By JIM CAGNEY
In all but a few of my years, I’ve visited the family cabin in northern Wisconsin. In the old days the country was remote and wild. But times have changed. Somehow a handful of cabins on the lake turned into a couple hundred trophy homes. Consequently, when the party boys are raising hell on the on the water, I take comfort knowing that in one major way, the woods behind the cabin are wilder now than they used to be. Around 20 years ago, wolves worked their way around the western tip of Lake Superior and migrated east into northern Wisconsin. I like ‘em.
I’ve only seen two, but their howls, which cannot be mistaken for the yipping of coyotes, invoke a feeling that I’m in a very special place. One October night I could hear two packs on opposite sides of the lake. It was cold that night and I about froze to death unwilling to go inside for a jacket and miss and a moment of that incredible scene. The northern Wisconsin economy is primarily logging and tourism, so the wolves are more or less accepted.
Not so in Colorado’s Yampa Valley where the economy relies on livestock and big game hunting. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, let’s agree that wolves don’t play nice. I’d suggest that the adaptation and behavior of all large animals in North America is predicated on how they cope with wolves. Elk group up, run and kick. Bighorn stick to rough country. Ever wonder why in the world black bear evolution includes the ability to climb trees? Wolf packs hunt elk in open country. Mountain lions play solitary peek-a-boo with bighorn in the rocks. It’s classic niche occupancy behavior, honed over the millenniums.
Lore dictates that wolves kill the lame and the sick, and in doing so refine gene pools making their prey base stronger. I’ll buy that if I’m allowed to change the “lame and sick” language to say wolves consistently kill the “easiest one.” In the Yampa Valley the easiest one might be the largest bull elk in the herd, exhausted from the rut as winter closes in. No question, the Colorado wolf referendum attacks the people whose livelihood is based on big game hunting. Our society is facing a major disconnect between its urban and rural components. I see the wolf ballot initiative as the urban group imposing their perspective on the rural, in a manner I find disrespectful. Our country doesn’t need that right now.
The social/economic setup of western Colorado is consistently public land in the rugged mountains and canyons with private land in the valley bottoms. These valley bottom landowners often provide essential wildlife habitat. They are also consistently livestock owners who do not want wolves. Let’s dismiss now the notion that these people are somehow compensated for wolf predation. Compensation programs, at best, only cover hard-to-prove direct wolf caused death loss. That’s hopelessly simplistic. Cattle aren’t helpless, but wolves add major stress, which reduces calf weights and disrupts breeding cycles. Big game species commonly have reproductions rates around 50%. Economically viable ranch operations need reproduction rates far higher.
Consider the hypothetical John and Mary Doe who live in the Gunnison Valley. John drives a snow plow for the county, and Mary works at the hospital. They own 25 head of cattle which they run on their land along the river. One night in March, wolves run their herd through the fence. All the stock survived, but John and Mary accrue a big vet bill, and the emergency causes them to miss their son’s ball game in the state tournament. When John and Mary have coffee with the neighbors, they talk about how much they hate the environmentalists that disrupted their lives.
As an environmentalist myself, I ask my friends to consider that we cannot afford to callously make enemies of our rural neighbors. We have to work with people. Ballot initiatives are seldom the right natural resource management approach. That’s why I voted no.
Jim Cagney has a degree in range-forest management from Colorado State. He served as the BLM’s district manager in northwest Colorado before retiring. He lives in Grand Junction.