By GREG WALCHER
In 1998 the government added “Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse” to the endangered species list, a decision that has cost Front Range communities millions. The state argued that this “subspecies” is no different than ordinary field mice everywhere. A respected geneticist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science published DNA-based test results proving that these various mice are genetically identical. The government still refuses to accept those findings, insisting on maintaining the geographic integrity of “subspecies” that are not very different. When Colorado suggested introducing other mice of the same species (but different “subspecies”) to recover a healthy population, federal agencies and environmental industry groups were adamantly against it. Keeping “subspecies” separate is a vital goal of wildlife management. Except when it isn’t.
Consider the extreme importance biologists place on many “subspecies,” such as northern spotted owl, Mexican spotted owl, Gunnison sage grouse, and greater sage grouse. Today, Colorado voters are asked to decide whether to require wildlife experts (against their own judgment) to introduce wolves to the Western Slope. Proponents argue that we should restore these noble natives, missing from our landscape since the 1940s. A worthy thought perhaps, but the wolves they propose to bring in are not native. They are a distinctly different subspecies, and in this case, advocates say that doesn’t matter at all.
An environmental reporter this week was working on a story investigating my earlier “claims that the proponents of Proposition 114 are hoping to introduce a species of wolves that aren’t native to Colorado.” It is not a “claim.” It is a fact. The wolves that were native to western Colorado were Southern Rocky Mountain wolves, medium-sized black and buff-colored wolves which are now extinct. They were closely related to the Great Plains wolf, also extinct, and different from the Northwestern wolf proposed for introduction to the Western Slope.
Taxonomically, all gray wolves are of the species Canis Lupus. There are numerous subspecies recognized by wildlife experts and listed in “Mammal Species of the World,” the standard reference work in mammalogy published by Johns Hopkins University. The extinct Southern Rocky Mountain wolf was Canis Lupus Youngi, which inhabited western Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and northern Arizona. They should not be confused with the Northwestern wolf, Canis Lupus Occidentalis, which inhabited the coastal regions of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. These are the wolves introduced into Yellowstone in the 1990s and which are proposed for western Colorado. They are also a different subspecies than the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf, Canis Lupus Irremotus, the lighter colored (more white than black) wolf which was actually native to Yellowstone, Montana, and Idaho.
The government decided to introduce Northwestern wolves into Yellowstone, instead of the native Northern Rocky Mountain wolves. They thought the original subspecies no longer existed (which was wrong), and anyway “wolves are known to disperse and interbreed over hundreds of miles.” They even claim that most of the historically recognized subspecies of Canis lupus “do not warrant recognition under modern taxonomic classification methods.” Aren’t they all the same anyway, they ask? They conveniently forget their own goals, articulated by expert taxonomist Dr. Ron Nowak, who warned that a “big part of the conservation of a full species is to insure that its component subspecies and populations remain intact and in place.” He added, “If there were actually a surviving population of the original Yellowstone wolf, every effort should be made to maintain its purity and to avoid bringing in other wolves.”
The Yellowstone introduction was a 15-year process, beginning in 1980 with the misnamed Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan. In 1987, it recommended bringing 30 wolves a year, for five years, into Yellowstone, central Idaho, and northwest Montana. Congress authorized it, and an Environmental Impact Statement was prepared by three federal agencies. The final 1994 plan designated the introduced wolves as a “non-essential experimental population,” allowing “take” if wolves killed livestock.
In Colorado, no such recovery plan exists. There is no act of Congress, no involvement by three federal agencies, no Environmental Impact Statement, and definitely no “non-essential experimental population” status. Wildlife agencies, in fact, do not support this initiative.
Supporters, or opponents, of wolf introduction can cite plenty of reasons to support either view. I happen to oppose it because wolves are dangerous, and Colorado is home to more than six million people. Reasonable folks may disagree on the wisdom of bringing in top-of-the-food-chain, non-native predators. But either way, they should not be under the illusion that they are voting to restore nature.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.