(Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series of articles and opinion pieces on Initiative 107, a wolf reintroduction measure appearing on Colorado’s 2020 state-wide ballot, all of which is available here.)
As climate change takes its toll on our high-country ecosystems, threatening fish and wildlife habitat, shifting the ranges of species, and depleting our annual snowpack, we need to do all we can to make our mountains as ecologically diverse and healthy as possible. Wolves are part of that solution.
Importantly, we know from research in Yellowstone National Park that the restoration of wolves will lead to a more balanced and healthier ecosystem. For example, the presence of wolves can change elk behavior, keeping them from grazing stream-side vegetation out in the open. By allowing aspen and willows to recover along those stream-banks, song-birds return and beavers recolonize these areas, building dams and improving water storage and trout habitat. Wolves are not a panacea, but restoring wolves to their natural habitat in Colorado undoubtedly will, in the long term, send positive ripples through our mountain ecosystems.
Colorado’s elk, deer and moose herds are in trouble today. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), 57% of Colorado’s deer herds, 37% of its elk herds, and 22% of its moose herds are infected with CWD. CPW notes that “Of most concern, greater than a 10-fold increase in CWD prevalence has been estimated in some mule deer herds since the early 2000s; CWD is now adversely affecting the performance of these herds.” Wolves will reduce the incidence of CWD in Colorado’s elk and deer herds because they target prey animals that are diseased, weak and otherwise vulnerable – in other words, elk, deer and moose with CWD. A 2011 study by the National Park Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State University in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, noted that “as CWD distribution and wolf range overlap in the future, wolf predation may suppress disease emergence or limit prevalence.” In fact, today in the Rocky Mountains, where there are large concentrations of wolves – in places like Yellowstone, Idaho, and western Montana – we find relatively little or no CWD.
Wolves have a minimal impact on Colorado’s livestock or ranching economics. In the Northern Rockies, the roughly 1800 wolves that live there have taken less than one-tenth of 1% of the livestock that they share range with. Initiative 107 mandates fair compensation for those rare cases where Colorado livestock could be lost to wolves.
Some have charged that wolves will “devastate” Colorado’s elk and deer herds. The opposite is true. In the Northern Rockies, there are more elk today than there were in 1995 when wolves were first reintroduced to the region. In fact, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all officially report more abundant elk and mule deer herds and larger hunter harvests than 30 years ago. Contrary to popular myth, in the Northern Rockies, wolves rarely kill moose; in fact, moose make up less than 1 percent of their diet. Moose have declined in the Northern Rockies largely due to massive wildfires that wiped out much of their habitat and to climate change, which is adversely impacting the southern edge of their range.
Also, over the last quarter century, there have been no wolf attacks on people in the Northern Rockies, despite over 100 million people visiting and camping in Yellowstone National Park among its wolves.
Finally, some have charged that initiative #107 amounts to “ballot box biology,” as though that were a bad thing. All wildlife management is based on human values. And there is no better way to discern those values than through American-style direct democracy at the ballot box, which will supplant the unfortunate past decisions of a handful of politically appointed CPW commissioners.
The restoration of wolves to the Northern Rockies has been a tremendous success. We can do the same in here and manage wolves in a manner that is humane, effective, and respectful of the needs and concerns of all Coloradans. We owe it to future generations to restore Colorado’s natural balance by making room, once again, for wolves.
Eric Washburn, a fifth generation Coloradan and avid big game hunter, lives in Steamboat Springs. James Pribyl, former member and Chair of the Colorado Park & Wildlife Commission, lives in Summit County.