Colorado voters will cast their ballot on Initiative 107 to decide whether to reintroduce native gray wolves in western Colorado where they roamed prior to the 1940s. Here is some information to help you better understand the nuances of the reintroduction program.
Wolves help restore ecological balance and improve the vigor of elk and deer populations by culling old and diseased animals. Scientific studies have documented the ecological restoration in Yellowstone National Park, referred to as the “Serengeti” of North America. The park is over 2 million acres in size and hunting is not allowed, the only grazing is by native species, and human travel (off the main roads) is by horse and foot only. When wolves leave the protection of the park, they have been poached or mistakenly shot as a coyote, and legally removed if an individual is proven to have killed livestock. Once the wolf was removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act, limited hunting permits were issued in Idaho, Montano and Wyoming.
Colorado has approximately 23 million acres of public lands of which 3.5 million are designated wilderness. With a few exceptions including wilderness, most of these public lands are managed for multiple uses unlike Yellowstone National Park. These uses include livestock grazing, timber management, oil and gas exploration, motorized travel and other recreation uses. Colorado’s population is expected to increase in the next two decades with more people using public lands. Can a large core area be designated where wolf populations can become established and roam with minimal wildlife-human conflicts?
The Mexican Gray Wolf Reintroduction program, in Arizona and New Mexico, began in 1998 and is an example of how the reintroduction program could go in Colorado. The three states have similar public land status and public uses. Wolves were introduced into the 4.4 million acre Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, a remote, and primarily roadless landscape far from heavily populated areas. These wolves are considered an experimental “nonessential” population, which means there are fewer prohibitions on “take” than if the wolf had full federal protection as an endangered species. Authorities are allowed to administratively remove wolves who roam out of the recovery area. From the initial introduced wolf numbers of 11 individuals in 1998, the Mexican gray wolf population is slowly increasing, with approximately 113 wolves currently in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico. During that time, there have been 171 wolf mortalities, 31 from natural causes, 21 from vehicles, and 96 from illegal shooting or trapping.
To be successful, wolves need three things: prey, space to roam and human tolerance.
A successful reintroduction program will require Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to closely monitor prey (deer and elk) populations adjusting not only for wolf predation but big game hunting pressure and the impacts of increasing recreation on big game wintering and calving/fawning areas.
The goal of a successful recovery program is a sustainable, genetically diverse wolf population where individuals are free to roam in search of mates, and new territories. Wolves will eventually leave the protection of a recovery area, and conflicts are likely to occur.
Most importantly, the success of a reintroduction program will hinge on human tolerance. Will ranchers pro-actively employ nonlethal wolf deterrents and best management practices for livestock in wolf country? Several organizations are working with ranchers in the Northern Rockies to use deterrents such as livestock guard dogs to alert flock attendants, radio-activated guard systems with alarms to scare wolves away, temporary electrified corrals to protect sheep at night, and alternative grazing strategies. Range riders closely monitor herds and use nonlethal ammunition to deter wolves from livestock areas. Ranchers are developing strategies to keep cattle grouped in herds rather than in small groups more vulnerable to wolf attacks.
When population recovery targets are met, the wolf will be removed from federal protection — the goal of a successful reintroduction effort. Sportsmen will then be able to obtain permits to hunt these apex predators, similar to the hunts occurring in the Northern Rockies.
So the questions for voters to consider:
1. Does the Western Slope of Colorado have enough undisturbed space for wolves to roam freely?
2. Can ranchers pro-actively work with wolf project managers to implement livestock management strategies to advance the reintroduction program?
3. Should wolves be reintroduced as an experimental population or given the full federal protection of the Endangered Species Act similar to the wolves that move here on their own?
4. How will the program be funded? Options are federal taxpayer funds, state funds from hunting and fishing licenses, or a voter-approved special funding mechanism. The costs of the program would include compensating ranchers for livestock killed by wolves. In the Northern Rocky Mountain states, this has been estimated to be a few thousand dollars to more than $400,000 a year.
5. How do you feel about reintroduced wolves being illegally killed by poachers, and/or permitted to be killed by ranchers and federal/state managers? And, eventually, if the program is successful, how do you feel about a legal hunt on wolves?
6. The ecological function of our landscapes are affected by native as well as non-native grazers (livestock). How much of an impact can wolves have in the restoration of ecosystems such as riparian zones where domestic livestock continue to graze?
The wolf reintroduction program is complex. Think about it. Do your own research and become an informed voter.
Anne Janik is a wildlife biologist and has worked for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico, and as a public information specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.