Next year, the citizens of Colorado may have the opportunity to decide whether gray wolves should roam western Colorado as they did just a few decades ago.
To some, this feels like an affront to a way of life, but for many others, the time has come. As a Colorado citizen, scientist, and educator, I am compelled to shed some light on this issue, with a goal toward an open and informed conversation about a topic that means so much to so many.
Allowing voters to decide on the restoration of wolves to western Colorado represents a refreshing use of direct democracy on an issue of deep meaning to folks from all walks of life: the landscapes of wild Colorado. Nearly 70% of western Colorado is managed as federal land and these lands are held for us all. A vote in 2020 will represent the voices of those who love and use our public lands in diverse ways.
Multiple polls spanning two decades have shown that a majority of Coloradans support returning wolves to the hunting grounds of their ancestors in western Colorado. That support comprises a substantial majority of Western Slope residents, of hunters, and a majority of those who derive their income from ranching and farming. This is important! The proposition that wolves should be restored to Colorado is not something the folks on the Front Range are trying to impose on an unwilling Western Slope electorate.
Until 1945, wolves roamed throughout vast tracts of the United States, including the wild landscapes of Colorado. They vanished not because of a lack of prey but because of a concerted extermination effort of trapping and poisoning. Notably, most scientists and wildlife managers agree that having top predators in wild landscapes is far better for ecosystem balance than not having them. For example, we know that wolves and other carnivores remove prey and clean up carcasses of animals infected with chronic wasting disease. Moreover, two-plus decades of science from the northern Rockies shows that free-roaming wolves can help mitigate the damage caused by overabundant elk.
We only have to look to Rocky Mountain National Park to see the effect of too many herbivores — its beautiful open meadows interrupted by fences aiming to keep elk out of areas denuded of native vegetation in the absence of predators. While RMNP itself is likely too small to support a wolf population, it serves as an excellent example of the balance among predator, prey, and native vegetation and what happens when this balance is interrupted at the hands of humans. A few wolf packs in the state's western region is a vastly more visually pleasing and sustainable solution than fences to the problem of excessive elk. And, the effects cascade. With wolves and other apex predators in a system, aspen and willow are more likely to thrive, beaver populations have better odds at bouncing back, streams slow and cool behind beaver dams, and fish find respite from an increasingly warm climate. Fisherman, birders, and hunters alike have more to observe. I'm not suggesting that wolves are the panacea for protecting wild places — they are not. Indeed they are only one species among many. But they are undoubtedly a critical element, with as much right to be there as any other species, including humans.
We are still dealing with the ecological consequences of predator removal and wolf extirpation in the 20th century. Yet, all of these ecological arguments are moot if wildlife managers are never given the opportunity to bring scientists together to design a successful and sustainable plan for ecosystem restoration.
This ballot measure lets the people of Colorado give our state wildlife professionals the green light to start planning. Importantly, it also directs the state to be prepared to compensate any livestock producer who loses animals to wolves. I mention this not to minimize any emotional cost of losing livestock (which cannot be compensated by money alone), but that the measure will include a feasible plan that addresses the funding of economic costs is both appropriate and fair.
Finding a way to bring back one of Colorado's most iconic species — one that brings about strong emotion in all of us one way or another — presents a grand opportunity for our state to show the world what it means to be good stewards of public lands, with ranchers, hunters, animal lovers, and scientists working together as partners to forge healthier landscapes and restore some of what wild Colorado used to be.
Joanna Lambert, PhD, is a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder and a member of the Science Advisory Team for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project www.rockymountainwolfproject.org For the past three decades, Lambert has studied wild animals in wild landscapes around the world, including Colorado, and has observed firsthand the elements of a sustainable and healthy ecosystem. (For more information visit www.joannalambert.com)