On Dec. 22, 2019, The Daily Sentinel published an op-ed by Bob Clark titled “Coloradans must think twice about bringing wolves back.” At the end of his piece he notes that “it is important to be informed of the facts.” We wholeheartedly agree. As the debate begins in earnest about whether to reintroduce gray wolves to Colorado, misconceptions keep creeping in, and we wanted to take this opportunity to lay out the facts.
For hundreds of years, wolves have been the subject of fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Peter and the Wolf, and The Three Little Pigs. As a result, the myth of the wolf has gained a strong foothold in human culture and imagination.
Fortunately, science has produced a more accurate portrait of the wolf, made possible through more than two decades of observation in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes states. That science, and many of the same scientists, now inform Initiative 107, a citizens’ initiative to allow Colorado voters to vote in November 2020 for restoration of the native northern grey wolf to Colorado. This science-based proposal mandates restoration of wolves to Colorado to restore the ecological balance lost in their nearly 80-year absence. Initiative 107 has triggered a healthy debate over what wolves would mean, and importantly what they won’t mean for Colorado’s future.
Scientific observation of wolves since their reintroduction in the Northern Rockies over 25 years ago has taught us what it is like living with wolves. During that time, there have been no wolf attacks on people in the Northern Rockies. One need look no further than Yellowstone National Park to see how inconsequential wolves are to human safety: From 1995 to 2018, Yellowstone hosted more than 100 million visitors, none of whom was injured by a wolf. Many of these folks camped in tents in developed campgrounds or in the backcountry. Indeed, there have been no wild wolf-caused fatalities in the continental United States in the last 100 years.
Science also tells us that wolves will have a minimal impact on livestock. In the Northern Rockies, the roughly 1,800 wolves that live there have taken less than one-tenth of 1% of the livestock that they share range with. Yet, for those few ranch families that experience depredation, the loss is painful. That is why Initiative 107 mandates fair compensation for any livestock losses caused by wolves.
As to the oft-heard charge that wolves will “devastate” Colorado’s elk population, science speaks clearly. 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. More importantly, we know from research in Yellowstone National Park that the restoration of wolves 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, songbirds return and beavers recolonize these areas, building dams and improving water storage and trout habitat. Wolves are not a panacea, and the extent of their impact on the ecosystem will depend on their density of wolves across the landscape, but restoring wolves to their natural habitat in Colorado undoubtedly will, in the long term, send positive ripples through our mountain ecosystems.
For all these reasons, we believe the case is overwhelming that wolves should be restored to western Colorado’s public lands. Reintroducing wolves will help to restore Colorado’s natural ecological balance. Wolves, which selectively target diseased animals, will help cull CWD-infected animals from the state’s deer and elk herds, many of which are infected with this fatal disease.
Finally, it is essential to remember that we can restore and manage wolves in a manner that is humane, effective, affordable, 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, an avid big game hunter, lives in Steamboat Springs. James Pribyl, former member and chair of the Colorado Park & Wildlife Commission, lives in Summit County.