By GREG WALCHER
A famous 1970s TV commercial warned, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” In fact, it’s worse than “not nice” — it’s dangerous. Coloradans will make a momentous decision on this year’s ballot, whether to mess with Mother Nature by introducing non-native wolves to the state, without a complete understanding of how that might affect other wildlife. It’s why wildlife is better suited to expert management than emotional ballot initiatives.
Persuasive points have been raised on both sides, but there has been almost no coverage of the potential for disease that is known to follow such non-native introductions. Canadian grey wolves were introduced to Yellowstone, so that is the artificially-introduced wolf population available for study. They are now documented to carry a host of diseases, including some commonly known — Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), Sarcoptes Scabiei, the mite that causes mange, Neospora Caninum, the bacteria that devastates dairy and beef cattle, rabies, and hepatitis. But they also carry less expected diseases. A 2016 study of the Yellowstone wolves found bubonic plague, hydatid disease, which can be fatal to humans, echinococcus granulosis, canine adenovirus, herpes virus, and coronavirus.
You read that right. Wolves are among the Earth’s primary carriers of coronavirus, the pandemic that is now sweeping the globe, having infected nearly 100,000 people and killed over 3,000 that we know about. In late January it was reported that the Chinese market at the center of the deadly outbreak sold exotic animals, including wolves, for food.
The Huanan Seafood Market in the city of Wuhan is reported to have sold the animals, despite widespread knowledge that wolves can carry coronavirus. The market has been shut down, and the Chinese government has stopped the marketing of wolves, because they may be a source of the pandemic.
It is impossible to verify such reports from inside a closed country like China, but in Hong Kong there is at least one documented case where a dog got coronavirus from his owner. The dog shows no symptoms; canines are carriers. But there is little doubt about the ability of the virus to spread across species, and it makes sense to take all precautions.
If the idea of non-native wolves spreading disease sounds sensational, realize there is nothing new about this. Biologists have known for many years that diseases and parasites are more common among reintroduced species. In 2012 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a study by a team of researchers from Penn State, Princeton, the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey, monitoring reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone. Their conclusions are still on both the NIH and Park Service websites, documenting unnatural declines in wolf populations after reintroduction, because of sickness. “While monitoring dens to count pups, we noticed huge declines in pup numbers… by the end 2005, total wolf population numbers in the park had dropped by over 30 percent. That was the summer we came to understand the importance of infectious diseases for wolves in Yellowstone.”
The reason is not mysterious at all. Introduced animals are not accustomed to a particular environment and not naturally equipped to fight off strange new diseases, viruses, and parasites. In the same way Native American tribes had no natural immunity to smallpox and other diseases carried by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, artificially introduced species are at high risk of catching infections from local species, and vice versa. In the Yellowstone case, native parasites and diseases actually hurt the wolves, but if forcefully introduced into Colorado, the wolves could be the metaphorical Spaniards in this story.
In fact, if Colorado proves to be perfect habitat for non-native wolves, it could be worse. As the Yellowstone study authors wrote, “We demonstrate that the area of highest resource quality, supporting the greatest density of wolves, is also the region that appears most susceptible to repeated disease invasion and parasite-induced declines.”
I continually use the term “non-native,” because it is an important distinction. The timberwolves that once inhabited Colorado are extinct. It is sad, but they’re gone forever. The gray wolves from Canada that would be brought to Colorado under this initiative are not native, and have never lived in Colorado. It is not known how they might or might not adapt to a strange new environment, and whether they may or may not bring coronavirus and other deadly diseases with them. In other places, we know they have done so. Do Coloradans really want to take that chance? This is not a good time to mess with Mother 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.