Colorado: Home to Wilderness, Weed, and… Wolves?

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Grey Wolf
Grey wolf, looking for his lift pass. Photo by Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There certainly were some things that happened in the 2020 United States elections. Yessir, some things definitely occurred. And we are not talking about any of that shit here. But one little thing that probably slipped under your election radar was Colorado’s Proposition 114. Unlike other riveting ballot measures around the country, like the State of Washington’s effort to repeal a tax on heavy equipment rentals, this one was pretty unusual. It proposed something that had never been done before. Colorado Prop 114 required the state government to re-introduce grey wolves to Colorado. That’s never happened before, voters have never specifically required a species be reintroduced to an area. And it passed!

Now, you may be thinking this isn’t really a big deal. After all, doesn’t the government introduce endangered species all the time? Well, actually not near as much as you may think, but that’s not what made Prop 114 so controversial that it squeaked through by less than two percentage points. No, what really makes this a big deal is the species in question. Grey wolves… I mean, look. While researching this story, I saw a National Geographic article quoting someone as saying that wolves are “the abortion issue of wildlife.”

I know what you’re thinking. “If America didn’t want grey wolves, then it shouldn’t have gotten knocked up. By grey wolves.” And this is why no one likes talking to you.

While I think the abortion comparison is a bit much, it’s not far from wrong either. If that comes as a surprise to you, then you probably don’t live in one of the many areas of the country where people drive around with bumper stickers on their trucks that say “Smoke a pack a day” with a picture of a wolf on it. As far as endangered species go, wolves may be the most divisive of them all. After all, as children, we learn from fairy tales that wolves are the bad guys. Television and movies often portray them as dangerous, murderous beasts. There’s a deep cultural fear and hatred of wolves that runs through our society. And not for nothing. Wolves really do, to some extent, compete with us for wild game and our own livestock. But while humans and wolves do come in to conflict, it rarely, if ever, rises to the level seen in our stories and legends. But that doesn’t stop us from treating them as an existential threat.

Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw carving of a wolf
Wolves have always been important to many Native American tribes, such as the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s another side to this, of course, and it can be just as emotional. If people don’t hate wolves, there’s a good chance they really love them. Wolf fans see them as noble, majestic symbols of the wild. Some people claim to have a spiritual connection with them. Some wear T-shirts with pictures of three wolves and a moon on them. And of course, wolves have played a prominent role in the culture of many Native American tribes, to the point where some consider them to be almost tribe members themselves. For all these people, regardless of the motivation for their reverence, wolves are inherently valuable to society. They assume that having wolves around is a good thing, and they can have a pretty visceral reaction when anyone suggests otherwise.

So, that’s the brief explanation for why wolves really are kind of sort of the abortion issue of wildlife. There’s two opposing sides that have pretty strong emotional reactions to them, and seemingly little middle ground… you either want lots of wolves, or you want none. But what’s the real scoop on these guys? Are wolves as bad as their opponents make them out to be? Are they as inherently valuable as their fans believe? What does the science say? Well, as always, the truth is more complicated than people like to admit. Wolves do cause problems for people sometimes, but people, particularly in America, have proven reluctant to do much to adapt when wolves reappear in areas where they’ve long been absent. And wolves do have measurable benefits to ecosystems, but it’s not as obvious or clear-cut as people want to believe. There is a middle ground, but it’s a harder path to follow than just picking a side, and some people are likely to get pissed off no matter what we choose to do with wolves.

The wolf sitch

But what’s the deal with wolves in Colorado specifically? Well, grey wolves are native to the state, as they are to most of North America. By the 1940’s, however, wolves had been completely eradicated from the state. On the one hand, there had been serious over-hunting of deer and elk, their favored prey species, dramatically reducing the population of those animals. Less food for wolves equals less wolves. On the other hand, there was a systematic, government sponsored effort to eradicate wolves, in an effort to aid farmers who suffered livestock losses to wolf packs. Packs that increasingly turned to sheep and cattle when their natural prey populations dwindled. The end result was the total elimination of wolves from Colorado, as well as most of the western US.

Since then, the human population of Colorado has grown from 1.3 million to 5.8 million. Entire generations of farmers have come and gone, developing their farming methods without any need to worry about wolves lurking about. Ski bunnies evolved, Jack Nicholson lost his shit in an old hotel, and cutting-edge omelet technology was developed in Denver. It’s not the same state as it was eighty years ago.

Little Red Riding Hood with the Big Bad Wolf
No idea why so many people think wolves are evil

Then comes the Endangered Species Act, which gave wolves federal protection in the 70’s and listed goals that needed to be met before those protections would be removed. The problem is… those goals were both very modest and also rarely updated as the biology and genetics of wolves became better understood. These modest goals focused on the population of animals, but not the amount of habitat they occupy. The results have therefore been mixed. Wolves have recovered very well in some regions, such as the western Great Lakes region and the Yellowstone region. But wolves used to roam from coast to coast, in a variety of habitats. Their population in the lower 48 states is still a fraction of what it once was, and they are still absent from the majority of their former range, only occupying about 15% of it. And as federal protections have been weakened or removed on the local populations that have recovered, their ability to expand in to new areas has been hampered.

Recovery of the grey wolf in the United States has been primarily the responsibility of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Because of the somewhat vague nature of the Endangered Species Act recovery plan, there hasn’t been any particular motivation for US Fish and Wildlife to actively try to recover wolves in any particular state, let alone Colorado specifically. There have been efforts for decades now by various groups to encourage the government to reintroduce wolves to the state, but there was ultimately no legal way to force the issue. Once Colorado legalized weed in 2012, however, efforts to bring wolves back intensified as a means to control populations of dirty hippies migrating to the ski slopes… that doesn’t make sense, hang on… dammit, this is why you have to be careful doing research online. Pro tip: don’t ever get your information from a site called “stonerwolves.com”.

Planned Wolfhood

What actually happened was, pro-wolf advocates got Colorado Proposition 114 on the ballot in 2020. Basically, the proposition dictates that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency must reintroduce wolves to the state, giving them a deadline of December 2023 to come up with a plan to do so. At first, polling indicated that this was very popular with Colorado residents, with 84% in favor of Prop 114. But by election day, that popularity had faded dramatically.

What happened to that amazing popularity? Well, a well funded movement to oppose reintroduction emerged, promoting their argument against Prop 114 to the masses. To be clear, the pro-wolf advocates had funding as well, but they had spent most of their advertising budget by the time October rolled around. The opponents, however, had a surge of ad money in the last few weeks before the election, spending about 2.5 times as much on ads as the pro-wolf groups. In politics, the saying is that voters have a short memory, and it seems likely that some folks who had most recently heard a negative message about wolves, might focus on that more than the positive message they heard months ago.

In addition to that, a wolf pack from the Yellowstone population wandered across the Colorado border for a while in early 2020. Unable to find a pot dispensary, they soon got bored and went back to Wyoming. Still, some folks said that was evidence that nothing needed to be done, that wolves were going to show up on their own anyway.

So… what are the facts, though? Are wolves good, or bad? Advocates say it will be good for the ecosystem and good for tourism. Opponents say it will be devastating for ranchers and hunters. People with crystal jewelry say it will please the Earth Mother, and furries say they’re worried they’ll get shot by ranchers. To be fair, that was always a risk, though. There’s a lot of emotions swirling around, but what does the science say?

American beaver, Castor canadensis
They may not look like much, but beavers can have dramatic positive effects on their ecosystems

There’s good evidence for the improved ecosystem argument. Wolves are apex predators, and as such have a top-down effect on the rest of the ecosystem. Furthermore, since wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone region in the 1990’s, there have been some positive changes to the ecosystem. In the absence of heavy predation by wolves, the elk population had grown until it was limited only by how much food they could find. Once wolves returned, it changed both the size of the elk population and their behavior. More wolves meant fewer elk, obviously, which meant that plant populations that had been heavily grazed on by the elk had a chance to recover. Furthermore, when wolves are around, elk spend less time out in the open and less time grazing. Instead, they move around more and spend more time in dense forests, where they have an easier time evading predators. This meant that they spent less time feeding on the willows along stream banks, where they were vulnerable. Willows rebounded.

More willows meant more beaver. In fact, there’s now so much beaver… okay, stop it. I can hear you giggling from here. Just… just grow up. Anyway, beavers loved the increased willow growth. And beavers are what we call a “keystone species”. This is because they drink so much light beer, that they… shit. Okay, apparently, you also shouldn’t get your information from “hammeredbeaver.com”, either. They’re actually called keystone species because they have a dramatic effect on their environment. Keystone species shape their ecosystems, and in this case the shaping is literal. The dams they are famous for building physically alter the streams and surrounding habitat. Pools form behind them, and those pools provide new habitat for fish and other species. The course of the stream itself can be altered by beaver dams, creating yet more new habitat. The stands of willows also serve as habitat for songbirds. The upshot is, the stream ecology in the Yellowstone area has gotten a lot healthier in the past twenty years, and a direct line can be drawn from wolves to elk to willow to beavers that results in a revival of the ecosystem.

Now, it’s not a sure bet that wolves are 100% responsible for all these changes. There have been wildfires and weather events in that time period that may have had a role to play as well. And it’s not like it’s suddenly a pristine wilderness, just like it was 500 years ago. But ecology theory and the available evidence indicates that the reintroduction of wolves had a large role to play in some improvements to the Yellowstone ecosystem.

As far as tourism, there’s no way to really know if wolves will bring more tourists to Colorado. But there’s some reason to expect they might. People do travel just to see or hear wolves, and the Yellowstone wolves are estimated to have brought in enough tourism to add several million dollars a year to the local economy. Now, Yellowstone Park itself is known for being a place where you can observe wildlife that normally would be very difficult to find. It’s not clear that people would flock to Colorado in the same way, when they were less assured of being able to find wolves in the wild. But, they could, we don’t really know.

Wolves versus man

Now, for the other side of the argument. A lot of the opposition to Prop 114 came from hunters and ranchers, or people concerned about those interests. Farmers and wolves have probably been at odds since the dawn of agriculture. Wolves can and do kill livestock, especially smaller animals like sheep, but cattle too. The question is, how bad of a problem is it, and how much damage are we willing to tolerate? You’ll be shocked, I’m sure, to find out that the data on wolf predation on livestock is kind of messy. First off, just confirming that a wolf killed an animal is trickier than you might think. Cougars, bears, coyotes, and feral dogs kill livestock as well, and unless you’re an expert or you actually see it happen, it can sometimes be tricky to tell the difference just by looking at a carcass.

It’s also true that, especially in the sort of open range situations that you often find in the American West, livestock die all the time from illness or accident. When that happens, unless the rancher finds the carcass right away, predators, including wolves, will scavenge it. The result may look like wolves killed the animal, when really they just fed on a cow that died from a medical issue. Since trained wildlife biologists aren’t usually the ones identifying what killed a cow or sheep, the data we have is sketchy. Plus, sometimes livestock just disappears altogether, and you never know what happened to them.

Sheep
Sheep are a tasty temptation if you do nothing to deter the wolves. Photo by 3268zauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

So, our data about how much cattle or sheep get killed by wolves is pretty iffy and sometimes not even available. Some insist the data under-represents wolf predation because the criteria for identifying them as wolf kills is too strict, or because carcasses can just disappear and the cause is never known. Others suspect, at least in some states, that the numbers are inflated by farmers claiming wolves killed animals that actually died from other causes, because they can get financial compensation for wolf kills, but not for animals that died from other causes. In truth, it’s hard to know for sure, and it’s difficult to try to study what the error rates are in identifying wolf kills on livestock. However, the data we do have shows that the effects on farmers are pretty hit or miss. Most ranchers have little trouble with wolves, while a handful will have consistent issues with them.

Overall, the percentage of livestock killed by wolves appears to be pretty small. It’s often thought to be less than 1% of the total livestock population for a region, sometimes a lot less. As an example, Idaho has had a population of several hundred wolves for a number of years now, and 2018 was proclaimed in the local press as an especially bad year for wolves killing livestock. Federal reports show that 175 cattle were killed by grey wolves that year. And while that was unusually high, to put that in to some context, there are 2.5 million cattle in the entire state. That amounts to .007% of the total population. If these were cows dying from some rare disease, you wouldn’t be hearing about some new plague sweeping through Idaho’s ranches. You probably would never hear about it at all. But, because of the high emotions surrounding wolves, that .007% makes much bigger news than the vastly higher number of cattle that die from other causes.

You had some weird experiences in college…

Sheep, being smaller, are more vulnerable to predation than cows. Have you ever seen a cow up close? They’re pretty big. Imagine going up to one and trying to bite it without getting your head caved in. Now, imagine a sheep. Should be easy, just think back to your college days. Now, imagine going up to that sheep and trying to bite it. Depending on whether or not you were in a fraternity, this might also be easy to imagine. Point is, they’re a lot smaller, less able to fight back, and easier to fit in to your hatchback and driven back to campus. So you might expect that grey wolves would be a huge problem for them. And sheep do have it significantly worse, but it’s still a relatively small proportion. Looking at Idaho in 2018 again, there were around 800 sheep reported lost to wolves, out of a total number of 235,000 animals. That’s dramatically worse than the figures for cattle, but it still only amounts to .3% of the population. Interestingly, we also have figures for other causes of death for sheep in Idaho that year. Turns out, coyotes were blamed for 5,100 sheep deaths in 2018, or 2.1% of the total. That’s more than six times the number that wolves took. Figures for sheep stolen by college students are apparently not recorded, so we can’t compare those.

Now, the other side to that is, the kills are not spread evenly throughout the state, because the wolves aren’t. Some areas are good habitat for them, others are not. Ranchers in the hotter, drier sections of the state have few problems with wolves, while those in wooded or mountainous regions will have more. Likewise, ranchers that have animals that roam freely throughout a large area, a situation common in the western US, have more trouble than farms with animals contained in well fenced enclosures. Since wolves that resort to raiding farms tend to return if they are successful, this also means that a handful of farmers can end up accounting for most of the animals killed. And if a farmer with 100 cows is having a rough time and loses 8 to wolves, that’s going to have a much bigger impact on them than the big rancher with 2000 animals who loses a few.

Point being, for the overall economy, wolves seem to have a very negligible impact, but for a small number of individual farmers, they may be a significant issue. Some ranchers even report that just having a wolf pack in the area can cause enough stress on their animals that they don’t gain as much weight as they used to, even if there are no attacks. So, when dealing with these issues, it’s important to keep that in mind, that there are a few ranchers and farmers out there who actually do get hurt. If we decide as a society that we value wolves, then we need to do what we can to support the small number of folks who are negatively impacted.

electrified flagging aka turbo fladry
Turbo fladry, a kind of electrified flagging, deployed to deter wolves. USDA photo by Pamela Manns.

There are methods for reducing the likelihood of wolves attacking livestock, but remember… we’ve had generations of Western ranchers now who never had to deal with them. They passed their practices and traditions down through the years, and they do not include measures to fend off wolves. Lots of cattle in western states just roam freely on federal land, with no protection at all, whatsoever. Many farmers prefer to stick with what they know, with what’s easier, and certainly with what’s cheaper. Getting them to change is difficult, especially when they think just shooting any predator they see is an easier solution. Putting up fencing takes a lot of effort and can cost a surprising amount of money. And if there’s any flaws in a fence, the wolves will eventually find it, so it has to be perfect.

There are other methods, like putting up flagging or strips of fabric along fence lines, that can keep cautious wolves away. But they only work temporarily, as the wolves eventually get bold enough to test these new features and discover they are harmless. So for them to work, they have to be put up when their herds are most vulnerable, and then taken back down again after a month or two. Again, a lot of work. Having shepherds or range riders stay with the animals 24/7 is pretty effective, but paying them is a big expense. Guard animals like dogs or llamas… yes llamas!… can work, but a lot depends on the individual animal and how they’re trained.

The upshot here is, there are well documented methods that are effective for preventing wolves from preying on livestock. And research suggests they actually work better than killing individual wolves. Stable packs seem less likely to raid farms than packs that are in disarray because half their members have died, and a pack that is wiped out entirely will soon be replaced. The damage absolutely can be mitigated, we can have both wolves and ranchers. But it takes effort, money, and a willingness to change farming methods that were established and developed decades ago in a different environment. Some farmers are reluctant or unwilling to make the changes, and some may just struggle to stay afloat financially in the presence of wolves. But there’s some good research out there to suggest that at least some of these issues can be overcome, if we want to make the effort and provide some assistance to the folks who are impacted by it.

Hunters don’t like the competition

Besides farmers, you also have a pretty vocal group of big game hunters who don’t like competition from wolves. Since hunters can spend a significant amount of money in local economies, as well as partially funding state wildlife agencies through hunting tags and permits, their concerns should be considered as well. The effects on hunting by grey wolf populations returning are a little less clear, though. Generally speaking, western states haven’t see a big drop in deer or elk harvest since wolves made a comeback. In fact, in many places, hunters are doing just as well as ever. The percentage of the total number of hunters who manage to bag their buck has stayed pretty steady as well.

But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the nature of hunting has changed in these places. Remember that the presence of wolves changes how deer and elk behave. They stay on the move, split in to smaller groups, spend less time in open meadows and more time in rugged terrain. For decades, hunters have gotten used to calm herds of animals that stuck around in one area for a long time. You could go out before hunting season, find some elk or deer, come back in a week or two and have a decent chance of finding them again. That’s not true anymore. The game is still out there, but it takes more work or might require going deeper in to the wilderness. It’s a different experience, and while some are adapting and having successful hunts, others are frustrated and angry with grey wolves and the government that they blame for bringing them back.

Bull Elk in winter
American elk, a preferred food source of the grey wolf. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, while it may sound like there’s a lot of problems with wolves, I think there’s more upside than downside to returning them to their historic range. A lot of the perceived problems are things we actually know how to minimize, we just aren’t doing a good job of actually doing it. Just simple education about wolves can have a big impact… a significant percentage of wolf-haters can become more supportive of the animals once they learn that wolves are not the vicious monsters they thought they were, and that there’s other ways of dealing with them other than shooting them. Changing the public’s perception of grey wolves will be a hard task, no matter what sort of evidence you have to back it up with, but it can and should be done. When Colorado brings wolves back to the state, their ecosystems will probably be richer and healthier as a result, and a powerful symbol of American wilderness will be restored. Plus, my personal opinion is that, having deliberately exterminated them from most of the country, we have a moral obligation to return them to as much of their former range as is feasible. Colorado citizens may be split on the issue, but I don’t think they need to be. It’s not an us versus them type of situation. Wolves don’t cause as many problems as people believe, and a lot of those problems can be dealt with.

Federal bullshittery regarding grey wolves

There’s a hiccup, though. The last occupant of the White House did a lot of last minute stuff, under the radar, to roll back or undermine environmental regulations of all kinds. One of the things they did before leaving office was to instruct the US Fish and Wildlife agency to remove grey wolves from the endangered species list. Technically, because of the sort of messy way the recovery rules were written, they can do this even though wolves are still nowhere near their previous populations. What does this mean for Prop 114? Well, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the same rules that protect an endangered species also make it harder for state agencies to do anything with them. They have to get everything they do approved by US Fish and Wildlife, and that can involve a lot of time and money to prove that their plans conform to requirements of the Endangered Species Act. If wolves are unlisted, then that actually makes it easier for Colorado to do whatever they like. On the other hand, federally protected species often have government funding provided for restoration efforts. About 75% of the money for the Colorado wolf project was expected to come from the feds. If they’re not listed, then the state will have to figure out their own funding somehow. That’s not impossible, but it’s a wrinkle that the proponents of the proposal hadn’t planned on.

The hiccup within the hiccup, the sub-hiccup, or “subup” as nobody calls it, is that environmental groups instantly sued the government over the de-listing of grey wolves. So, until that case is resolved, the Colorado government can’t really make any solid plans, because how they handle wolf reintroduction will completely change based on whether or not they’re considered endangered. The feds have a pretty weak case, it seems, with every indication being that the decision was a political one with little or no basis in scientific research. The core of the federal government’s rationale for de-listing the wolf is… strange to say the least. They are saying that, since wolves are doing pretty well in the areas where they currently live, then they can’t be endangered, even though they used to live in a lot more places than they do now.

Wolf making a silly face mid-snarl
Easy to see why people are so scared of wolves…
aPhoto by Jon Glittenberg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, that’s kind of nuts. By that rationale, a lot of species would have to be taken off the endangered species list. It would only apply to species that were scattered here and there, all over but in no great numbers. Since a lot of what drives species to be listed as threatened or endangered is the destruction of their habitat, their presence in their remaining habitat but absence elsewhere would mean that they shouldn’t be listed, by this logic. It would make it possible for a species with a large population spread out over a huge area to be listed, while a species with a tiny population concentrated in one area would not be. It’s like if you went to a polka music festival and decided that polka was super popular, because everyone there seemed really in to it. It’s not very smart. And since there have been previous legal cases that addressed the issue of how significantly a population had to recover before it could be taken off the endangered species list, it seems likely that the environmental groups will win their case and the grey wolf will stay listed. But, until the ruling comes down, Colorado is going to have to keep both options open.

There is a LOT more that could be said about wolves, their cascading effects on ecosystems, and their conflicts with humans, and most if not all of it would apply to Colorado. But that should give you a general idea of where things stand. It’s really remarkable that a ballot measure like Prop 114 even made it on the ballot, never mind actually passing, and it will be really interesting to see what they do with it. How they handle it could influence other western states that still don’t have wolves or only small populations. If they do things right, it could serve as a model for how to ease the worries of the public and the agricultural community, while still restoring an important predator to the landscape. If they flub it, though, it could just make the public hate wolves more than they already do, without doing a lot to help the species out.

It will also be interesting to see how Colorado college students deal with wolf reintroduction. Will fear of wolves keep them from raiding ranches for party sheep? Will the presence of drunken frat boys chasing sheep around ranches at night deter wolf predation? Or, possibly, will we start seeing grey wolves being smuggled on to college campuses and introduced to novel uses for funnels? What effect will weed and light beer have on wolf pack social dynamics? There’s going to be some really interesting studies done on this, and I can’t wait to read about them on “hammeredbeaver.com”

MORE READING:
Voter approval of Colorado wolf reintroduction
Environmentalists sue Trump administration over gray wolf delisting

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