor of the reintroduction of wolves is balancing Colorado’s ecosystem. Originally eradicated from Colorado due to the depredations of domestic animals, the reintroduction of wolves would help bring balance back to the ecosystem by killing the weak, sick and old members of Colorado’s wild ungulate population. With a decrease in the ungulate population, we would see our riparian environments improve as well as an increase in the beaver population. 

A recent study in Wisconsin found that the average age of death for a wolf in the wild is about 28 months. Few wolves have been sighted in Wisconsin greater than 6 or 7 years old. With sexual maturity in wolves occurring at 22 months and the average death of a wolf occurring around the age of sexual maturity, an argument can be made that human assistance in their return to Colorado could be beneficial as it will likely take several years to create a thriving wolf population in Colorado. Humans were initially responsible for removing wolves. Should we be responsible for helping them return?

Arguments against reintroducing wolves to Colorado include depredation of livestock and a negative impact to the hunting industry. Wolves mainly eat ungulate animals. Wolves do kill livestock and will engage in what is known as surplus killing, which refers to killing more animals than they can consume. In the winter months, when temperatures are consistently below freezing, wolves will kill and leave the carcass for later consumption. Killing of any livestock, especially surplus killing, understandably causes anger and frustration in the ranching community. When wolves, cattle and other livestock share an ecosystem, ranchers take extra measures to ensure the safety of their animals. Wolf deterring strategies include the implementation of solar-powered lights, fences, flagging on fences, livestock shelters and livestock guarding animals. These methods are resource intensive and often at the expense of ranchers to install. Ranchers will be compensated for their livestock losses if Colorado voters pass the reintroduction of wolves but will require extra measures to prove the validity of each claim. Hunters are concerned that wolves will kill many moose, elk and deer, making it more challenging to find animals to hunt and negatively impacting Colorado’s hunting economy.  

If you go

What: Presentation by Dick Thiel of the International Wolf Center
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Keystone Science School, 1053 Soda Ridge Road

Christina Wheeler is the education programs manager at Keystone Science School.

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